The Possibly True Story of Martin Gardiner: A Historical Novel

December 29, 2022 by Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen
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Jeffrey Cohen reviews the novel written by Graham Cohen.

In writing this review, I have two confessions. First is that I had never heard of Martin Gardiner. Second that I had known the author some 50 years ago, beginning when he served as (Honorary) Hillel Director at UNSW while Professor Alan Crown fulfilled a similar role at Sydney University. Our paths had very occasionally crossed since then, initially when he served on the Board of Shalom College and later when he was a Professor of Mathematics at UTS. Probably the last time our paths crossed was over a decade ago.

Historical novels are always challenging for one wishes to know how much is fact and how much comes from the author’s pen, and the reality is that there is no hard and fast rule. Personally, I think that historical novels play an important part in how we can understand a moment in time and that they engage our imaginations when just plain/solid facts can become soporific.

In reading a historical novel, one recognises that it draws upon different sources. The most important are primary documents, especially newspapers and court documents. At the other end is the imagination of the author, especially as they create a dialogue between the various players in the novel. In between is a vast grey area, which makes the historical novel so unique.  While the author may draw on primary documents to set the scene, there can also be an amount of ‘poetic license’ to fit the flow of the story.

Let me begin this review by noting that the author states that this will be his only novel- a pity, for it is a page-turner! He could apply his skills to other mathematical figures and thus bring them alive to those less mathematically inclined. That does not mean the reader will become skilled in the intricacies of the various parts of the mathematical world, but they will develop an understanding and perhaps even a sympathy about that world. Otherwise, mathematics will remain one more black hole they will avoid at all costs.

Martin Gardiner is claimed as an Australian mathematician. That is because nearly all his work was done in Australia- and the facts contained in this novel is that he did move around from city to city to city. To see the whole of his life, one needs to understand that his life began in Dublin, where he completed two years of tertiary education before heading to Canada for four years before finally settling in Australia.

As I read this novel, I was struck by the fact that this was not someone whom I would necessarily want to invite to dinner or perhaps even share a drink. He was opinionated and sure of himself, he could lose his temper and he seems to often raise his voice. Graeme may be correct in his summary at the end, suggesting that Gardiner may have been on the Asperger’s spectrum.

His relationship foundered due to his focus on mathematics. Also, at least in the novel, he was not a faithful husband, especially to his second wife. His first wife, whom he married in Ireland, died not too long after they arrived in Sydney, having given him three children [another died in infancy]. Within a week of her death, he established a relationship (some might even suspect that it already existed before his wife’s death) and later married the woman who had been their housekeeper and who was not yet 20. After a further three children, she eventually kicks him out of home when she discovers his infidelities.

What is more interesting is that he is an early member of the two organisations, which become the Royal Society of Victoria and the Royal Society of NSW, as well as the London Mathematical Society. He was a resident in Melbourne or Sydney, a regular participant at their meetings and published in their Proceedings.

His employment was somewhat sporadic. Even when he held a full-time position, it was downgraded over time. He taught on a part-time basis and at one stage, he was involved in Sydney with the establishment of what we might consider a tertiary program where, just as it was about to open, he and the other person creating it parted company, and as a college, it did not even survive a year. We tend to forget that neither Universities of Sydney nor Melbourne were very old when this was happening. And had few full-time staff.

Graeme Cohen must be thanked for turning what could have been another stuffy, boring biography into an interesting read.

This review has been adapted from one recently published Gazette of the Australian Mathematical Society Vol 49 No 5 Nov 2022 p 223-224

The Possibly True Story of Martin Gardiner: A Historical Novel

Author: Graeme Cohen

Published by Halstead Press 2022

About the Reviewer

Jeffrey Cohen is currently involved in population health at the Sydney Medical campus of the University of Notre Dame Australia. He has worked at a number of other universities including UNSWSydney, the (then) University of Ballarat and St Louis University. He currently is involved in four studies on Indigenous Health. He has a research appointment at St. Vincent’s Private Hospital Sydney. He has served on both national and statewide ethics committees

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