My parents emigrated from the Punjab in India to Britain in 1950. I grew up in Wellington, Somerset, and then went to Imperial College London, where I studied physics, before completing a PhD in particle physics at Cambridge University and at CERN, Geneva.
In 1990 I joined the BBC’s Science Department, where I was a producer and director in programmes such as Tomorrow’s World and Horizon. In 1996 I directed Fermat’s Last Theorem, a BAFTA award winning documentary about the world’s most notorious mathematical problem. The documentary was also aired in America as part of the NOVA series. The Proof, as it was re-titled, was nominated for an Emmy.
The story of this notorious mathematical problem was also the subject of my first book, imaginatively entitled Fermat’s Last Theorem. This was the first book about mathematics to become a No.1 bestseller in the UK. In America the book was called “Fermat’s Enigma”.
In 1997 I began working on my second book, The Code Book, a history of codes and codebreaking. As well as explaining the science of codes and describing the impact of codebreaking on history, the book also shows that cryptography is more important today than ever before. After all, we live in the Information Age, and one of the best ways to protect information is to encrypt it.
The Code Book has resulted in a return to television for me. I presented The Science of Secrecy, a 5-part series for Channel 4. The stories in the series range from the cipher that sealed the fate of Mary Queen of Scots to the coded Zimmermann Telegram that changed the course of the First World War. Other programmes discuss how two great nineteenth century geniuses raced to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs and how modern encryption can guarantee privacy on the Internet.
My other books include “Big Bang” and “Trick or Treatment?“. After publishing an article about chiropractic in April 2008, I was sued by the British Chiropractic Association in a libel case that last two years, which I eventually won. Along the way, I became closely involved with the Libel Reform Campaign, and I continue to lobby for a fairer libel law. You can find out more about my libel case and libel reform here.
My latest book (2013) is The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets, which explores the vast amount of mathematics smuggled into the world’s most successful sitcom by its highly numerate writing team.
As well as solo lectures, which I enjoy, I have taken part in several bigger shows, including Theatre of Science with Professor Richard Wiseman, Nine Lessons… with Robin Ince and the 2011 Uncaged Monkey Tour with Brian Cox, Ben Goldacre and Robin Ince.
The skeptic movement has taken up more of my time in recent years, and I have been delighted to talk at various Skeptics in the Pub events, take part in James Randi’s international TAM events and support efforts such at the 10:23 homeopathic overdose challenge.
I have also helped to start education projects. UAS encourages university science departments to work more closely with schools, while the Enigma project conducts maths/cryptography workshops in schools with a genuine Enigma cipher machine.
CASE, Sense About Science and the Science Media Centre are three excellent organizations, and I have been working closely with all of them over the last few years. In particular, Sense About Science has been at the forefront of the Libel Reform Campaign.