Encountering the threshold of humankind's capacity for mathematical gamesmanship, at the annual Gathering for Gardner

Credit: Tomi Porostocky

During his presentation in the chandelier-festooned ballroom of Atlanta’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Akihiro Matsuura motioned to the Plexiglas cylinder lying horizontally in front of him and asked his audience what path a an elastic rubber ball would take if rolled along the cylinder’s interior wall.

“Spiral!” yelled one person in the audience. “Helix!” yelled another. The ball defied them both by rolling around the cylinder with a discrete elliptical route, returning to Matsuura’s hand like a yo-yo tethered to a string.

“NO!” The spectators gasped. There was a rumbling of flummoxed unease. With a mime’s spare grace, Matsuura, a lecturer in computer science at Tokyo Denki University, then turned the transparent cylinder on its end and asked again: “Now what route will it travel?” The audience conferred: town, of course—but how? Would it drop straight, or curve like a corkscrew? Matsuura released the ball. It took a curving path downward, as expected, but then reversed course and climbed the cylinder, completing a three-dimensional figure eight—ending, again, in Matsuura’s ready hand.

Matsuura might well have announced the unification of quantum mechanics and special relativity in the Ritz-Carlton ballroom that day, judging by the cries of incredulity that erupted from his audience. But Matsuura just shrugged his shoulders. “I can’t help myself,” he said.

So concluded the 43rd presentation of math and magic at “Gathering for Gardner,” a bi-annual pilgrimage honoring Martin Gardner, who, from 1957 to 1981, enraptured mathematicians and scientists, hobbyists and professionals, magicians and puzzlists and skeptics alike with his “Mathematical Games” column in Scientific American. Known among the faithful as “G4G7” (as in “Gathering for Gardner,” and seven because it is the seventh such gathering), the events are organized by Atlanta businessman Tom Rodgers, who one night had all 250-plus members of the international cult of Gardner over to his Japanese-style house, incongruously set atop red clay hills and a forest of Georgia pines, for sushi.

The legend himself did not attend; living as he does in Norman, OK, and despising travel, Gardner has made it to only two of the events in his honor. Now a youthful 91, he performs his trademark tricks with more dexterity than ever. One Gardnerite, invoking George Bernard Shaw, observed that “We don’t stop playing because we get old—we get old because we stop playing.” Gardner himself has not stopped—currently he is writing a collection of essays, one on each of 12 books by the “prince of paradox,” G.K. Chesterton.

The conference equivalent of speed-dating, G4G7 was packed with math-and-magic presentations of 10, 20 or 30 minutes. Subjects addressed a curiosity cabinet of intellectual jewels, each revealing something quizzical about the world—like the presentation by Michael Cantor, an Atlanta experimental psychologist, on “Competence: Drivers, Aviators, Jugglers and More”—or concealing something magical, like the Swede Lennart Green’s masterfully clumsy card tricks. Green doesn’t deal cards, he fumbles and spills them, crumpled, in a seemingly chaotic mess—but reveals a royal flush. Then there was the talk by Bob Friedhoffer, who addressed an always-controversial issue: “Performing Fleas, Were They Up to Scratch?”

Wiping his sweaty brow and repositioning his baseball cap (fittingly emblazoned with 3.141592) at the end of day two, Atlanta high-school teacher Steven Sigur willed himself to stay in his seat. “It’s all very interesting, but I’m about to OD,” he said. By day four, even Princeton’s John Conway—typically the earliest to rise and last to bed—was lamenting the overload. “There’s infinitely much to know,” he said. “You simply can’t know it all, despite the fact that that is my aim.”

This being the seventh Gathering for Gardner, the event celebrated “seven” in all its incarnations. The mathematician and physicist Sir Roger Penrose pondered “Seven: Geometry and Beyond.” “Part of mathematics is like puzzle solving,” said Sir Roger, “and it is a good way of getting people interested in mathematics without them realizing it is mathematics.” Neil Sloane, a fellow at AT&T in Florham Park, NJ and creator of the On-Line Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences, expounded on “Seven Staggering Sequences.” One in particular, discovered by Bernardo Recamán Santos, contained a pattern of numbers so difficult to decipher that those who’ve tried have dubbed it “How to Recamán’s Life.”

And abiding by a rather lowbrow G4G tradition, the numerological riff by LA-based Scot Morris (best known as the erstwhile “Games” editor from Omni magazine) was a comprehensive chronicling of the importance of the “Cosmic Seven.” He pointed out there are seven colors in the spectrum, seven notes in the diatonic scale, seven seas, seven continents, seven wonders of the world, seven dirty words (according to George Carlin) and seven holes in the typical human head. “That was such a load of crap,” countered Robert Sandfield, a puzzle designer from Houston. As is the G4G custom with these two good-natured banterers, Sandfield followed with his own presentation, on “Anti-Seven.” “Why did six fear seven?” asked this grown man, keeping an entirely straight face. “Because seven eight nine.”

Originally published June 15, 2006

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