October 21, 2017

Bestselling science writer and BBC broadcaster Simon Singh pokes fun with math

An interview by Vinita Kinra (@VinitaKinra)

Simon Singh

Simon Singh

Simon Singh is a science writer and broadcaster. Having completed his Ph.D. in particle physics at the University of Cambridge, he joined the BBC in 1990. His documentary about the world’s most notorious mathematical problem was nominated for an Emmy. In 1997 he wrote a book on the same subject, entitled Fermat’s Last Theorem, which was the first mathematics book to become a No.1 bestseller in Britain. His other books are The Code Book (a history of codes and codebreaking), Big Bang (a history of cosmology), Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial and The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets.

Vinita Kinra: Welcome to Global Asian Times, Simon. You are a true role model, not only for Indians, but across the world. Did you ever imagine yourself being a science celebrity?

Simon Singh: I certainly would not call myself a science celebrity. There are very few science celebrities, such Neil De Grasse Tyson in the US and Brian Cox and Stephen Hawking in the UK. I am just a science journalist. I write about the scientific and mathematical ideas that excite me. As a child, my ambition was to become a great scientist, and I was lucky enough to spend time at CERN looking for fundamental particles, but I eventually realized that there were others who were always a bit quicker and smarter than me. So, in my mid-twenties I decided to move away from science and towards science journalism. I felt that the next best thing to being a scientist was to write about science.

Vinita Kinra: You are a genius at finding comedy in something as cut and dry as mathematics. Have you always had a funny equation with math?

Simon Singh: I have spent a great deal of time working with comedians as part of stage shows that mix science, comedy and music. For example, I toured the UK in a show led by the comedian Robin Ince, and we played to crowds of 2,000 geeks per night, up and down the UK. I admired the courage and creativity of the comedians who live or die for whether or not people laugh. As someone discussing math or science, my job was to be interesting, but I was encouraged to introduce humour into my presentation. The sound of a thousand laughing at a nerdy joke was just as exciting as a thousand people having a “wow!” moment after a scientific explanation or demonstration.

Books by Simon Singh: Fermat’s Last Theorem, The Code Book, The Big Bang, Trick or Treatment?, and The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets

Vinita Kinra: Tell us why your latest book, The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets, is as much a rage among common people who don’t understand the complexities of mathematics as it is to math geeks?

Simon Singh: I was watching The Simpsons for about ten years before I noticed that “The Wizard of Evergreen Terrace” contains a reference to Fermat’s Last Theorem. The reference is very clever, so it was clear that one of the writers had a strong interest in mathematics. When I investigated further, it became apparent that many of the writers have mathematical backgrounds, and they have all been hiding mathematics in various episodes of The Simpsons. My book explores all the mathematical references in The Simpsons, and so it has a natural appeal to mathematicians, but it also has an appeal to fans of The Simpsons (and fans of the science fiction comedy Futurama, because three of the chapters are about the math in this show). If people are nervous about math, then learning about numbers and geometry while Homer Simpson holds your hand is perhaps more comforting than reading a more conventional book.

Vinita Kinra: Fermat’s Last Theorem is your BAFTA award-winning documentary, also nominated for an Emmy. What did you enjoy more: making the documentary or writing the book that became a national bestseller?Simon Singh 1

Simon Singh: I am quite a solitary person. I enjoy working alone and being my own master. So, while I thoroughly enjoyed making the documentary, I prefer the solitude of a writer’s life. Hence, I continued to write four more books and spent most of that time alone in my house. I particularly enjoy the research phase of writing. Because I write about a range of subjects, I have learnt about each subject from scratch. It is very similar to embarking on an undergraduate degree and, indeed, in the case of The Code Book, I attended MSc lectures in cryptography at Royal Holloway College, part of the University of London. I don’t want to sound as though I am a hermit. I am now married and have a family, and many of my most rewarding projects have been collaborative.

Vinita Kinra: Your book, Trick or Treatment landed you in a libel case you won. Talk to us about the libel reform you spearheaded that has become a precedent for possible similar cases in the future.

Simon Singh: I actually wrote an article about chiropractic for the Guardian newspaper, with the goal of raising awareness about Trick or Treatment, the book I co-authored with Edzard Ernst. However, it was the article that was sued for libel, not the book. I spent a miserable two years defending my criticism of chiropractic, and I am glad to say that I was successful. Had I lost, then it would have cost me about $700,000. At the same time as my libel case, it became apparent that many other scientists and science journalists were being sued for libel, and that English defamation law was having a negative impact on free speech in science. In fact, many areas of public discussion in Britain were being silenced because of our draconian law. I was part of a campaign to reform the libel law and I am proud to say that we (and by ‘we’, I mean to say that this was huge grass-roots campaign) changed the law. Our libel law was so terrible that people from around the world would come to London to sue their critics for libel and to silence their opponents, so-called libel tourism, but we now have a much fairer balance in libel law. The world of science is in a much better position, because the new Defamation Act has special safeguards in place for academic discussion.

Vinita Kinra: Your book, Big Bang makes science cool and less scary for people who have always dreaded it. Was that your aim when you started writing it?

Simon Singh: For thousands of years, we have had to rely on our holy books and creation myths to explain where the universe came from, but we are first generation of humans to have a realistic model of the universe and explanation of its origin, backed up with reliable evidence. My goal in writing the book was to let everyone know about the Big Bang model of creation, about the people who developed the model and the compelling evidence behind it.


Vinita Kinra: You have taught science at India’s prestigious Doon School. Did this teaching experience hone your skills at explaining science in layman language?

Simon Singh: I think I have benefited from a career path that has been rather haphazard. I mean that my physics background has been valuable to my journalism, and my background in television has been equally important. The time I have spent in schools has been very useful, and I have also spent time talking about science in museums and theatres. More recently, I have been more involved in campaigning for a change in the libel law, and I have also become interested in challenging pseudoscience, such as homeopathy. I hope that my experiences in television, in writing and in teaching will influence any future work in campaigning or fighting against pseudoscience, and vice versa.

Vinita Kinra: What do you want to be remembered as: popular science writer, journalist, filmmaker, or an ordinary man who went to extraordinary limits to demystify the concepts of science?

Simon Singh: At the moment, my main concern is that British education is failing to support those students who have an aptitude in mathematics. Fortunately, I have an idea that could help British schools support talented math and I am spending most of my time developing this idea. I will not bore you with the details, but I hope that this develops into something that I become very proud of. British schools have focused on helping weaker and average students, which is important, but we have forgotten to cater to the most talented and ambitious students. Unless we fix the problem, the next generation of mathematicians (and scientists) will be sabotaged.

Vinita Kinra: Do you feel satiated by your life journey so far, or do you have more goals to achieve?

Simon Singh: I will not be satisfied unless I start to fix the British math problem. And I also want to make an impact on pseudoscience, particularly those weird ideas that can harm us, ranging from the crazy anti-vaccination theories to homeopathy.

Vinita Kinra: Who has been your greatest mentor?

Simon Singh: I am huge fan of James Randi, otherwise known as The Amazing Randi. He started life escapologist. Perhaps that is literally true if we think of the birth process in terms of an escape act. Randi is also a great magician, and he began to realize that his skills as a conjuror were ideal for debunking psychics, spiritualists, astrologers and other pseudoscientists. He has been the leading figure in the skeptic movement for the last three decades. He has battled on several fronts and has inspired people around the world to stand up to quackery. By the way, when I say skeptic, I do not mean cynic or denialist. By skeptic, I mean someone who places value on evidence in order to get to the truth, someone who is willing to put claims to the test. So, when people talk about climate change skeptics, I think they are often using the wrong word. These people often do not really care about (or understand) evidence, but instead they seem to be ideologically opposed to the idea of climate change.

Vinita Kinra: What is your life philosophy?

Simon Singh: Don’t get drawn into pointless twitter spats.


About the interviewer:

Vinita Kinra is a Toronto-based author, editor, speaker and activist, best known for her short story collection, Pavitra in Paris, launched to critical acclaim in 2013. She is also a contributor for India’s largest English daily, The Times of India.

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