Fans of math icon Martin Gardner gather in Atlanta

While thousands of Atlantans will be participating in the first Atlanta Science Festival, which kicks off this weekend at locations all over the city, a much smaller get-together will take place at a downtown hotel. There, a select group of mathematicians, magicians and puzzle makers will have their own cerebral soiree, devoted to a man whose name, in this group, is legend.

Called the Gathering for Gardner (or G4G for short), the event brings together followers and fans of the late Martin Gardner, a great proponent of recreational mathematics, who died in 2010 at the age of 95.

Gardner wrote the Mathematical Games column at Scientific American magazine for 25 years, and published more than 100 books (22 in his last 10 years) ranging over the subjects of mathematics, pseudo-science, puzzles, philosophy and the works of Lewis Carroll and G.K. Chesterton.

Gardner enjoyed mathematics as an untrained enthusiast, and he was able to inspire that enthusiasm in many others. Mathematician Richard K. Guy said Gardner has brought “more mathematics, to more millions, than anyone else.”

Atlanta entrepreneur Thomas Rodgers was one of Gardner’s most ardent admirers, and in 1993 persuaded the reclusive writer to attend an Atlanta gathering in his honor. Gardner attended a second conference in 1996, and the assemblies became a biennial tradition.

(They continued without Gardner, however. “All these people saying ‘You changed my life! You’re my hero!’ was too much for him,” said attendee Colm Mulcahy.)

This year’s G4G, which is full, will draw magicians, puzzle designers, mathematicians, Sudoku geniuses, and those who simply enjoy postdoctoral repartee. Starting Wednesday and spanning five days at the downtown Ritz-Carlton Atlanta, they will present papers, enjoy magic shows and go for excursions into the city.

A tradition requires that every one of the 350 guests bring a gift for everyone else, and that they all make a visit to Rodgers’ Buckhead estate, where his widow, Sara Rodgers, still lives. They usually construct a mathematically inspired sculpture on the grounds, which are littered with brilliant geometric sculptural forms from past G4Gs.

Attendance is by invitation only, though mathematicians and magicians with connections can probably wangle a ticket. “Those invitations are delivered by owl,” said Lew Lefton, a Georgia Tech mathematician, making reference to Harry Potter’s similarly secretive means of communication.

The mix of magic and math in the G4G reflects Gardner’s own beginnings — he started out as a performing magician — but also dovetails with Gardner’s role as the showman of the sciences.

“That’s what Martin Gardner’s writing is all about,” said Elwyn Berlekamp, a math professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, whose error-correcting algorithms made CDs and DVDs possible.

Berlekamp said attendees this year will include magician and inventor Mark Setteducati, and Lennart Green, “the best card handler in the world, even in short sleeves.”

This year is the centennial of Gardner’s birth, and Mulcahy, a math professor at Spelman College, will speak at the gathering about the national effort to honor Gardner. “The whole idea is to get people hooked on math in the spirit of fun, which is the way Martin got people hooked on mathematics.”

For information, go to the Gathering for Gardner website, at gathering4gardner.org/.

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