Celebration of Mind

Every year around October 21st there is a world-wide celebration of the life and works of Martin Gardner. When word went out that I would be at the South Pole, one of my so-called “friends” on the board of Gathering For Gardener sent me email asking if I would host a Celebration here. I waffled a few minutes and pretty soon said yes. After all, it could be as small or as large as I wanted, and I did have a captive audience.

On Sundays there’s a weekly Science Lecture. It seems to be honored in the breach this Summer more than the observance. So far we’ve had a lecture about weather patterns and another about the history of neutrino-hunting. And yesterday we had the third, the First Annual South Pole Celebration of Mind. Since I’m unlikely to be here next year, I am passing the opportunity to someone else. There was one at McMurdo last year, so this also marks two years without a break, which I believe makes a tradition.

Proudly displaying her flexagons, Sarah then went on to map out the various states and transitions.

Proudly displaying her flexagons, Sarah then went on to map out the various states and transitions.

I’ve been in a light panic about this for about a month, telling myself that it would all be fine. I did the sneaky thing of not asking people to talk, but asking people, “who should I ask to talk?” I then told those people they were going to talk. That’s evil, but pretty much worked.

When 8:00 yesterday rolled around, I was ready. Copies of the slides for all speakers on a thumb drive and on the machine in question. Projector tested, slide advance gizmo tested, microphones tested, shades drawn, screen down. I kicked off at about 8:05 with my talk, having put myself first to get it over with and to free me up to work audio/visual. I talked for about 7 minutes about aperiodic tilings. I have a pending publication in that field, and I already knew some stuff about it from .. well, from being a math geek. I have no idea how it went, but I lived. One of the good thing about having 5 flash-talks is that if they are bad, at least they are short. I was enthusiastic if not coherent, and short.

N-Rays and Lawsonism.

N-Rays and Lawsonism.

Next up a talk about fads and fallacies, with a particular emphasis on N-Rays and Lawsonism. I was vaguely familiar with the topics, and enjoyed hearing a bit more. Gardner had a gentle way of leading people away from pseudo-science without belittling them, and I was glad to have this side of his work presented. After all, respected scientists get roped into believing things that end up being seen as nonsense by future generations; believing things that turn out to be wrong doesn’t make one stupid.

Gödel's incompleteness theorem and formal systems. A tough sell to a general audience.

Gödel’s incompleteness theorem and formal systems. A tough sell to a general audience.

A presentation on Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness Proof followed. It was largely a presentation of the history of the crisis it was answering: Russell and Whitehead’s program to axiomatize mathematics in Principia Mathematica. The presentation didn’t try to get through the proof at all, but outlined its shape, and the famous “this statement cannot be proved” short-cut to explaining what it’s all about.

Nomograms was the next topic. These were called “paper slide-rules” in the past and the theory is deep, but they are pretty much unknown to most people at this point. At South Pole batteries don’t last so calculators can be unreliable. There are repetitive calculation to be done, and for some of them a simple nomogram is an elegant solution.

Gardner was also a talented magician. I had hoped to scare up someone who would do a magic act. I was happy to find that our Einstein Grant teacher had a card trick she wanted to show us. Being a high school teacher, she was fearless about being in front of an audience.

Telepresent was Vi Hart, showing us the joys and dangers of flexagons.

Telepresent was Vi Hart, showing us the joys and dangers of flexagons.

We enjoyed all four of Vi's flexagon vids.

We enjoyed all four of Vi’s flexagon vids.

The G4G Foundation provides templates and printed instructions, and bunch of other material.

The G4G Foundation provides templates and printed instructions, and bunch of other material.

And to anchor the night, we had a flexagon party. The first article Gardner wrote for Scientific American was on flexagons, so it was a fitting way to end the night. We watched Vi Hart’s videos on flexagation, and worked from instruction sheets provided by Gathering for Gardner. It’s always hard for me to remember that there are things I’ve known or known about since I was young, but that are new to lots of people. I don’t know if I was the only one who had seen flexagons before, but Vi and I introduced quite a number of people to them, and people were hanging around at least another hour folding paper strips into colorful flexathings.

Folks trying to solve my dastardly Get Off puzzle. I still need a Get Off the Pole variant.

Folks trying to solve my dastardly Get Off puzzle. I still need a Get Off the Pole variant.


I handed out copies of instructions for playing Notakto. I haven’t seen anyone try to play it. I kind of hope someone tries and it sneaks up on them how hard it is to play. And one of my creations I’m most pleased with is the Get Off the Moon puzzle I invented back in 2000. I handed out copies of the lovely version put together as Get Off Of Mars by Robert Lang. I saw several people getting to the “I don’t understand how this could be possible to solve” phase, I don’t know if anyone has gotten to the “a ha!” phase yet.

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4 responses to “Celebration of Mind

  1. Another friend recently discovered flexagons, which triggered many happy childhood memories of folding and flexing. I seem to have been about 4 or 5 in those memories.

    Are nomograms a Gardner invention? I didn’t know that, though I have used (and made) nomograms for many varied fields of endeavour. They are very elegant (but not as much fun as flexagons!)

  2. Pingback: Numberplay: Barry at the South Pole - NYTimes.com·

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