Simon Singh is a scientific journalist and author, known for his books such as “Fermat’s Last Theorem” and “The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets”. Simon has received an honorary doctorate from the University of Birmingham and has worked with companies such as the BBC and Channel 4. SATNAV Magazine had the opportunity to not only attend his EPS Christmas Lecture, but also to participate in a roundtable discussion, and have an exclusive interview. Join us as we share with you our evening with Simon Singh!
Simon Singh joined our SATNAV representatives, along with 7 other keen science and maths students at a roundtable discussion. We were all eager to meet Simon, and ask questions to find out about his career, his books, and his thoughts and opinions on a few topics.
The conversation kicked off with a delve into Simon’s background, with questions about what inspired him to do maths and science as a child. Simon’s answer was simple: “I think I just grew up in a time when science was a really exciting thing!” In an era of new exciting technology, great leaps in particle physics and astronomy, and man’s first landing on the moon, Simon made it clear how enticing science was for him as a child. His love and talent for maths was put down to his fantastic teachers, who he said really stretched him to the best of his ability, allowing him to take on a career in science.
This led to a discussion about the apparent divide between maths and science; how maths may be considered a necessary evil by science students, or something to simply struggle through to get to the cool science. Simon spoke about his concern that this can be a very divided community, particularly in schools, when in fact scientists and mathematicians “are more alike in our interests than 98% of people out there!”
After we’d covered Simon’s background, the conversation quickly turned to more contemporary topics, including climate change, homeopathy and “bad science” which, Simon explained, “if you don’t challenge, just grows”. He then talked about the responsibility of scientists who do choose to communicate science to the public, arguing that, “if you’re going to devote your precious time to engaging with the public, then really take that seriously and think about who you’re talking to, why you’re doing it, and the impact you’re having.”
Finally, we wondered if Simon had any words of wisdom to pass on. As someone who has turned such complicated maths into accessible and entertaining books and documentaries, one key question on all of our minds was…how? Simon explained that, because he was not a mathematician, he had to learn about it all too, and experienced all the ‘wow’ moments along the way. The discussion ended with some advice for those of us considering going into scientific communication. Simon encouraged that, in an era of YouTube and podcasting, there are no barriers to getting started—“If it works, if you enjoy it, if you learn something from it—great! If not, you haven’t lost anything.”
After the roundtable discussion, we were whisked upstairs to the beautiful Elgar Concert Hall, where Simon’s lecture would take place later in the evening. Simon greeted the crew enthusiastically, and we didn’t waste any time getting the cameras rolling so that we could begin chatting. We began by asking Simon about his journey from when he first discovered his love for science to his current career.
Dan: Hi Simon, thank you so much for joining us today. We’re grateful for the opportunity to interview you on behalf of SATNAV and EPS. When you first decided to study physics, did you have any clue that it would take you where you are now?
S: When I was at school I knew I wanted to do physics, and when I did a physics degree I knew I wanted to do a PhD. While I was working on my PhD I could just see other people who were a bit quicker and a bit brighter, and they were the people who were going to go and make great discoveries or do fantastic physics, and I was always going to be trying to catch up---that’s kind of how I saw it, anyway. So, I started thinking towards the end of my PhD: “what else do I like doing?” what else could I do that’s related to science, that could use some of my skills? One of my skills is watching television. So I started thinking about working in television, and was lucky enough to win a BBC traineeship. You just get a six-month traineeship, but that’s great---once you have the opportunity to prove that you can tell a story, then six months becomes a year, a year becomes two years, and before you know if you’ve been there six or seven years and had a fantastic time making TV programmes.
We then went on to discuss his career, particularly his popular book “The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets” as well as his other exploits, and eventually found ourselves talking about today’s society and its relationship with science.
Beth: In a previous issue, SATNAV explored some of the myths and misconceptions that have been perpetuated by the media. What are your thoughts on how scientific communication has developed in an age where people have access to such a range of information and misinformation?
S: I worked in the media, in the BBC, for years and years. I think science journalists care about science, and we want to be critical about science if necessary, but we want to do our best at reporting it. I think the problem occurs when the non-scientists start getting hold of a story; people who don’t understand statistics, people who want to grab an audience, or be sensationalist, or scaremongering—because that’s what’s going to get people to phone in, or click on their website. There’s also this whole issue of false balance, whereby a scientist who has worked on this topic for twenty years is set against someone from a lobby group who takes the opposite view. It looks like it’s a 50:50 debate, like it’s a really controversial question, whereas in fact the science is often settled. There is this idea that the media always needs to have a bit of argy-bargy, but this misrepresents the balance of evidence and misleads the audience. So I think our media does not necessarily serve us very well at the moment.
Simon’s response is both refreshing and sobering. Our generation needs to challenge these issues that arise with advances in technology, allowing information to spread like never before. We must ensure that technology is being used to its full effect by spreading facts, and educating people on important matters, rather than perpetuating harmful myths and allowing bad science to flourish. As daunting as that might sound, Simon also speaks of how, unlike any generation before us, the internet can be used as an incredible resource for scientific communication.
B: Do you have any advice for aspiring scientific writers?
S: The great thing today, which wasn’t the case when I was in my twenties, is that you can just write. Nothing stops anybody writing—you can blog, you can make funny cartoons or animations, you can make YouTube videos. If you’re good, and if there’s an audience for what you’re doing, that will grow. When I wanted to get into television, ITV did a few science programmes, Channel 4 and the BBC also did some, but essentially there may have been 50 jobs in science television, and that was it. Now,
whoever has a chance to show what they can do will get an increasingly large audience and become increasingly influential. I think that’s fantastic.
B: Thank you so much for talking with us, and we’re really looking forward to your lecture.
S: Thank you.
If you would like to see the full interview, in which we discuss Simon’s books and much more, go to www.birmingham.ac.uk/eps/christmaslecture/simonsingh
EPS Christmas Lecture: ‘From Theorems to Serums, From Cryptology to Cosmology...and The Simpsons’
Simon discussed all his books, with a particular focus on his most recent publication: “The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets”. He began by presenting a snippet from his documentary, Fermat’s Last Theorem, showing mathematician Sir Andrew Wiles crying, revealing the often-overlooked emotion behind mathematics. After years of struggle, he had found the solution to Fermat’s Last Theorem, a conjecture that had puzzled mathematicians for centuries.
Simon then discussed a rather unlikely place for Fermat’s Last Theorem to show up: The Simpsons. That’s right, the well-known cartoon comedy show—it contains a vast amount of science and maths. Simon gave a very interesting and informative insight into the show that perhaps many of us hadn’t even considered before. He first noticed the mathematical element in the episode titled “Wizard of Evergreen Terrace” when Homer wants to be an inventor, and he scribbles down a “near-miss” solution to Fermat’s Last Theorem. There’s also a prediction for the mass of the Higgs Boson (fourteen years before it was discovered), references to Schrödinger’s Cat, Euler’s identity and Gauss’ equation describing the distribution of prime numbers.
Another topic Simon discussed was the power of suggestion. He explained how this could be a huge reason why people are so drawn to ineffective, and potentially dangerous, alternative medicines and homeopathy. With reference to his book “A Code Book”, Simon first talked about the supposed cryptology hidden in The Bible, with claims of over 3000 predictions of future events subtly arranged within the text which, once pointed out, many people were ready to believe. But after a similar number of predictions were found in a different book—Moby Dick—Simon explained how this is simply down to the sheer number of letters (and human imagination!).
Simon reaffirmed this power of suggestibility by playing an extract from “Stairway to Heaven”—first forwards, then backwards. While most of us hadn’t heard any distinct words when first hearing the backwards version, after Simon showed us some supposed satanic references that seemed to fit quite well, we could suddenly hear them clearly. It goes to show not only the extent of how our brains are so evolved to identify patterns but additionally, how susceptible we are to seeking out things not really there. This is why scientists have to be sceptical of unfounded or deceptive science. However, a final thought from Simon was, despite what some may think, “scientists are the most open-minded people in the world. They will believe in incredible things—if you show them the evidence.”
We’d like to extend our gratitude to both Simon Singh and the EPS team for giving us the chance to cover this inspiring event. We hope that you can take as much away from this as we did!
From Issue 15