An Interview with Christopher Morgan, Generalist of Generalists

Christopher Morgan is a computer scientist, electrical engineer, author, puzzle enthusiast, magician, and Martin Gardner devotee. He’s dedicated much of his life to exploring the legacies of the great generalists before him. He was an early participant in the Gathering for Gardner, a convention held every two years in Atlanta in honor of the great recreational mathematician and writer. He is also the author of the forthcoming book, The Pamphlets of Lewis Carroll, Volume five: Games, Puzzles and Related Pieces.

I was lucky enough to interview Chris over the phone this week. Our hour-long conversation covered photography, nursery rhymes, modern science and math curricula, photography, Isaac Asimov, and everything in between.

During our conversation, I noticed we kept coming back to the same topics. This was, of course, partly due to the nature of the interview. But I got the sense that it’s this connectivity that appeals to Chris and other generalists.

We started by discussing his upcoming book.

Chris: I’m currently working on a book that’s part of a series the Lewis Carroll society is publishing along with the University of Virginia. Throughout his life, Carroll liked to run down to the printers and have them print maybe ten or twenty copies of something he was interested in. Then he’d hand copies out to people. The pamphlets might be something about mathematics or Oxford University politics, and so on. He’d written about three hundred or so little pamphlets. No one’s ever printed them in book form, so we’re publishing a six volume series so people can see them. I’m doing the fifth volume, on Carroll’s games and puzzles pamphlets.

He did quite a lot of those. He invented a lot of games. One of his word games is still played today. You’ll find it in a lot of newspapers. You start with a word like “cat” and you have to change it to “dog,” and you do it in stages. You create another three-letter word that’s different by one letter. So you say “cat” changes to maybe “cot,” and then “cot” to “cog,” and then “cog” to “dog.” That’s called a word ladder. He called the game “Doublets.”

Processed with VSCOcam with g3 preset
The current Einstein riddle at Eureka! is an example.

He ran a column in a magazine, in Vanity Fair of all places, which is still around… It ran for about a year and a half and was very popular. He’d just give people challenges. He’d say, “here, can you change this word into that word?” and they’d get thousands of entries.

J: The goal being to do it in as few moves as possible.

C: Exactly. The fewer steps, the more points you got. And people liked it. To this day, you’ll see word ladders in puzzle books. And you’ll see them in crossword puzzles…Actually I was talking to Will Shortz about it and he sent me some information about the history of word ladders, so that’s going in the book, talking about how people are still playing a lot of Carroll’s games.

J: Is Will Shortz a Gardnerite himself?

C: Yes, he has come to the Gatherings. And he also goes to events held by another organization I work with, the International Puzzle Party. Their meetings are held every year in the summer in a different city around the world. We get about 400 people. People who collect mechanical puzzles- Rubik’s Cubes and such. We get together, buy and sell, and have talks about puzzles. Many of the attendees are also big fans of Martin Gardner.

J: How would you describe the difference between The Gathering for Gardner and the Celebration of Mind events like the one on Thursday?

C: The difference is the scale of it. The gatherings in Atlanta are big big events. They’re like TED talks — like a big conference. There are talks all day long and it goes for four days. It’s very immersive. You go and you meet…not just mathematical people, but also actors, musicians, jugglers, magicians. For me, the best part of the Gathering happens during the breaks when you meet these great people. It’s a huge social event with lots of fascinating people, and it’s a big deal.

The celebrations are very different. They’re much smaller. They’re ad hoc. They can be held anywhere…So the nice thing about that is that schools will do them and all they have to do is just let us know and we will send them resources. It’s all free, and nonprofit. Everything that happens, both at the Gathering and at the Celebrations is keyed into all of the many interests that Martin had… 

We had a great talk from Martin’s son. He gave a talk to us in Atlanta in March about how his father worked, and how he wrote all the many books that he wrote. It was very interesting. Gardner wrote almost 100 books. You go down the list and you can’t believe the range of them. He even wrote an annotated Casey at the Bat, all about the history of the poem and interesting pieces of trivia about it. He wrote about all kinds of things.

Martin Gardner reminded me of Isaac Asimov, in that Asimov was the same way. He wrote over 800 books about everything. You name it. Asimov even wrote a book about Gilbert and Sullivan. Then he wrote I, Robot, which of course became a movie long after he died. He wrote Fantastic Voyage, but he also wrote books about almost anything you can think of. And Martin Gardner was the same way.

J: I really admire that kind of person who throws it all on the line in the hope that something will stick for everyone. You mentioned the term “polymath” earlier. I think it’s a noble way to approach life.

C: …I’m actually writing a book about Generalists…It’s all about people that have multiple interests. I find that very interesting. The thing about Martin was he was not a dilettante. He knew a lot about each of those fields, and he kept up with them. And people like that, you do see interesting threads connecting these people together.

For example, a lot of the people that I meet at the Gatherings and the Celebrations are often computer people, computer programmers, and they’re interested in music because music has a logic and a structure that appeals to people who are interested in computer programming or mathematicians. A lot of the people I met there are musicians, as am I.

In the eighteenth century and nineteenth century, scientists weren’t called scientists. The term only came into use late in the nineteenth century. They were called “natural philosophers.” And natural philosophers would often be just as interested in the arts as they were in the sciences… That was not looked upon as unusual… It’s only in the twentieth century that we started to get this artificial demarcation between the arts and the sciences, which is totally bogus. I mean there’s no such thing…

J: That demarcation tends to happen pretty much any time any kind of Renaissance occurs.

C: And our educational structure is set up to almost discriminate against the generalist, because colleges force you to “major” in something and “minor” in something else. So right off the bat, those words are judgmental. “Oh well that’s a major thing you could do. The other one, that’s just minor.” Which is crazy… Many of the new educational studies today are showing that children who study art and music become better at science. You can see the correlation, because the artistic activity is training the mind. Kids who learn music by memory, become better at memorizing everything. So it’s insane to just do what a lot of schools are doing now, which is to just throw out the art and music curricula. It’s just such a mistake.

J: Gardner seems like a pioneer in recreational mathematics. Which is something I would guess you’re very interested in as a magician and something that we have an interest in at Eureka as a puzzles and games store. How influential would you say he was in introducing the idea of math as fun?

C: He was incredibly influential when he started writing his column on mathematical games. It ran for 25 years in the Scientific American from the early sixties the mid to late eighties…So many people who subscribed would just wait every month, including me, waiting to read what he had…He did a lot more than just aggregate. He had a wonderful sense of taste and style, what would appeal to readers, and what would surprise them….

His first article was about flexagons, which are hexagonal toys you fold from paper strips and flex them and open to reveal new faces. Vi Hart, who is George Hart’s daughter, creates really great hyper high-speed funny videos on YouTube about recreational math. They’re really fun, and what’s great is that people are watching them and that gets them thinking…. she did one on flexagons and it got several million hits. Her stuff is fantastic.

You give people a good mathematical puzzle and it really gets them thinking. I’ll give you a good example of one I just came across that Martin never saw, but I’m sure he would have loved it:

You’re in a bar, and somebody gives you a round cardboard drink coaster. They hand you a pen and say, “Okay, stick a pen right through the center of the coaster. If you punch it right in the center, we’ll give you a prize.”

Coaster courtesy of The Upper Crust.
Coaster courtesy of The Upper Crust.

Well, let’s say you’ve had too many beers, and the hole is not quite in the center.

image (6)
(No beers provided)













So how to fix it? Well, I give you a pair of scissors that can cut through the coaster, and I ask you to cut the coaster into two pieces and rearrange them on the bar.

image (8)
Scissors courtesy of Panera Bread.

When you’re all done rearranging the two pieces, you have to end up with the same size circle you had before, except the hole is now in the exact center. So it’s like making a two-piece jigsaw puzzle. The question is: how do you do it?

It’s really a nice puzzle. It’s very interesting. Kids like it because there’s no obvious math. You look at it and you say, “now how could I…the hole’s way over here, it’s not at all center, now I have to cut two pieces. What shape are they going to be? And how do I arrange them?” That gets you thinking about geometry and logic. And there’s more than one correct answer.

That’s the kind of thing Martin talked about. He said you get an “aha” moment, when you solve a puzzle, and you think, “Wow, this is really fun.” He was always quick to say that learning math and science is certainly not all fun and games, but your brain will be more receptive to learning if you approach it in a sort of a state of delight. There’s no reason why you can’t teach math and science in a way that makes it really interesting. Unfortunately both of them are often taught very badly.

J: You have to know how to make people delight in what you’re teaching. It seems that your magic is based on a lot of mathematics.

C: Yes, the ones that are up there are all mathematically based, and a lot of those were popularized by Martin Gardner. He wrote a lot of books about mathematical magic and that’s where I got a lot of them. And some of the good ones are good enough to perform for a paying audience.


I don’t mean that in a…I mean not all mathematical magic is what I would call a showstopper. In fact some of the best mathematical magic works when people don’t realize there’s any math at work. And those are some of the most fun.

J: Are you planning on doing any magic at the event at the senior center?

C: Not this year. I did last year because our main theme that year was mathematics, magic and mystery. This year it’s just a general theme about Martin being 100 years old. We’re bringing a bunch of puzzles from the London Puzzle Party just for people to play with. Martin loved mechanical puzzles. He was just a lot of fun. He really was. When people came and visited him he pulled out some puzzles, he’d also take out a few science experiments to show people, and when kids came by they just loved it.

J: And you being a person who is inspired by Martin, it seems like his legacy just keeps on giving.

C: It really does. What’s great is that a lot of his books are still in print, and people are just now discovering them. It’s timeless.

J: you think about literary works, Carroll’s for example, a new generation is exposed to his books, hopefully, but also film adaptations and so forth that may not be as faithful to the originals. But the design of a mathematical puzzle does seem to have more longevity.

C: Yeah, you just hit on a good point. 2015 will mark the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice in Wonderland, and we’re so far away from that Victorian world now. Kids still enjoy enjoy the books, of course, but not in the same way that children back then would have, because Carroll was parodying poems that the kids would have known. So Martin Gardner went back and found the original poems that the parody poems were based on. When you see the originals it makes the parodies much funnier because you can see what he was making fun of. Carroll was very subversive. In the books, Alice is the only sane character. Everybody else in the books is insane. The red queen is trying to cut people’s heads off and so on and on. The Mad Hatter is indeed mad. Alice is the only normal person. And she’s a child…So Carroll is kind of on the side of kids.

J: And I think any kid can relate, whether you know what mock turtle soup is or not.

C: And we certainly get the joke “twinkle twinkle little bat, how I wonder what you’re at.” But the poem, “’You are old, Father William,’ the young man said,” is based on a very obscure poem. You don’t need to know it to laugh at it, but if you look at it, it’s this very sort of pious thing that someone would have read from a pulpit, and so Carroll turns it inside out and he turns Father William into another subversive.

So Martin tried to explicate these books for a modern audience. He found all kinds of interesting tie-ins we wouldn’t know about. It’s like the Annotated Ulysses or another fantastic book, The Annotated Lolita. If you ever read any Nabokov, and you read The Annotated Lolita, you find unbelievable amounts of things he has hidden away in the book. He was a big Carroll fan.

There’s another Nabokov book called Pale Fire, in which two of the characters are playing word ladders. One of the characters says, interestingly, “Can you get from live to dead in just four steps?”


So Nabokov loved Carroll. And so did James Joyce. James Joyce said that Finnegan’s Wake was greatly influenced by Through the Looking Glass. In fact there’s a tremendous, deep tie-in between the two books. And that’s a whole other conversation.

J: You said you met Martin a few times. What was that experience like?

C: It was a thrill. Because I read his first puzzle collection book in 1959. It’s called The First Scientific American Book of Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions. It was that book that turned me into a computer scientist and an electrical engineer because I fell in love with the math and the logic. That book, for years, was right at the top of my list. Then I read the Alice books when I was twelve or thirteen and I fell in love with them. Later I found out that Martin was an expert on Carroll. The Mathematical Games book changed my life. The best thing of all happened seven years ago, the last time I saw Martin, because he died about three years later. I brought that book and he autographed it. It’s my most treasured book because it’s a little too late to get Lewis Carroll’s autograph.


But I do have that one, and it’s my favorite book.

Chris will be presenting on his new book at the Celebration of Mind event on Thursday, October 23rd at 7:00 at the Brookline Senior Center.

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    Jamie Hovis Written by:

    Jamie is a retail associate at Eureka! He's a published author and playwright whose work appears locally from time to time in the greater Boston area. He is also the facilitator of the local Coolidge Corner Merchants association. Find him sitting with a beer in the third row of the Coolidge Corner Theater or haunting the streets of Brookline with his new dog Paul.

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