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Simon, We’ve Got Your Number

Interview by Tim Teeman
The Times, April 2003

Simon Singh achieves the impossible and makes maths interesting for the numerically challenged.

Oh dear. En route to Simon Singh’s mews home, my pit-of-stomach dread of maths – fractions, long division, impenetrable formulae – resurfaces. This is an old, primal fear and not Singh’s fault. He has done his utmost to soothe the nerves of maths-haters (arithmo-phobes?) like myself.

His new Radio 4 show, Another Five Numbers, is a lively series of 15-minute journeys around numbers and their social and scientific history and significance – four, for example, is the only number with the same number of letters as the number itself, but also, apparently, the least colours you need to draw a map without the neighbouring countries sharing the same hue.

Singh, a bear of a man dressed in retro Hawaiian shirt and boffin-issue circular specs, is a zealous advocate for maths and science. His first book, Fermat’s Last Theorem, (1997) was an international bestseller, shifting 200,000 paperback copies in Britain alone. It told the amazing story of how a Princeton academic, Andrew Wiles, finally proved the 17th-century mathematician Pierre de Fermat’s 300-year-old theorem – that while the square of a number can be broken down into two other numbers squared, the same is not true of cubes, or any higher power.

Besides the number crunching, this was also a brilliant drama, starting with Fermat’s tantalising jotting next to his theory: “I have a truly marvellous demonstration of this proposition which this margin is too narrow to contain.” With considerable verve, Singh charted how generations of ambitious thinkers had resorted to theft, transvestism, even duelling, in their efforts to prove Fermat’s theorem.

Wiles became obsessed by Fermat at the age of nine. At the same age, Singh declared his intention to become a nuclear physicist. His family had been farmers in the Punjab, though his grandparents had moved to Somerset in the 1930’s. (He is researching their history to find out why.) “My parents left India with virtually nothing”, he says. “They couldn’t speak English, they had no idea how they would survive in England and they were leaving behind everything they owned and everybody they knew. The journey that they made, and the success that they achieved in a new county, will surpass anything that I will ever achieve. When I saw the sacrifices they made, then there was a real responsibility to do well.”

Despite initial pressure from his parents to enter the business, he was “cut some slack” to study. His teachers at secondary school – Mr Stephens (maths), Mr Mynett (physics) – “loved to see students get excited about the things they got excited about and they knew enough about their subject to stretch those kids that were bright.”

His father, meanwhile, showed him “how things worked.” He jumps up from the sofa and returns with something his father made, a “dozel”, a little stick with grooves on it with a mini-windmill on its tip. He uses a second stick to rub against it, and on my say-so (the magic word is “hooey”), the windmill goes into reverse. This isn’t magic, apparently – it’s simply a question of where you position your fingers. As a boy, Singh was transfixed by TV scientists such as Magnus Pyke and Heinz Wolff exclaiming vividly over “videos of what the Universe was like, why the sky is blue, why you shut your eyes when you sneeze”.

After A levels in mathmatics, physics and chemistry, Singh studied physics at Imperial College, London, then for a PhD in particle physics at Cambridge and at the European Centre for Particle Physics in Geneva. It was there, aged 26, that he decided to leave academia.

“It would have been great to have made some fantastic discovery. There can’t be anything more wonderful for a scientist than to be the first person to know the answer to a problem. But I realised the people around me were pioneers and I wasn’t.” His voice falters. “I just wasn’t smart enough and I was around people who were.” Later, he says “It was a time when I’d given up hope. You suddenly realised that you’re not going to be getting your Nobel Prize, that you’re not going to be making the greatest discovery, that you’re not going to be published in Nature. ”

“From the age of ten, I had wanted to be a scientist. Perhaps this compounded my depression when I realised I wasn’t smart enough to be a great scientist.”

But having taught for a year in an Indian school, he knew he was good at conveying complicated ideas. “I had this skill that’s fairly useless in science, where you are promoted or ditched on the quality of your research. I could communicate.”

IN 1990 he joined the BBC and for six years made films for Horizon and Tomorrow’s World. He was approached to direct a film about Fermat while considering a career change; it was a huge success, winning a Bafta, and Singh wrote a book telling the whole story. He watched with mounting incredulity its rise “from eight to five to three then one” in the book charts.

“There is this huge constituency of people who are curious about the world,” he says. “It was great to hear from people saying ‘I hated maths at school but I loved your book’.” In the wake of books such as Fermat and Longitude, popular science became a growth genre. “I tried to do what I had done when making TV – to tell a story and to explain some science,” he says. “When you make telly, you bear in mind that there is a wide audience, without a background in science, so you make the programme gripping and explain the science clearly.”

“I did not want my readers to become frustrated with the mathematics. My general plan was to tell the story and sprinkle the maths along the way. The great thing about Fermat’s Last Theorem, is that it has a beginning, a middle and an end, and a plot twist, and heroes and villains. But you have to include the concepts. I want readers to have that ‘Ah!’ moment, when they suddenly realise why prime numbers are so important or why there must be an infinite number of primes or what a proof by contradiction is.”

And fame? He dismisses it with a nod to a video of The Office. “I’m not Ricky Gervais; most people don’t know who I am. But, as a massive Queen fan, it was great to hear Brian May had bought a copy.”

Given the success of Fermat and his next opus, The Code Book (2000), it comes as a shock when he reveals his third will also be his final book. “And that will be news to my agent too,” he laughs. “But it’s time to do something else.”

It will be the story of cosmology. “When my grandfather was born no one knew where the Universe came from and now in a couple of generations we are at the stage where scientists can talk of the Big Bang. I think that’s absolutely gobsmacking. But writing takes so much out of your life. I’m not sure whether books are the best way to communicate ideas, compared to TV or teaching. I want to do other things, other projects.”

Singh is a man with a mission. Disgusted at the lack of qualified teachers in many schools, he is overseeing a scheme placing maths and science graduates in schools to teach “and act as role models and inspiration” to pupils.

“I’ve got the time and some clout now,” he says. “Successive governments have done the shoddiest job imaginable in getting science teachers into classrooms. The numeracy strategy is doing well and some parts of the primary school maths curriculum are working, but it must be fairer. Here’s an opportunity for the Education Minister to prove himself.”

He is genuinely angry. “If you get a degree in science, you get hoiked off into the dot-com industry or software development. Being a science teacher is the best job in the world, but if you’re being overworked, disrespected and getting better job offers, what are you going to do?” Singh’s advocacy is all-consuming. “Maths and science are beautiful. They are part of our culture, like music, poetry or theatre. Also, we need scientists and mathematicians to help to energise the economy. If we do not have enough computer scientists, engineers, geneticists and inventors, UK plc goes down the plughole.”

“Most importantly, our lives are increasingly influenced by scientific and technological issues. In an age when there will be difficult decisions to be made about issues like cloning and stem cells, we need to be informed. Otherwise, as a society, we’ll make stupid decisions.” He is angry that parents rejected the majority scientific view of the MMR jab – that it was safe. But he can’t be surprised, I say, that there is a mistrust of science given its perceived loftiness and abuses.

“Science cannot be the absolute authority on anything,” he replies, “but at the end of the day the scientific, rational approach to giving an answer is better than the emotional, anecdotal approach. Science is not perfect, but it’s the best type of unbiased knowledge we have.”

IS it all work with Singh? His living-room is essentially an office, with few personal possessions. Shelves are stacked with box files, books for research and the odd video ( The Office, Scream, Alan Partridge ). He is, he says, socially phobic, turning down invitations to parties and only comfortable one-on-one with close friends. Yes, he assents, that is odd considering how comfortable he is on stage or in front of the camera.

He is 38 and unmarried, though he has been in love. “I am ready to settle down and have a wife and children,” he says quietly. “The challenge for me is to find the right person. I just don’t understand how people have both a home life and work life. I just don’t know it would work. But it would. If I had a family, I would want it to be like my own childhood. Growing up in Somerset in a small town, a rural community, people living near each other, kids staying up late to play football. I’m ready for it now.”

Meanwhile, he is planning a battery of lectures about cosmology. “Explaining a great idea is like telling a really good joke,” he says. “I hope you enjoy it and you go away and tell somebody else about it.” He leans forward. “Did you know you can measure the speed of light using a microwave oven and melted marshmallows,” he says, “and that if you suspend a grape from a piece of cotton in the microwave, the water in the grape boils, and sends out a little jet of steam so you have a jet-propelled grape.”

He pulls out a plastic “witch stick”, resembling a mini fluorescent banana. He spins it in one direction, then notes that it won’t spin in the other.

“The equations tell you why it does what it does. But I need an understanding that transcends equations, where you say ‘Ahh that’s why’. I don’t have one.”

With the revelation that the great Simon Singh can’t work out how a little plastic thing rotates, my pit-of-stomach dread of maths and science lifts considerably.