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Interview: Simon Singh

Andy van den Bent-Kelly chats to the popular science writer about his forthcoming talk, the wonderful world of maths and the role of the modern-day science communicator

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“Lisa, get in here!” shouts Homer Simpson to his daughter.

As she pokes her head into the room, Homer points angrily to a perpetual motion machine she has just constructed.

“In this house we obey the laws of thermodynamics!”

It’s one of the best-known scenes in The Simpsons and is one of many deliberately unsubtle scientific references in the show.

But hidden within numerous episodes are a whole load of less blatant nods towards the world of science and maths. You just have to look closely.

That’s precisely what Simon Singh did. A well-known physicist-turned-science communicator, he first emerged into the public eye following the release of his award-winning documentary and corresponding book about the infamous maths problem known as Fermat’s Last Theorem. This was followed by several more books, covering topics ranging from cryptography to cosmology, as well as countless TV appearances.

His most recent endeavour was a book titled “The Mathematical Secrets of The Simpsons”, published in late 2013. He is due to give a talk about this book next week in an event organised by the University of Manchester Mathematics Society. In anticipation of this, I managed to catch up with him and began by asking what inspired him to investigate this immensely popular cartoon show.

“One day I was watching The Simpsons, an episode called The Wizard of Evergreen Terrace,” he explains. “In that episode, Homer’s trying to invent something. He scribbles on the blackboard and one of the things he writes down is Fermat’s Last Theorem.”

The scribbling in question is an apparent solution to this most troubling of maths problems, which was first conjectured in 1637 and took more than 350 years to prove.

It’s obvious why Singh would be intrigued by this. After all, his first major television production and published book were both dedicated to the problem!

The equation is only visible for a few seconds and the vast majority of viewers probably didn’t even notice it, let alone bat an eyelid when it flashed across their screens.

But Singh is no ordinary viewer. “It really stuck with me!” he laughs. “I started wondering, ‘Who’s snuck Fermat’s Last Theorem into The Simpsons? Which of the writers has gone to the time and trouble of putting in this reference?’”

Not satisfied with mere speculation, Singh decided to investigate the matter. His first port of call was David X. Cohen, one of the writers of the show. As chance would have it, he was the culprit. But his reasons for including it extended well beyond just a small interest in maths on the side.

“He explained that he’d put it in there and that he’d written mathematical research papers!” Singh tells me. “There are actually lots of them with degrees in maths, Ph.D.s in maths and they’ve all been putting maths in the show ever since the first series. There are a disproportionately high number of mathematicians who work on the team!

“I think the reason they put the maths in at first was just for their own amusement. But when they realised that a few people were spotting it, then I think they began to put the equations in to reach out to that nerdy audience that appreciated it.”

For Singh, this revelation presented him with an opportunity that was too good to turn down. “From a writer’s point of view,” he says, “when you’ve got really interesting maths coupled with a very popular show, an unexpected marriage between those two, that’s irresistible.”

The equation in question is the second one written down on the blackboard. It is an apparent solution to Fermat's Last Theorem that should not exist. Picture: Numberphile @YouTube

The equation in question is the second one written down on the blackboard. It is an apparent (but ultimately incorrect) solution to Fermat’s Last Theorem that should not exist. Picture: Numberphile @YouTube

It is clear that both Singh and I could talk about about Simpsonian mathematics all day, so I move away from Springfield and towards Somerset, where he grew up, to find out more about his life and work.

Singh’s interest in science and maths stems from his childhood. He explains that he used to tinker with the engines of the lorries that his father drove and count bits of money in the small shop owned by his parents. “From an early age I got into counting and measuring and so on,” he states. This enabled him to start viewing the world from a mathematical perspective.

I learn that an equally important source of inspiration for him was the television. So often chastised by parents as being a destructive influence on a child’s creativity and imagination, Singh cites it as possibly the greatest influence in his decision to pursue science.

“I grew up in the seventies when we were landing on the Moon, so we had this incredible adventure of scientists travelling into space and exploring whole new worlds,” he reminisces. “So I think my brain developed into a mathematical mode and the inspiration was what was on television.”

Singh’s career has taken a number of turns since he completed his undergraduate degree in physics at Imperial. Originally keen to remain in science, he pursued a Ph.D. in particle physics at Cambridge, which required him to spend a significant amount of time working at CERN.

However, shortly after completing this, Singh began his transition away from research and into communicating science to the general public. I ask him what influenced this decision.

“My Ph.D. was great fun and I’m very proud of what I achieved while I was at Cambridge and CERN,” he explains. “But in the last six months of it I could just see that there were other people who were brighter than me, who were faster than me, who just had a vision that I didn’t quite have.

“I thought, ‘These are the people who are going to make great discoveries, they’re the ones who are going to go ahead and be the leaders in particle physics in ten years’ time.’”

The temptation to remain in the field was still there, but Singh came to the bold conclusion that his skills would best be put to use somewhere else.

“One of the biggest challenges you’re faced with when growing up is to find out what it is that you’re supposed to do,” he states. “What’s the best way to use the talents you have? For me, it was not being a physicist.

“I asked myself, ‘What do I enjoy doing? What am I good at? What other talents do I have?’ I’d always enjoyed teaching and I’d always enjoyed writing when I was at college. When I grew up in the 70s, as I was saying, I always loved television. I watched anything and everything.”

It was with this thought in mind that Singh decided on where his talents would come in most handy—television. Having concluded that he would be better suited to explaining science than researching it, what better platform to use than the one which had provided him with so much inspiration throughout his childhood?

As mentioned earlier, Singh’s television career really took off in 1996 with the release of his documentary about Fermat’s Last Theorem. It transported the viewer on an intriguing and emotional journey through the working life of Andrew Wiles, a British professor who in 1994 published a proof of the theorem that had stumped mathematicians for well over three centuries.

There is one particularly iconic scene right at the start of documentary, where Wiles struggles to hold back tears as he recalls the moment he finally realised how to resolve the error that had been plaguing his pursuit of the proof.

“It was an extraordinary scene,” states Singh. “It made people realise that mathematicians can be very emotional about their work.”

The somewhat cruel stereotype of a mathematician as a daylight-fearing nerd is rapidly being broken down and the emotion displayed by Wiles in the documentary almost certainly helped in that respect. It portrayed academics in a whole new light.

Two million people tuned in to watch the programme, much to Singh’s delight. But was it successful in making everybody appreciate the true glory of mathematics? Singh stresses that was never the intention.

“I don’t think that everybody has to love maths,” he says. “The film wasn’t about saying to everybody, ‘You all need to know maths is interesting.’

“It was just saying, ‘If you’re a little bit open-minded and you’re curious about who these people are that call themselves mathematicians, here’s a film that will explain why mathematics can dominate people’s lives.’

“It’s never about saying that everybody needs to be interested in maths, it’s about saying to those people who are curious: ‘This is why maths is fascinating.’”

Science communication is a rapidly growing discipline that is becoming increasingly important in this modern, technological era. As the world of science expands, so does the number of people taking an interest in it, so it’s vital that there are people who are capable of explaining science in a way that makes it accessible for anyone.

Simon Singh is one of those people and we discuss how the field has changed since he first delved into it.

“It’s different now from when I started,” he says. “Back then, if you wanted to be a science print journalist, you had to get a job with the New Scientist or one of the newspapers first and that was about it. There were some industry-specialist magazines as well, but nothing much.

“Now, anybody can be a science journalist, because anybody can blog! If you’re good, people will read your blog. And if you’re really good, then your blog can be even more widely read than some print articles! A lot of people go from blogging into print journalism.”

The emergence of YouTube has been another key contributor to the rise of science communication. There are countless channels in which complex topics are broken down into simple points that anyone can grasp.

Singh is particularly keen to mention a maths channel called Numberphile. “I think I’ve made four videos for them and they had about two million hits!” he exclaims. He goes on to tell me that on some occasions he’s even been recognised in public as ‘that guy from Numberphile’, instead of being acknowledged as the author and TV presenter that he is!

“It’s important to have people who are figureheads for their discipline, people like Alice Roberts, Jim Al-Khalili and obviously Brian Cox,” he says. “I think it’s great to have these people who you can turn to if you need a comment or if you need some insight, I think that’s really important.”

In a world where many of the big global issues are of a scientific nature, I wonder how much influence science communicators really have. Perhaps the biggest problem of our age is the threat of climate change and I ask Singh how much power he thinks people like himself have to get people to take notice of it.

His response isn’t quite what I was expecting.

“I don’t think very much,” he tells me. “If you take an issue like climate change, the science is pretty obvious, but most people still don’t get it!

“Indeed a significant number of MPs in Westminster do not realise that climate change is the severe problem that it is. So it’s great having all these science communicators, but on issues like climate change, we’re doing pretty badly I think.”

Although it could be argued that science communication is just one arm of the behemoth that is the media, Singh is eager to distance himself from mainstream print journalism, citing them as the cause of many other problems that people in his field regularly face.

“Science communicators can talk until they’re blue in the face, but one or two tabloid scaremongering stories in the press and we’re suddenly back to square one,” he says, making a reference to the widespread scepticism many parents had about vaccinating their children not too long ago.

“It was only when we had the measles scare in South Wales that people realised that they needed to start vaccinating their kids again!

“The media are separate from science communicators because the science communicators want to communicate the science, whereas the media just want to sell newspapers. Selling newspapers isn’t necessarily entirely compatible with providing good science journalism.

“However, it is important to distinguish between journalists in general and science journalists. We have some very good specialist science journalists – some of the best in the world – but too often the big science stories land on the desks of non-science journalists and that is where the problems start. In fact, sometimes the problems starts elsewhere, namely with overhyped press releases, but that’s another story.”

Throughout the interview it becomes clear that Singh is hugely passionate about upholding the country’s stellar reputation for producing top scientists. However, he tells me that the current state of affairs within schools doesn’t fill him with optimism.

“My main concern is whether our school education system is preparing students to become scientists,” he explains. “If maths is really what people excel at, GCSE just isn’t going to stretch them. AS isn’t going to stretch them. Even the full A-Level isn’t going to be very difficult!”

Not even the most challenging A-Level that I took, Further Maths, is spared criticism. Singh says, “When I did Further Maths, it made my brain ache. It really pushed me to reach my mathematical potential.

“Now an 18-year-old leaving school, unless they go to an exceptional school, will not know enough mathematics and will struggle to complete a degree in, say, physics or engineering with flying colours.”

As a physicist, I know all too well how vital an understanding of complicated maths is in order to succeed in the field. We both agree that A-Level physics simply isn’t mathematical enough. There are too many wordy questions and although pages full of numbers, equations and derivations can appear overwhelming, knowing how to manipulate them effectively defines your ability to study physics.

No matter how much the school exam boards try and get around it, the intricate relationship that physics and maths have can’t just be glossed over.

“When you’re really going to go into it more deeply, you’ve got to have that mathematical ability,” Singh explains. “The equations that govern the universe, they’re mathematical.”

For many people at school, maths is still viewed as one of the harder and more boring subjects available. But both of our experiences have taught us that the further you progress with it, the more you begin to appreciate its true splendour and glory.

“There comes a point where unless you’ve got the mathematical confidence and the mathematical ability, you hit a brick wall,” he says.

“But if you can go beyond that point, physics becomes even more fascinating! Mathematics becomes even more beautiful!”

Maths can be used to explain pretty much everything and its impact can be felt in all walks of life. How much hidden influence does it have in The Simpsons though? I look forward to finding out.

Simon Singh will be giving a talk hosted by MathSoc titled ‘The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets’, in University Place Lecture Theatre A, at 4pm on the 14th of April.