Martin Gardner — who died yesterday — had a hand in starting the career of a great, colorful mathematician (and, famously, in helping many other mathematicians and their work become better known and loved). Behold the story of Persi Diaconis, as told some years ago in a Stanford University press release:
With bare-bones mathematical skills and no high school diploma, 26-year-old Diaconis was a long shot for a spot in Harvard’s graduate program in statistics. Fortunately, he had a few aces up his sleeve. Right before leaving home to become a professional magician, Diaconis had managed to get two of his card tricks published on the puzzle page of Scientific American magazine. Martin Gardner, the publication’s mathematical games columnist, touted those submissions as two of the 10 best card tricks ever invented. A recommendation letter from Martin Gardner was enough to lure Fred Mosteller — a statistician on the selection committee who had dabbled with magic — into taking Diaconis as one of his graduate students. “Magic and Fred Mosteller got me into Harvard,” Diaconis says. Three years later, in 1974, he completed his doctorate and joined the Stanford statistics faculty.
EXTRA: A nice appreciation in the New York Times.