An account of my first Gathering for Gardner, a conference for recreational mathematicians, magicians, puzzlers, philosophers, and other curious types.
On Sunday April 1st I returned from the 10th Gathering for Gardner, a biennial (once every two years) conference
for people who are deep into recreational mathematics, magic, puzzles,
and philosophy — basically the topics that interested Martin Gardner,
after whom the conference is named. It’s an invitation-only event,
and I was honored to receive an invitation thanks to Les Shader.
For those who don’t know, Martin Gardner wrote the
“Mathematical Games” column for Scientific American magazine between
1956 and 1981 and made an amazing network of connections between
people in a wide variety of fields. He brought “more mathematics, to
more millions, than anyone else” (Richard K. Guy). Gardner was also
the co-author (with Lewis Carroll, of course) of the very popular The
Annotated Alice. Gardner only attended the first two Gatherings, and
died in 2010 at 95.
The event took place in Atlanta, Georgia, USA from Wednesday 28 March
to Sunday 1 April, 2012, at the Ritz Carlton downtown (two blocks
south of the venue for PyCon 2010 & 2011). I missed the initial
(informal) reception on the evening of the 28th, arriving in Atlanta
on a late flight. While I was checking in to my hotel (a few blocks
away from the venue) I happened to notice walking through the lobby,
Kate Jones of GamePuzzles/Kadon Enterprises, so I introduced myself. We had
corresponded via email since 2007, but we had never met before.
The conference consisted mostly of 5-minute talks from participants,
in a single track. Topics included Rubik’s Cubes (including
4-dimensional cubing), Sudoku, hyperbolic crochet, mathematics
education, magic, the psychology of observation, rubber bands, games, fractals,
pseudoscience/fruitloopery, and origami (including a two-headed crane
folded from a right-angle pentagon sheet of hyperbolic paper). It was
a really varied and eclectic mixture of subjects, almost always
interesting, and sometimes mind-blowing.
Several talks touched on flexagons. Afterward I related to the
speakers how I proposed to my wife with a hexahexaflexagon (I’ve been
a puzzle geek for a long time).
In addition, there were some longer talks. John Conway reminisced at
length about visiting Martin Gardner. (Conway is famous for inventing
the Game of Life automaton, although he claims to be rather sick of it
now.) There was a debate on the pros and cons of the number 10. A
panel on illusions, perception, neuroscience, and sleights of mind.
I met lots of people, including Oskar van Deventer & Bram Cohen (of BitTorrent fame),
both designers of puzzles in the Hanayama Cast Puzzles series. I also met Solomon
Golomb, author of the book Polyominoes, but I couldn’t get my copies
of the first & second editions autographed as I’d neglected to pack
them. Magic Tony Barnhart taught me one
card trick then blew my mind with another. Ed Pegg showed me BurrTools, which I’m having trouble compiling on my
Ubuntu Linux machine.
There was a lot of creation going on during the talks as well. I saw
people making geometric forms from binder clips, others making
intricate Zome forms. I got to play with Skallops and playing cards.
Saturday afternoon and early evening were spent in the garden of the
home of Tom Rogers and Sarah Garvin, founders of the Gatherings for
Gardner. Unfortunately Tom is ill and was unable to enjoy the
afternoon with us. They have a wonderful Japanese-style home
surrounded by bamboo forest and a garden full of mathematical
sculptures (the “sculpture zoo”), that I understand has grown over the
years in no small part thanks to these Gatherings. Scott Kim made me a custom ambigram, combining
“polyform” with my family name, “Goodger”. I had a good talk with
William Waite of Puzzle Mist. George Bell
and I discussed Lominoes (L-shaped polycubes). I shared
dinner and conversation with Kate Jones and Jay Schindler. New
sculptures were set up, including ephemeral geometrical arrangements
of balloons and rubber bands.
Back at the conference venue there was an exhibit hall with a wide
variety of pieces on display, from dozens of twisty puzzles (variants
and descendants of Rubik’s Cubes, including a 17x17x17 cube by Oskar
van Deventer, as well as wild mutations), to a giant chrome Tangle, to
some wild kaleidoscopes and 3D-printed sculptures.
Gatherings have a twist that was new to me, a “Gift Exchange”.
Participants are asked to either send (ahead of time) enough physical
gifts for each participant, or to write a paper for (and help fund the
production of) the Gift Exchange book. After the last talk on the
last day, everybody participating in the Exchange received a bag full
of interesting things: models, puzzles, art, toys, origami, games, and
knickknacks. After a quick game of Go and as the crowd was thinning
out I picked up my Exchange bag. The day after I returned home I
quickly went through the bag to get an idea of what it contained, and
I think it will keep me occupied for months.
My flight wasn’t until the evening, so I spent the rest of the
afternoon in the vendor hall, repacking my bags (and a box to bring
all the extra goodies home in), and talking to Kate Jones and her son
G4G10 was a blast. It was great to meet so many interesting and
creative people and cross-pollinate ideas. I look forward to G4G11!