David's Reviews > The Night Is Large: Collected Essays, 1938-1995

The Night Is Large by Martin Gardner
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's review
Jun 10, 10

really liked it
bookshelves: read-in-2010
Read from June 01 to 10, 2010

I'm ashamed to admit that, although I've had this book for years, it took Martin Gardner's recent death to get me to read it. If I'd taken the trouble even to scan the table of contents I would have recognized the impressive scope of the essays in this collection. I had always thought of Martin Gardner as a mathematician - a characterization that manages to be both severely reductive and inaccurate (he did not have formal training in mathematics).

The 47 essays in this excellent collection show Gardner as a supremely engaging Renaissance man of science. He had an apparently boundless curiosity about the world around him, as well as an exceptional gift for writing about the ideas that engaged his interest. He was justly famous for his collections of mathematical diversions and puzzles, but these were just a tiny fraction of his total oeuvre. The essays in this anthology are distributed among categories as follows:

Physical Science : 10 essays
Social Science : 5 essays
Pseudoscience : 6 essays
Mathematics : 3 essays
The Arts : 7 essays
Philosophy : 12 essays
Religion : 4 essays

This categorization slightly underestimates the mathematical component, as a number of the pieces in the physical science and philosophy sections could equally well have been classified as mathematical - in particular, the essays on symmetry, infinity, the null set, and Newcomb's paradox.

I highly recommend "The Night is Large" - the essays are extraordinary, written with exemplary clarity and an enthusiasm that is infectious. I guarantee that there will be at least ten or a dozen pieces that will knock your socks off. For what it's worth, a few of the pieces that stuck with me were about subjects as diverse as the nature of time ("Can Time Stop? The Past Change?"), a demolition of supply-side economics ("The Laffer Curve"), a devastating critique of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind", an essay on Coleridge and "The Ancient Mariner", one on "White, Brown, and Fractal Music", and the famous essay, first published in The New York Review of Books, in which Gardner delivers a blistering review of his own book "The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener".

In addition to Gardner's clear style and perpetually enquiring mind, two other features of his writing stand out. He is never one to suffer fools gladly and has a low tolerance for fuzzy thinking:
"This is Teutonic baloney",
"It is hard to know which deserves the stronger condemnation: Freud's childish credulity or the shameful way his daughter and other guardians of the orthodox analytic flame have done their best to prevent it from becoming public knowledge".
He is also entirely fearless:
"There is a curious mistake in (Stephen) Hawking's discussion of Newton's cosmology",
"Nowhere does (Allan) Bloom seem aware that American philosophy has for half a century been tramping to the beat of British skepticism and empiricism..".
As a result, his essays about assorted manifestations of pseudoscience are particularly entertaining, while sacrificing none of their cogency.

I have an online subscription to Scientific American. I sure hope it gives me access to Gardner's extensive contributions to the magazine over the years.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell Oh, this looks good....

Charles RIP, Martin Gardner

message 3: by Manny (new)

Manny There is a curious mistake in (Stephen) Hawking's discussion of Newton's cosmology

What is it?? I'd love to know!

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