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The Night Is Large: Collected Essays, 1938-1995

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In The Night Is Large, Martin Gardner has assembled forty-seven challenging and inquisitive essays into a work that places him at the heart of twentieth-century American intellectual culture. Delving into an immense range of topics, from philosophy and literature to social criticism to mathematics and science, with essays that date from 1930s to the 1990s, Martin Gardner has astounded readers with his insight and erudition. The Night Is Large is the crowning achievement of his extraordinary career.

586 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1996

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About the author

Martin Gardner

514 books440 followers
Martin Gardner was an American mathematics and science writer specializing in recreational mathematics, but with interests encompassing micromagic, stage magic, literature (especially the writings of Lewis Carroll), philosophy, scientific skepticism, and religion. He wrote the Mathematical Games column in Scientific American from 1956 to 1981, and published over 70 books.

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Displaying 1 - 18 of 18 reviews
Profile Image for David.
865 reviews1,300 followers
June 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.
Profile Image for James.
155 reviews37 followers
December 5, 2014
A great collection of essays on a vast number of topics by one of the most underrated American intellectual figures. His writings on Stephen Hawking, Mathematics, Lewis Carroll, Coleridge and other topics are second-to-none. Gardner was the closest equivalent in our era to the great Robert G. Ingersoll and this collection is a wonderful sampler of a great and prolific writer.
Profile Image for keith koenigsberg.
180 reviews7 followers
April 1, 2017
This fantastic book has been my companion for a long time, and I just re-read it. Gardner writes with great clarity about virtually every important subject in science and philosophy, and beyond. Symmetry, Relativity, God, Extra-terrestrials, the soul, the brain, quantum physics. This is a colossal, heavy-hitting, deep-thought-provoking (layman's) book.
Profile Image for Shane.
343 reviews4 followers
April 21, 2019
At the end of last year I read Panopticon by Enzensberger. I came away from that book quite disappointed (as you'll see if you go looking for my brief Goodreads review from December 2018). It wasn't that it was bad exactly, it just wasn't as broad and thought-provoking as I think a book of essays ought to be.

Which sent me on a quest to find a better book of essays. With some powerful Google Magic I found Martin Gardner, and moments later, The Night is Large. Then, in a bit of synchronicity I discovered I already owned it, sitting on rarely-visited shelf, which made getting started on it easy and immediate.

It's taken me a long, long time to get through the book, but not because it isn't excellent. It is. It's because, in my opinion, if you go charging through its pages without pausing for reflection you're going to miss things. A lot of things. My method was to read a bit, come back, read a bit, come back, and keep doing that as the pages in front dwindled and at last today, disappointingly, there were no more.

This is an excellent book. Anyone with mind filled with curiosity should pick it up and read it. You'll learn many things about many things, but more than anything, if you're like me, you'll learn a new sense of wonder about how to think about the world.

Highly, highly recommended.
10 reviews1 follower
Currently reading
July 9, 2007
my dad keeps wanting me to read this, we'll see.
Profile Image for Dennis Littrell.
1,079 reviews44 followers
July 28, 2019
A renaissance man in the third millennium

I thoroughly enjoyed this, the definitive collection of Gardner's essays, and recommend it highly. My recommendation, however pales beside those that appear on the book jacket, including praise from Noam Chomsky, Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, Raymond Smullyan, Arthur C. Clarke, and Stefan Kanfer. Little more need be said about the value of this splendid book; but I would like to offer some observations.

The first chapter, a review of four books on symmetry is easily the most informative and insightful ten pages I have ever read on the subject. Gardner's rare talent for making things clear is shown to such advantage here that I would recommend it as a must read for anyone wanting a career in science writing. It's almost magic, the way he evaporates the fog.

The next nine chapters are on the physical sciences including chapters on relativity, quantum mechanics, time, superstrings, cosmology, etc., all good reads. The next five are on the social sciences, and it is here that I was introduced to a side of Gardner that I had not found in the other three collections of his that I have read. Chapter 11, "Why I Am Not a Smithian," is on economics and is primarily a dissection of the supply-siders who held forth during the Reagan years. It makes for lively reading even though, curiously it turns into a tribute to Norman Thomas as "the only notable American" to vigorously oppose the Japanese internment camps during WW II. In the next essay, "The Laffer Curve," Gardner continues his assault on the "voodoo economics" of the Reagan years as he presents his own satirical "neo-Laffer curve." Gardner is a sharp eyed and sharp-penned social critic, and, as he demonstrates in Chapter 21, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," a pretty good movie critic as well. (Although here I think he underrated the magic of Spielberg's movie in order to better concentrate on zapping the usual Spielberg schmaltz and pseudoscience.) Politically speaking, Gardner reveals himself as a "social democrat."

The chapter on "Newcomb's Paradox," which Gardner interprets as "related to the question of whether humans possess a genuine power to make free, unpredictable choices," has the effect of revealing Gardner's personality. You'll have to read it to see what I mean, but the choices he makes are psychological choices and reveal him as a man who is not afraid to stand by his beliefs. Herein and in the next chapter we encounter the question of whether we can have free will in the view of an omniscient God. Gardner's solution (with C. S. Lewis and others) is to put God outside time and avoid the contradictions. Incidentally, Gardner makes the very salient point that any language that allows sets to be members of themselves or evaluates the truth or falsity of its statements will run into contradictions (p. 419).

It is here in the chapters on philosophy and religion that Gardner is at his most intriguing. He is a theist and a believer in free will, although he admits that "distinguishing free will from determinism" is something we are incapable of doing (p. 427). He equates free will with self-awareness and consciousness, and declares (p. 444) "I am not a vitalist who thinks there is...a soul distinct from the brain." Yet on page 438 he writes, "I cannot conceive of myself as existing without...a brain that has free will." Although none of this is contradictory, we can see that there is something Gardner believes in that is akin to Bishop Berkeley's idealism and beyond the rock of realism that Samuel Johnson gave a kick to in an attempt to refute Berkeley. I agree with Gardner that we are not about to find an answer to the conundrum of free will, although I think it's important to add that as a practical matter the illusion of free will is, for us, as good as the "real" thing. Readers may be surprised to learn that Gardner also identifies himself as a "fideist," a word I had to look up. It refers to someone who believes in God as a matter of faith.

I would like to say (since Gardner doesn't) that consciousness as self-awareness should be made distinct from consciousness as self-identity. The former is a question of relative complexity, e.g., chimp consciousness versus flatworm consciousness. The latter is an illusion with great psychological power foisted on us by the evolutionary mechanism primarily to make us fear death. It is adaptive for long-lived creatures such as ourselves, but is otherwise empty. When the Buddhists (and the Vedas and yogic psychology) say the ego is an illusion, this is what they are talking about, this delusional self-identity that we sometimes refer to as consciousness.

There are number of funny jokes and asides herein. One of my favorites identifies Ayn Rand (philosophically speaking of course) as "the ugly offspring of Milton Friedman and Madalyn Murray O'Hare" (p. 484).

--Dennis Littrell, author of “The World Is Not as We Think It Is”
Profile Image for Paige McLoughlin.
589 reviews25 followers
June 29, 2022
Martin Gardner was a gateway drug into science and literary culture. It was an introduction to the world liberal intellectuals chatted about at NYC cocktail parties. An enticing and glittering world full of brain candy. Gardner turned me on to many great authors and ideas in the arts and sciences. This book was formative in the mid-nineties as my callow brain was trying to cobble together an inchoate intellectual outlook. Reading this book almost thirty years later it has some parts which are a little dated in the liberal zeitgeist of the eighties and nineties and some insights haven't aged well but a lot of the material still stands as pretty solid. Gardner was an erudite and humane liberal and shared to strengths and blindspots of said liberalism. Still, you could do much worse for an introduction to intellectual currents of the late twentieth century. The excellent book reminded me of how much I had to learn back then,
73 reviews15 followers
February 5, 2011
Finished the book. Below is an early entry. More later. This is a very fine book, a cross section of Gardner's writing about scientific, cultural, philosophical and religious topics but very little along the lines of the mathematical games or recreational mathematics that is possibly best known for, there is only one essay in that area concerning Dr. Apollomax, student of Bourbaki (that is a hint), that contains a very tricky puzzle and a few apparent paradoxes. In addition, there is one essay that was a negative review of one of his own books under a fake name. (Disclaimed at the very end, yet some still did not buy the book because of it).

Gardner is a theist along lines similar to Thomas Paine, and a realist/Platonist to the extent that he (like I) believe there is a reality that is independent of the mind or any observer. In particular, I liked his essay about the so-called "Anthropic Principle of Cosmology". It is a very sophisticated argument based (loosely?) on modern physics to let in the backdoor a justification for much conventional religious thought about the importance, indeed, centrality of humanity in the scheme of things that is supposedly science as opposed the unconvincing mythology that passed for "theology" (as if in were an actual science) in the past. It springs from an argument of Bishop Berkeley (the great mind that tried to dismiss calculus in its early pre-Cauchy and Weierstrauss form as "the ghosts of departed quantities") who argued that things do not exist without an observer (another form of the old joke about the tree falling in the forest making a sound) therefore there must be a god to serve as the observer of last resort for everything we can't observe. The anthropic argument goes further to assert that not only is human consciousness a necessary and inevitable part of the universe but for various reasons the ONLY one (having more than us would violate some sort of conservation law). It has several sub-theories WAP, SAP, FAP etc. Which Gardner sums up scornfully, and I suspect correctly, as CRAP (Completely Ridiculous Anthropic Principle). [As the dominion principle in right wing religious thought is not just crap, but demonstrable toxic waste.]

But perhaps the most important thing I learned from this book was the important cosmological fact: "It's elephants all the way down."
Profile Image for Serdar.
Author 13 books20 followers
July 19, 2018
[Forgot to post this earlier]

Martin Gardner was large and contained multitudes; here's your proof. This is your best general introduction to this vivacious and charming polymath, since the breadth and depth of his output came close to giving Isaac Asimov a run for his money: Alice In Wonderland, the Twin Paradox, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, Allan Bloom, the many Anthropic Principles, H.G. Wells in Russia, L. Frank Baum, the interplay between science and pseudoscience, Coleridge and the "Ancient Mariner", Joyce and "Ulysses", randomly generated music, computer-aided mathematics research, quantum absurdity, fractals, zero, free will ... look, if there's nothing on this list that catches your eye, I'm just gonna assume you're dead. At least from the neck up.

The book collects pieces Gardner wrote over many years for a variety of publications, although one of his most consistent projects, the "Mathematical Games" column he wrote for "Scientific American" for many years, is better represented elsewhere (see The Colossal Book of Mathematics). That's fine, since this compilation is for the sake of variety, and there was plenty of Gardner to go around. Also included here is an infamous hatchet job of several of Gardner's books, written by a certain "George Groth". Shouldn't be hard to figure out who that is.
Profile Image for Moshe Zioni.
50 reviews13 followers
June 27, 2010
Gardner is a skeptic - and he is going the whole nine yards with his scrutinization and objective perspectives on, well, pretty much anything. His wide areas of knowledge are amazing, his research is remarkable and over-all he did a very good job in offering his findings to a layman as myself and still constantly - to be interesting and manages to keep me interested throughout the process - on every topic in the book - Physical science, Mathematics, Social Sciences, Religion, Philosophy, The Arts and (of course) Pseudoscience.

In addition to all that - to think that I bought this book in hardcover with dust jacket for only $4.98 at BetterWorld.com after I completed his Annotated Alice(s) - the best five dollars I spent in a long time.

Bottom line: Great book. Plus, if your mind prefer the eclectic over the single-focused - you have to get yourself a Gardner!
Profile Image for Graychin.
756 reviews1,798 followers
June 14, 2012
Among “science writers” there are none I enjoy more than Martin Gardner and Stephen Jay Gould. Gardner, who died in 2010, was a generalist, a sort of latter-day Renaissance man who could speak intelligently on mathematics, physics, economics, philosophy, literature, etc. He was not as good an essayist as Gould, nor as deep (probably) in any single field, but reading him one is stirred to a sense of camaraderie and shared adventure. Gardner doesn’t lecture, he communicates. Among the things he communicates: a healthy skepticism, a persistent curiosity, a thrill in discovery, a sense of wonder.
Profile Image for Troy.
Author 6 books6 followers
September 8, 2015
A good collection of essays over an enormous span of time, at least to this reader, and on an equally enormous variety of subject matter, showing the author a true polymath.

I found Gardner's intellectual honesty regarding his theistic views refreshing, neither claiming rational nor evidential justification for them, but a purely emotional turn of the will.

I recommend this book for its numerous looks inside the mind and views of one of the founding figures of modern skepticism, whose name stands as a two-word refutation of the claim that a true skeptic cannot also be a theist.
Profile Image for Cherney.
281 reviews
December 23, 2021
I only read the essay on Lewis carrol. It was fascinating but not surprising I had heard many of these theories before.
Displaying 1 - 18 of 18 reviews

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