Simon Singh - From Theorems to Serums, From Cryptology to Cosmology ... and The Simpsons

Interview and article by SATNAV Magazine

Simon SinghSimon 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 worked with companies such as the BBC and Channel 4. SATNAV Magazine had the opportunity to not only attend his EPS Christmas Lecture on Thursday 7 December 2017, 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:

 

Roundtable Discussion

Simon Singh joined our SATNAV representatives, along with 7 other keen science and maths students at for an intimate discussion ahead of his lecture. We were all eager to meet Simon and ask questions to find out about his career, his books and his 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 much 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.”

 

Exclusive Interview

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:

 

‘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 3,000 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 the Led Zeppelin song 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 surprisingly 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 Community 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!

Simon Singh 2017 Christmas Lecture

The EPS Christmas Lecture

The College of Engineering and Physical Sciences (EPS) launched its Christmas lecture in December 2014. The annual series welcomes esteemed scientists and engineers to speak to students, staff, alumni and friends of the University of Birmingham to celebrate the enormous impact of scientific innovation. More information on the series, including previous events, is available online.

The lecture series is organised by the College Alumni Relations team. More information on the EPS Community is available online here.