Essays is entirely made up of books by two of my favorite authors, one of whom, Chet Raymo, almost defies categorization. Raymo is a naturalist of the universe, and his books reflect all that I love about astronomy and cosmology. The other, Martin Gardner, is also in a class by himself. Although other books of his are on my other lists, those listed here are some of his best collections of essays from his prolific career.
Did Adam and Eve Have Navels?: Discourses on Reflexology, Numerology, Urine Therapy, and Other Dubious Subjects by Martin Gardner (Hardcover -- October 2000)
Another priceless installment of the essays of Martin Gardner, collected from his "Skeptical Inquirer" column "notes of a fringe watcher." Like all of his writings on pseudoscience and new age junk thinking, 'Adam and Eve' is a mix of insightful observations and penetrating analysis. Gardner has such a grasp of history and literature that it is hard to imagine anyone have the breadth of knowledge he brings to a topic. I invariably finish reading one of his essays nodding my head and thinking, "I wish I'd said that." Gardner has a way of capturing the essence of an argument that makes me feel like he's giving word to my own thoughts.
The title essay focuses on the dilemma of fundamentalists who would insist on a young earth in spite of the crushing weight of scientific evidence to the contrary. God, they claim, simply created everything with the "appearance of age." Thus the question, did Adam and Eve have navels, is relevant. If they didn't, then they were not perfect human beings, as Genesis says and theology demands. If they did, than God added the navels to preserve the appearance of parentage, adding a deceptive element to the creation of the first humans. Gardner's essay traces the history of the argument, which he shows is not new at all, throughout history and literature.
Gardner's other essays include topics as diverse as egg balancing on the equinox, quantum mechanics and the supernatural beliefs and writings of Isaac Newton.
I've written elsewhere that Martin Gardner is one of the few people I can personally point to as a intellectual mentor. His books illustrate a clarity of thinking and writing that is rare enough these days. Gardner is a breath of fresh air in a world of pseudoscientific smog.
Great Essays in Science by Martin Gardner
Honey from Stone : A Naturalist's Search for God by Chet Raymo -- A collection of essays on the wonder and beauty of the universe. Raymo's writing is wonderfully clear and poetic. It will make a naturalist out of you.
Natural Prayers by Chet Raymo -- another thoughtful collection of Raymo essays. If you've enjoyed his other books, you'll want to read this one (his latest).
The New Age: Notes of a Fringe Watcher by Martin Gardner (1991)
Weird Water and Fuzzy Logic: More Notes of a Fringe Watcher (1996)
These two collections of Gardner's essays are a must for any science lover's library. Culled from his columns in Skeptical Inquirer, New York Times Review of Books and Discover magazine, Gardner presents each essay as originally published, and follows many with an update, including many times letters written to the editors' of those publications, along with Gardner's response. The result is a dialog of sorts, in which Gardner's marvelous depth of research and breadth of knowledge shines as a spotlight on dubious scientific claims and outright fraudulent attempts to dupe the public.
Typical of Gardner's faire is his piece on Sigmund Freud and his odd friend, Dr. Wilhelm Fliess. Gardner shares the modern view that Freud's work was not scientific and lacks empirical foundation, but goes beyond to investigate the weird relationship he shared with the nose surgeon Fliess. As a young man, he bought all of Fliess' goofy ideas about the nose being central to the personality and adjustment of the individual, as well as his nonsensical numerological theories.
Gardner is extremely well read and all of his essays are marked by thorough documentation. On occasions when he is wrong, he is not afraid to admit it and graciously bow to his readers' corrections. Other examples of his work in these two volumes: Margaret Mead's paranormal beliefs, modern creationists' roots in the writings of George McCready Price, Uri Geller, mathematical realism, and much, much more.
The Night Is Large : Collected Essays 1938-1995 Martin Gardner -- another essential collection of Gardner's essays. See comments on "Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener" below.
Skeptics and True Believers by Chet Raymo -- Raymo fearlessly offers his take on the rift between science and religion. Though he comes from a decidedly scientific standpoint (Raymo is a professor of astronomy and physics), his Catholic background gives him perspective that transcends the laboratory. One of Raymo's best books.
Soul of the Night : An Astronomical Pilgrimage by Chet Raymo -- Having said what I just did of "Skeptics and True Believers," I have to say that "Soul" is one of my favorite books of all time. Raymo is to astronomy what Thoreau is to naturalism. This book will stir the wonder in anybody and renew your appreciation for the wonders of the sky.
The Virgin and the Mousetrap : Essays in Search of the Soul of Science by Chet Raymo
Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener by Martin Gardner -- Gardner's essays, many of those in this volume, have been of immense help over the years as I have made my own journey from born-again Christian faith to invigorating agnostic skepticism. Gardner is one of my personal heros and virtual mentors.
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