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Gardner's Whys & Wherefores by Martin Gardner

1/07/2010. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

Buy Gardner's Whys & Wherefores in the USA - or Buy Gardner's Whys & Wherefores in the UK

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pub: Prometheus Books. 261 page enlarged paperback. Price: $25.98 (US) , 21.99(UK). ISBN: 1-57392-744-9.

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Having read other Martin Gardner books in Prometheus Books' back catalogue, mostly dealing with what he thinks of pseudo-science, I thought it would be interesting to have a look at some of his other works and with real science. 'Whys & Wherefores' is a collection of his work for various publications exploring a variety of subjects and, to our interest, this also includes Science Fiction. The first of these looks at Ray Bradbury's 'Martian Chronicles' and how books of this nature can be dated with new evidence. Then again, Bradbury also admits that he's more a fantasy writer with little interest in science than an SF writer and probably targeted the romantic aspects as much of Edgar Rice Burroughs saw Mars and Venus, for that matter, as a possible planet for life.

Gardner loves the more peculiar aspects of society, not to mention its oddities and interpretations. This can range from word usages from Shakespeare to Shelley and poetry and more importantly, he actually references in the text than as side-notes. After reading so many books with side-notes lately, that makes a change.

If you thought things were as easy as pi then Gardner running through the repetitions in the calculated decimal placings will make your eyes water. The fascination with pi is it's a basic geometric constant and no one knows why hence the attention it gets. No wonder astronomer Carl Sagan incorporated the information into his book, 'Contact', that later became a film. I do wonder if anyone has tried to calculate it in something other than decimal to see if there's a different interpretation in there somewhere.

Gardner's examination of some authors brings up some surprises. I've never read James Joyce so wasn't aware of the in-jokes he doctored into his stories. One interesting fact coming out of it was that the term 'screw you' comes from the French 'fou tu' and nothing to do with sex. There's also a look at the minor stories of HG Wells, fantasy writer Lord Dunasany and detective author G.K. Chesterton. He topped off this section with how to make maths interesting for kids by showing multiplication and division are opposites with an interesting demonstration. Quite why this one is in with the 'Essays' than the 'Reviews' I haven't worked out, unless it's preparing for the latter.

Although the second section is described as 'Reviews', it is actually an examination of the subject matter that he read than a book review per se.

'Chapter 28: Physics: End Of The Road?' and 'Chapter 29: WAP, SAP, PAP And FAP' might have been written back in 1985 but it is one of the cleanest descriptions of atomic particles and quantum mechanics that I've read and this should be classed as required reading if you want a basic understanding about it. He does a similar treatment on relativity in Chapter 32: Secrets Of The Old One'.

If you were impressed by other Martin Gardiner books I've recommended then this one about the real world of the arts and sciences, not to mention a little on Science Fiction, then you'll be delighted by this book as well.

GF Willmetts

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