Best known as the longtime writer of the Mathematical Games column for Scientific American—which introduced generations of readers to the joys of recreational mathematics—Martin Gardner has for decades pursued a parallel career as a devastatingly effective debunker of what he once famously dubbed "fads and fallacies in the name of science." It is mainly in this latter role that he is onstage in this collection of choice essays.
When You Were a Tadpole and I Was a Fish takes aim at a gallery of amusing targets, ranging from Ann Coulter's qualifications as an evolutionary biologist to the logical fallacies of precognition and extrasensory perception, from Santa Claus to The Wizard of Oz, from mutilated chessboards to the little-known "one-poem poet" Langdon Smith (the original author of this volume's title line). The writings assembled here fall naturally into seven broad categories: Science, Bogus Science, Mathematics, Logic, Literature, Religion and Philosophy, and Politics. Under each heading, Gardner displays an awesome level of erudition combined with a wicked sense of humor.
With more than 70 books to his credit, Gardner remains thoroughly enjoyable to read. This latest is a collection of 24 articles, book reviews and other pieces on subjects like science, bogus science, mathematics, logic, literature, religion and politics. The range demonstrates that Gardner should be well-known for more than his remarkable Mathematical Games column published for 25 years in Scientific American. Gardner is a debunker who begs folks to think critically and carefully, usually doing so himself with wit and wisdom. He takes on Ann Coulter for her pronouncements on intelligent design and those who claim the sinking of the Titanic was foretold by numerous people. He is most personal in the book's longest piece, Why I Am Not an Atheist, in which he explores the nature of belief. His essays on The Wizard of Oz, Santa Claus and the book's eponymous poem on evolution by Langdon Smith are of a different genre than the rest, but no less interesting. Least compelling in such a general collection are the somewhat pedantic mathematical explorations. The collection represents Gardner at his best.