When I was an undergraduate at Penn State, I used to go to Pattee Library to do research or to study. Invariably, though, I’d find myself perusing the shelves corresponding to the 510’s of the Dewey Decimal system, locate a book with an intriguing title… and several hours later, I’d surface from the stacks. Nine out of 10 times, the book that would occupy my time would have been written by Martin Gardner.
It was through one of those books that I learned how to make a tetra-tetra-flexagon, and in another I read about the numerologist Dr. Irving Joshua Matrix. It was also in one of these books, Wheels, Life and Other Mathematical Amusements, that I learned my favorite problem, which became my favorite problem because it was the first true problem that I had ever solved entirely on my own. (By “true problem,” I mean that when I first looked at it, I had no idea how to proceed; it was not just an exercise, and it was going to take something beyond what I had learned in my math classes.) If you’re a math nut or a Martin Gardner fan, you’ve likely seen it before, but I offer it here for those who haven’t:
On Monday, Jonathan deposited x dollars in the bank. On Tuesday, he deposited y dollars. Each day thereafter, he deposited an amount equal to the sum of the previous two days’ deposits. On the following Thursday (that is, a week-and-a-half after his first deposit), he made a deposit of exactly $1,000. How much did he deposit each day?
(My apologies for paraphrasing. That may not be the exact wording that Gardner used, but you get the idea.)
I finished solving that problem at a very late hour. It was dark outside Pattee Library, and though I should have been tired, I was as awake and alive as I have ever been. I looked at the solution on my paper, and I remember thinking to myself, “Wow! That was fun!” And a second later, I was disheartened to realize that I was a sophomore in college, yet no one had previously shown me how much fun math could be.
That problem sparked my love affair with math, and it greatly influenced my philosophy about teaching.
Martin Gardner passed away on Sunday, May 22. My heart grew heavy when I heard the news, but my spirits were buoyed when I thought about his great life and the tremendous impact he had. It’s hard to estimate how many people he affected during his 25 years of writing the “Mathematical Games” column in Scientific American or with his 70 books.
But I know he affected at least one, and deeply.
Thank you, Mr. Gardner, and may you rest in peace.