Martin Gardner Celebration of Mind at Stanford 2012

Ever since Martin Gardner passed away in 2012, his fans have held an annual gathering in various places each year; our local gathering is the one at Stanford, organized by Stan Isaacs.

It wasn’t in one of the few places I know on the Stanford campus (such as the art museum, the math building, or the auditorium in the engineering triangle), so we had to ask a few friendly Stanford students to point out the library for us. Trickier still, it was in a classroom just outside the library.

This year, there were only a few speakers, since Isaacs set it up as mostly a math and puzzle activity event. Neil quickly felt at home, and after playing with a few puzzles, and after discovering Elwyn Berlekamp was there, went over to talk to him about Winning Ways for Your Mathematical Plays, a series of books he’s been absorbed in.

First up in the talks was Scott Vortman with his Zometools, which are kind of like very sophisticated Tinkertoys with which you can make interesting structures and shapes. When Neil saw them the first time, he quickly put down his own money for a set, and I saw him playing with his Zometools just this weekend.

As it turns out, there’s even more to Zometools: you can use them to create fantastic, incredible bubble shapes as well.

He then proceeded to make the bubbles “take an elevator” and step up and down through the structure without breaking. And yes, he could still blow a bubble, though once it hit the air, it turned into an ordinary air bubble.

Statistics professor Susan Holmes had fun telling us about counter-intuitive facts proved by statistics.

For instance, if there are three restaurants, and one has a single customer, the statistically, the one with the single customer will attract more customers more quickly than the others. She had a whole stack of statistics applets we could play with (and you can too!), but more on that later.

Elwyn Berlekamp came up, told us about dots and boxes, and invited any guests who were interested to play a game of it against him. His presentation made the record for the shortest and most concise, encouraging others to do the same.

Nancy Blachman, an angel who is behind all sorts of events and opportunities for kids like Neil, was under pressure to follow Berlekamp’s lead, so after promoting the Julia Robinson Math Festival, she told us about hexaflexagons, which was also a project she’d brought for us to play with.

John Edmark, another Stanford professor, closed the presentations with his math inspired designs, which ran from spirographs within spirographs, the Fibonnaci tower, polyhedral kaleidoscopes, and this “PatTurn” of gears.

He invited guests to play with these mad mathematical toys, as well as with a Rubik’s Cube puzzle, which required knowing how to solve a Rubik’s Cube in order to put it together.

Some boys went for that almost right away (one of them, I suspect was the Rubik’s Cube champion who got few if any takers on a cube-solving contest.) Here’s their solution:

Susan Holmes was sitting next to me, so I tried out some of her applets. I watched in fascination as the restaurants filled up slowly, with the one that had a single diner filling up more quickly. I checked for duplicate birthdays in different groups of people, 20, 21, 50, or 13, to see how often there were two or more people with the same birthday, or if I could find a group that could statistically have three people with the same birthday in less than 10 tries.

I was having way too much fun with statistics and probability already, and then I discovered Traffic Jams. I drove my car slowly; I drove my car fast. I saw how likely I was to hit a red light. I suddenly realized I’d lost sight of my son, and besides, Bill Gosper was there and had brought some treats I could try. I regrettably left the applets behind, trusting I could play with them more online later.

Meanwhile, more than a few daring people had taken Erwyn Berlekamp up on his challenge of Dots & Boxes.

I don’t know if any of them won.

In the back, Stan Isaacs and others had brought twisty puzzles, and one of the puzzles was a puzzle in itself. Many of the unique, and one-off puzzles are 3D printed by a company called Shapeways. But they don’t assemble the puzzle, so you have to sort out all the pieces yourself, put stickers on them (if needed), and then piece the puzzle together, bit by bit. And then hope you’ve put it together right so it can be unsolved and solved.

I went over to peer at the hexaflexagons, and Nancy Blachman recognized me as Neil’s mother/chauffeur, and encouraged me to try making a hexaflexagon myself. I choose the easiest, and had a comically difficult time making it. I made it upside down. I bent it backwards. I had to unglue it and twist it around another way, staring carefully at the step by step instructions, which still evaded me. When I finally got it together, I was so proud, I ran around showing it off to everyone I knew. I took the rest of the packet home, so I can continue to challenge myself.

I then retreated to the back next to the selected Martin Gardner books Stan Isaacs had brought. I checked out a funky children’s poetry book by Gardner called Never Make Fun of a Turtle, My Son, and then read his chapter on food fads in Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. Gardner would likely be skeptical of my vegan friends.

I chatted with some other people, but soon we had to go, because Stanford was only letting the group borrow the space for a few hours. Neil regretted not having played Dots & Boxes with Berlekamp, and he told me he had to run a question about sliding block puzzles past Bob Hearn. That Bob, I thought? But he’s too young.

It was a fairly small group, compared to 2010 (the last time we went.) But that may be because there are several other Martin Gardner Celebrations in the area this year, most notably one at the Nueva School in Burlingame aimed at young scholars on October 25, and one in Berkeley with a showing of “The Nature of Things” on October 26. In any case, we both had a great time, and Neil got to see people he admires again.


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