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Book Review: When You Were a Tadpole and I Was a Fish

December 9, 2009

 When you were a tadpole, and I was a fishThis article, published in the New York Times on October 19, 2009 is what started the whole thing:

For Decades, Puzzling People With Mathematics
Mr. Gardner’s favorite puzzles are the ones that require a sudden insight. That aha! moment can come in any kind of puzzle, but there’s a special pleasure when the insight is mathematical — and therefore eternal, as Mr. Gardner sees it. In his new book, “When You Were a Tadpole and I Was a Fish,” he explains why he is an “unashamed Platonist” when it comes to mathematics.

“If all sentient beings in the universe disappeared,” he writes, “there would remain a sense in which mathematical objects and theorems would continue to exist even though there would be no one around to write or talk about them. Huge prime numbers would continue to be prime even if no one had proved them prime.”

I too am an “unashamed Platonist”, and that single phrase was enough to prompt me to buy the book.  I couldn’t wait to hear somebody else express their thoughts and ideas on that feeling I have that mathematics is just a little too relevant to nature to be coincidence, and that there must be something much deeper, and much more mysterious going on.  I wanted to hear a different take on those platonic ideas.  I wanted to hear somebody that agreed with me!

Suffice to say that I really wanted to like this book.  The 7 themes explored in this collection of essays (the book is basically a “Martin Gardner’s Greatest Hits” album) are a veritable “who’s who” of things I enjoy reading about: science, bogus science mathematics, logic, literature, religion & politics.  And yet, more often than not I found myself skimming, just to get ahead to the next essay, in hopes that I’d find…whatever it was that I was looking for.  Maybe I was expecting too much?

You’re probably thinking that I’m about to slam the book, but I’m not going to.  It was OK, and I feel bad giving it that mediocre review.  There were some parts that I enjoyed quite a bit, but those were – for me – the exception.  One particularly surprising exception was the poem “Evolution“, by the “one poem poet” Langdon Smith, as Gardner refers to him.  As a former science teacher, former board member of Kansas Citizens for Science, and life-long supporter (and “defender”) of the Theory of Evolution, I couldn’t believe that I’d never heard of it before.  I think it’s a wonderful poem, and that alone was enough for me to justify the purchase of the book.

Maybe my “problem” with the book is that I didn’t find much new here?  Well, even that’s not technically correct, as there were quite a few things I learned; there just weren’t that many that I cared to learn about.  If you’re a huge fan of Lyman Frank Baum, author of the “Wizard of Oz” (which, incidentally, was but one book in a series of 14 that he wrote, plus another 26 written by others), then you’ll like the book for that alone.  I’ve never been a fan of the Wizard of Oz, so it didn’t strike a chord with me.

There was also a fairly interesting essay called “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus”, which ~ and I betcha didn’t know this ~ draws some of it’s legend from Lyman Frank Baum’s “Oz” series.  (According to Baum, Santa’s workshop was not at the north pole, but “in the great Forest of Burzee, just across from the Deadly Desert at the southern border of Oz, and the Laughing Valley of Hohaho, which adjoins Oz on the east.”)  I knew the story of Santa Claus was a hodge-podge of characters, concepts & creeds from a lot of different cultures, but I had no idea to the true extent.  Again, pretty interesting.  But for me, that’s about it.

Man, I really hate saying that this book is just “OK”.  Again, it’s not that there isn’t material here worth reading, it’s just that I’ve read most of it before, so I didn’t find that much new.  Then again, I’m probably an anomaly in that I read about weird stuff like this all the time, so maybe you’d get much more out of it than I did?  All things considered, out of 5 possible stars, I’d give this book somewhere between 2.71828 and 3.14159 stars.  Martin may not agree with the level, but I bet he’d get a kick out of the precision!


One more thing, and for some reason, it’s the thing that stood out the most to me in this book.  Gardner says,

“Sitting in my apartment, in an assisted living facility (I’m ninety four), with only a computer on hand as a research tool, I have been unable to learn anything about Edward Dawson Cope, an American paleontologist who is probably the Cope Belloc has in mind.”

Ninety Four!  Upon reading that, I was struck by the belief that Mr. Gardner, while clearly well read, and well written, is also a very sincere, intelligent, kind, sweet man.  I hope I get a chance to meet him someday, as I think we’d have some fantastic conversations!


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