The Martin Gardner Celebration of Mind and the Stalking of Don Knuth

My mathematics- and puzzle-loving son Neil was looking forward to the Martin Gardner Celebration of Mind, a posthumous Gathering-for-Gardner-like event held worldwide for what would have been Gardner’s 96th birthday. Our local event was at Stanford, and as seems to be a personal pattern of mine, the first thing I did was find a party with free booze.

Neil and I tried to find the event in relation to the math building, and when Neil saw a party-like gathering of many adults, we went towards them. It turned out to be the Stanford Homecoming Reunion, and what a fine shindig that looked to be. As we walked through it, I asked one of the many unoccupied bartenders if this event was open bar. Why, yes, it was! But we were late and Neil was in a hurry, so this time I had to leave the Stanford alumni to tackle their alcoholic stash alone.

Peter had tasked me with a sole mission: find Don Knuth, who Bill Gosper had told us would be there, and get his autograph on a volume of the Art of Programming, and a picture of him with Neil. I was prepared, and as we walked into the Hewlett Teaching Center, I saw a man who looked like pictures I’ve seen of Don Knuth, talking to someone else right by the sign-up table. I prodded Neil to ask the Don Knuth lookalike if he was really Don Knuth, but we were both worried he might simply be one of many Don Knuth doppelgängers around the Stanford campus, who might be irate at being mistaken for Don Knuth. So we went to the actual event room, which turned out to be a big auditorium.

We had just missed the first presenter, a disappointment for Neil. But the next speaker was Scott Kim, another one of Neil’s heroes, this one who had not gone to G4G9. Kim proceeded to puzzle everyone, on purpose. The Don Knuth doppelgänger walked in, now with a name tag identifying himself as….Don Knuth. Curses! I watched him as he walked around the auditorium to a seat in a front. I kept an eye on him, mentally promising myself that if he attempted to escape the auditorium, I would follow him out, Neil in tow, no matter who the speaker was.

There was no break between presenters, and after Scott Kim introduced his son and took a seat, I watched him, too. But he, being Scott Kim, either vanished, or more likely, transformed to go incognito through the rest of the event. As we listened to Stanford statistics professor Susan Holmes describe how she used Martin Gardner’s books to teach students in France, MIT, and Stanford, I realized I didn’t have a pen at hand with which Don Knuth could sign. That would be a stalker fail, so I excused myself from Neil and went back to my car to get a pen, as well as a notebook on which I could take notes.

When I got back, Don Knuth was speaking about his meeting with Martin Gardner. And then we had a break, whereupon I grabbed Neil and we ran down the stairs to Knuth–who was by then talking to another academic. They had a lot to talk about. Didn’t they know I was a stalker? Or maybe they did! But finally Neil got his chance to meet Knuth, who signed The Art of Programming Volume 1 for Neil, and posed for this picture:

And then Knuth did a marvelous thing and encouraged Neil to work on his writing as much as his math, so that he, too, might become someone like Martin Gardner–encouraging and empowering everyone, not just fellow math lovers. Whereupon another illustrious math person I’m too daft to know encouraged Neil to get back to post blog entries regularly. I already think Neil’s a terrific writer, but it’s wonderful to have people other than his mom notice and encourage him with it.

The short break ended, and Neil and I took closer seats for the next portion of the event, an episode from the documentary series The Nature of Things about Martin Gardner. Then we saw Cliff Stoll,  the author of a book I read and enjoyed many years ago. As it turns out, Stoll left behind the world of computer counter-espionage more than 15 years ago and turned to making Klein bottles.

Stoll was quirky, enthusiastic and funny. You would never expect Klein bottles to be as entertaining as they are, when presented as a product by Stoll, who not only makes and sells Klein bottles, but also klein glasses and klein hats as well. You don’t know it, but you need a Klein bottle or Klein-bottle-like product in your life, especially if you love theoretical mathematics.

The event ended, or rather, it turned into what I had anticipated it to be in the first place: a general mingling of those who enjoy Martin Gardneresque things. Neil finally had a chance to talk to his mentor, Bill Gosper, about the project he’d just finished: a program for calculating the continued fractions of Pi. I spoke to Stoll, who told me he’d deliberately taken a turn not be stereotyped forever as the counter-cyberspy, no matter how cool that had been. I sensed he’s not going to be the Klein bottle guy for the rest of his life either, but I have no idea what turn he’ll take next. I thanked Stan Isaacs for putting together the event and asked him about the Martin Gardner archive he’s putting together at Stanford. While Neil hobnobbed with his friends, I hung out. There were several people from the Stanford math circle who’d come, including this boy, who had a go at all the puzzles awaiting solution:

I’d accomplished my stalking, Neil had announced his success, and we headed home. I hope the Stanford alumni had a good enough time at their party, too.

1 Comment

  1. Jose Portillo

    Dear Carolyn,

    I found this note about Martin Gardner and Donald Knuth meeting. Two things:

    1) Let me congratulate you for this wonderful web site and for this entry.

    2) Incredible how your little kid is admiring Knuth and Math (let him know I have 25 years studying The Art of Computer Programming and maybe I’ll die still working through it! Also I use the MIXAL assembly language for teaching basic programming to non-computing people). I recommend your kid Knuth’s Volume 4: It is full of Martin Gardner references and puzzle problems!

    Bonus: The second edition of Volume 2 was the first experiment that Knuth did on his TeX writing system. I have a copy of it (1981). I recommend you to look at it too.

    All the best,



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