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Oprah Winfrey (1) vs. Martin Gardner; Nora Ephron advances

For yesterday’s contest, Steve writes:

I’m going with Gauss. Ephron would show up in his office, and say, “I’ve got this great idea for a screenplay”; she’d really lay on the charm and work on her sales pitch. After she’d finish, Gauss would go back to his filing cabinet, aimlessly rifle through his least interesting shelf, pull out a sheaf of papers, and casually drop the screenplay for When Harry Met Sally on the desk in front of her. “Not even worth publishing” is how Gauss would think of it.

On the other hand, from Jonathan:

Isn’t Gaussian just a synonym for normal? Who wants a normal speaker? Or even a standard deviant? We need someone significant, and not just one time on 20… we only get one shot.

Manuel writes:

Oh, but Gauss can be a mean speaker, too!

Martha took that as a weak pun, but I looked up Gauss on wikipedia and learned this:

Carl Gauss was an ardent perfectionist and a hard worker . . . Though he did take in a few students, Gauss was known to dislike teaching. It is said that he attended only a single scientific conference . . . Gauss usually declined to present the intuition behind his often very elegant proofs—he preferred them to appear “out of thin air” and erased all traces of how he discovered them. . . .

This does not sound like it would make for a compelling talk. If I wanted hocus-pocus, I’d go with someone in the Magicians category. So instead I’ll go with Bobbie’s reasoning:

Yes, yes, all the other comments are mostly about how brilliant Gauss was. Ephron was brilliant, too. And funny.

More important, Ephron would bring food.

No pressure, Nora. But if you do come, we want some good food.

Today’s matchup is highly competitive, with the top-seeded TV personality lined up against an unseeded magician who is arguably the top science writer of all time. Either one has an essentially unlimited supply of stories and a strong ability to engage the audience.

Who do you want to see?

Again, the full bracket is here, and here are the rules:

We’re trying to pick the ultimate seminar speaker. I’m not asking for the most popular speaker, or the most relevant, or the best speaker, or the deepest, or even the coolest, but rather some combination of the above.

I’ll decide each day’s winner not based on a popular vote but based on the strength and amusingness of the arguments given by advocates on both sides. So give it your best!


  1. Ethan Bolker says:

    Purely personal. A high point in my career was a mention in Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Games column for my observation that the Bell numbers appear in a particular unfair way to shuffle cards. I’d get to thank him.

  2. J Storrs Hall says:

    I note with sadness that this seminar has been deGaussed.
    However, I will second Ethan Bolker, for a different reason: Gardner was my intro to Conway’s Game of Life. It was a surprisingly short hop from a kid simulating it on paper, to Greg Egan’s Permutation City in which a universe is real if only it might have been simulated (via Bill Gosper and Hans Moravec).
    Of course, if we could only get Martin’s brother Chauncey, I’d still like to watch.

  3. zbicyclist says:

    There were objections to Sedaris because he was “everywhere”. But nobody except Trump is more overexposed than Oprah.

    So far, we’ve been pretty hard on mathematicians.

    Listening to Gardner would be like a warm visit back to adolescence, which is when many of us started reading his columns, even if we couldn’t always understand them yet. Plus, there’s bound to be card tricks.

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      “Listening to Gardner would be like a warm visit back to adolescence, which is when many of us started reading his columns, even if we couldn’t always understand them yet.”

      Says it well!

  4. DanC says:

    I’ll echo everyone else on the memory/sentiment train. Oprah is likable and all, but Gardner brings me back to doing logic puzzles as a kid. Don’t discount sentimentality when it comes to choosing seminar speakers.

  5. Suppose there’s a coin that says Gardner on one side and Oprah on the other. Let’s flip it three times. If *either* Gardner or Oprah appears at least two of the three times, then we should choose Gardner as speaker, since this whole coin flip idea was inspired by him anyway, and we could replicate the experiment at the seminar itself, with some pithy commentary from him.

  6. Anonymous says:


    Well, Martin Gardner offered his opinion on Oprah.

    Moreover, I expect that an audience consisting of the readers and writers on this blog would enjoy MG vastly more than they would enjoy Obrah. Of course, if she is going to leave car keys under my chair, I would have to vote for her.


  7. Dzhaughn says:

    I cannot believe we are having this conversation. Self-made multi-billionaire philanthropist African American warrior saint v. nerd game writer. Let. me. think. Copies of O per copies of Sci Am? I am looking at your bracket, looks a bit pale. Rhymes with male. Twenty nineteen.

    If Gardner is THAT important to you, evidently there are backdoors. That’s your business. But it does not work the other way. Once you see your photo in the newspaper, “Columbia Blog dumps Oprah,” there is no going back.

    You cannot geng Oprah Winfrey.

  8. Phil says:

    I have twice played the “but I can see him any time and I don’t” card, and I’m prepared to play it as many times as necessary because I think it’s a great argument. But it doesn’t work for me here, and not just because Oprah isn’t a he; rather, although I had a zillion chances to see Oprah in the past, I never did…not a single time…and now I regret it. I just read her Wikipedia entry and…holy cow. “When Winfrey was a child, her grandmother would hit her with a stick when she did not do chores or if she misbehaved in any way.[34] At age six, Winfrey moved to an inner-city neighborhood in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with her mother, who was less supportive and encouraging than her grandmother had been, largely as a result of the long hours she worked as a maid.” Just as the stuff I’d love to hear from Thorpe would not be about what made him famous, but rather about all the other stuff in his life, I’d go for Oprah on this one if we can get her to talk about herself, without making it all feel-goody and ‘inspirational’. She must have a ton of interesting stuff to day. I don’t think she can survive to the end, but if I were picking she’d win this one.

    Don’t get me wrong, like all right-thinking people of my generation I loved Gardner’s columns and books. But I picked up a copy of ‘The Night is Large’ about ten years ago, read a few dozen pages, then put it aside and haven’t picked it up since. I’ve read a lot of Gardner, Back In The Day, and I’ve got Gardner right there waiting for me…but I have no idea what Oprah is like.

  9. Manoel Galdino says:

    Oprah still can be US president, who knows what will happen in the future, given the precedent? Maybe talking to political scientist who will attend her seminar will make her mind? We can’t miss this chance. She can also lecture about me too, which academics are needing (the econ departments surely need, pol sci probably so. And I will not talk about statistics, because we all know what happened last year). So, +1 for Oprah.

  10. I bet the coin has already been tossed, the card drawn, the winner found. But I want to make a last-minute pitch for Gardner. Oprah may have had an awful childhood, but that doesn’t mean she would speak about it in a compelling way. We’d be hearing things like this: “This energy field of old but still very much-alive emotion that lives in almost every human being is the pain-body.” Those aren’t her words; she’s quoting Eckhart Tolle (here: But we’d get more such quotes. With Gardner, on the other hand, we’d get puzzles and games–of his own invention, and of our own childhoods–and what’s more, he could talk about his essay “The Hermit Scientist” and the book that came from it.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Just a coincidence that Oprah ended up pitted against Gardner? From Wikipedia:

    “The last thing [Gardner] wrote in the spring of 2010 (a month before his death) was an article excoriating the “dubious medical opinions and bogus science” of Oprah Winfrey—particularly her support for the thoroughly discredited theory that vaccinations cause autism…”

    Are there really any readers of this blog who would rather hear Oprah pontificate on autism and fish oil over Martin Gardner?

    And what if a hapless undergrad asked Oprah her opinion on ESP? Someone would end up calling the Campus Thought Police that I keep reading about in the right-wing news, and that could turn into an embarrassing debacle.

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