When You Were a Tadpole and I Was a Fish:
And other Speculations about This and That
Hill and Wang, 2009
At age 95, Martin Gardner has written about pretty much everything. Known primarily for his thousands of columns in Scientific American that focused on recreational mathematics, the Tulsa, Oklahoma native’s more than 70 published works reflect an immense array of interests—pseudoscientific skepticism, children’s literature, obscure and forgotten poetry, philosophy, politics, and religion, to name just a few. It makes perfect sense, then, that his latest collection of essays, When You Were a Tadpole and I Was a Fish: And other Speculations about This and That, combines many of the most salient elements of Gardner’s impressive literary legacy, from the sinking of the Titanic to the Fibonacci Sequence, from Isaac Newton to Barack Obama.
“The only thing these scribblings have in common,” writes Gardner in the book’s preface, “is that they were all written by me.” Yet the various reprinted components of When You Were a Tadpole, no matter their age or thematic diversity—the original publication dates of the pieces range from the late 70s to last year—all reflect an exhaustive devotion to logic, a relentless and profound curiosity, and an unabashed love of reason that comes through in prose that sparkles in its pointed simplicity and forcefulness. The book includes columns on logic and mathematics, scalding and astute articles that bash what Gardner calls “bogus science” (see “Why I Am Not a Paranormalist,” and “Was the Sinking of the Titanic Foretold?”), and poignant introductions to children’s writer L. Frank Baum’s classics The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus.
Particularly entertaining are the clever and occasionally caustic denunciations of politically conservative religious fundamentalists, thinly veiled as book reviews and magazine articles. A believer in God (see “Why I am Not an Atheist”) but a firm opponent of organized religion, Gardner takes on right-wing Christ-mongers Ann Coulter, Frank Tipler, and Oral Roberts and his son Richard, dismantling their rhetoric with heavy doses of research-based common sense and a prosodic sharpness that has not diminished over time.
Perhaps the most fascinating chapter is one from which the book gets its title. “When You Were a Tadpole and I Was a Fish” details Gardner’s quest to learn more about the life of mysterious poet-journalist Langdon Smith, whose only known poem, “Evolution” he considers to be a forgotten classic, and worthy of a full reprinting within the text. The poem’s catchy yet masterfully meaningful stanzas (“When you were a tadpole and I was a fish/ In the Paleozoic time,/ and side by side on the ebbing tide/ We sprawled through the ooze and slime”) represent a billion-year-old love affair with life and its ever-changing reincarnations, from the earliest amphibians and hominids to a couple sharing a “dainty dish” at Delmonico’s. “Evolution” also reflects Gardner’s dazzling sense of wonderment at the timeless world around him and his unquenchable thirst for pure, objective truth, a philosophy that is best summed up in the conclusion to his introduction to the Wizard of Oz: “We are all little children walking down a road of yellow brick in a crazy, outlandish, Ozzy sort of world. We know that wisdom, love, and courage are all essential virtues, but like Dorothy we cannot decide whether it is best to seek for better brains (our electronic computers grow more powerful every year!) or for kinder, more loving hearts.”
While some of the chapters are a good deal more interesting than others (in this reviewer’s humble opinion, most of the math-related columns could be skimmed, or skipped entirely), the overall brevity of the pieces and the large number of sheer gems make When You Were a Tadpole and I Was a Fish a more than worthwhile introduction to one of the most underappreciated polymaths of the last 50 years.
Christopher Vola is a contributing writer for the Rail.