The Front Line: Lunch with the FT

By Julia Llewellyn Smith
Financial Times
May 11, 2002

Lunch with scientist Simon Singh is an efficient affair. “Let’s meet at my house,” he suggests on the answerphone. “Then, if you are 10 minutes late or early, it doesn’t matter.”

He lives at a mews house in Notting Hill, west London. I arrive in a violent storm. Singh appears at the door with an umbrella. “We’ll just go to the nearest place,” he announces and we set off briskly to the pub.

At the bar Singh asks for sparkling water and orders immediately, squinting behind his round glasses at the blackboard menu.

Television presenter, lecturer and the author of two best-selling books, Fermat’s Last Theorem and The Code Book, Singh, 37, has become something of an ambassador for the sciences and a cult figure in that community.

Tall and thickset, he has a chubby chipmunk face, gelled hedgehog hair and a soft middle-class voice. He wears a blue cardigan and check shirt, but never removes his battered raincoat.

A charismatic public speaker, Singh talks passionately about his pet themes. On personal subjects, he is less forthcoming, clearly viewing them as irrelevant. Skipping small talk, we find a draughty table in the corner where he rattles through his life story in seconds.

“I did my PhD at Cambridge and CERN in Geneva, I went to the BBC and worked for Horizon and Tomorrow’s World. I wrote the two books, which meant I sat at home for five years. Now I’m doing a bit of theatre, a bit of broadcasting and I’m going into schools, thinking of clever ways to make science more appealing.”

Singh’s parents were Punjabi farmers, who settled in Britain in the 1950s. “My grandfather had already come here in 1938, one of the early Sikhs to come to this country. For some reason, he settled in the West Country, selling things door to door – dungarees, Wellington boots, everything that a farming community might need.”

“By the time I was growing up the business was established. I did use to go to Taunton market and help out on the stall, and I think that has given me an understanding of marketing and promotion, which most scientists don’t have.”

Singh’s attitude to his career was characteristically businesslike. “As soon as I’d done my PhD it was time to leave physics because I knew that I wasn’t in the top league, that I would never make one of the great discoveries that would have been really rewarding. I decided if I couldn’t do it, I could at least communicate it.”

At the BBC, he worked on science documentaries, and in 1996 co-produced and directed the Horizon documentary Fermat’s Last Theorem, about the solving of the world’s most notorious mathematical problem. “It won a BAFTA,” Singh exclaims. “Programmes like that never win anything, but this beat Elton John’s Tantrums and Tiaras. The judges thought this was the more entertaining documentary.” He scrunches up his face in disbelief.

The following year came the book. Five years later, Singh still appears overwhelmed by its success.

“No one goes into writing to become rich,” he says. “I just did it because I thought it would be interesting to see how you constructed a book and paced it, compared to television. I thought, if it gets into the New Scientist Top 10 that will be fantastic. In the end, it was top of The Sunday Times bestseller list and translated into 25 languages – I mean there’s a Korean edition. It was number one in Israel for 10 weeks. I’ve really fallen on my feet.”

The Code Book was equally successful, in part because of Singh’s typically entrepreneurial decision to incorporate a competition with a Pounds 10,000 prize. Readers were challenged to crack 10 increasingly sophisticated codes, all outlined in the book. The contest became an international phenomenon with dozens of websites set up to discuss problems and techniques.

“The last code was the toughest ever to be broken by a member of the public. In the end, a team of Swedish jugglers won – most of them were programmers in real life. It took them a year. I presented them with an encrypted cheque in the hope the bank wouldn’t cash it, but unfortunately it did.”

The clue that foiled most competitors was number five, using a book code. “If you knew which text I’d chosen, that one was easy, but of course no one did. For the first time ever people were going to the Cambridge University library to study my PhD, entitled ‘Heavy Flavour Physics’.” In fact, the text selected was Fermat’s notorious Latin jotting: “I have a marvellous proof of this, but this margin is not large enough to contain it.”

The final clue involved a cipher used by internet banks and businesses. “In the information age encryption is a huge issue,” Singh says, now passionate. “It’s up there with global warming and cloning. Our mobiles, satellite phones, online banking and voting – all these tools involve encryption, and we need to be able to understand what’s going on.

“There are encryptions which are truly, truly unbreakable, which is great for you and me if we want a private chat on the phone and great for e-commerce. But it’s also great for terrorists. So do you ban encryption or is privacy a right?” He pre-empts my question, exclaiming: “I don’t know the answer! I’m only a physicist.”

Once it was Singh’s job to popularise science. Now it has become a mission. Last month he organised the sell-out Theatre of Science at the Soho Theatre. “Even though I say so myself it was a brilliant idea. Never before has anyone given lectures about science in a West End theatre, now it’s going up to Edinburgh and it was the biggest-selling show that theatre has ever had.” He checks himself, smiling shyly: “Well, it’s not a huge theatre.”

Fermat’s Last Theorem heralded a boom in books such as Dava Sobel’s Longitude and films such as A Beautiful Mind. But, although sciences are fashionable, no one wants to teach them. As he warms to this subject, Singh’s plate of bacon and tomato penne grows cold.

“It’s a major national scandal. One-third of people doing physics A-level are being taught by someone who doesn’t have a degree, another third are being taught by someone who doesn’t have an A-level. OK, it’s not the health service, nobody’s going to die. But in 10 years, when we don’t have the mathematicians, scientists and engineers needed to innovate and the economy starts going down the drain, it’s going to be a bit bad.”

With this in mind, Singh has turned philanthropist, organising a network of articulate scientists to visit schools. “I’m just worried in 10 years’ time there will be nobody to buy my books,” he jokes. “No, seriously – I have the money from the books and TV and speaking to businesses, which is ridiculously ludicrous. I have the time – actually I don’t have much but I can make it.”

His motivation is fear about the world his children will grow into. Does he have any? “No.” Is he in a relationship? He blushes and looks down: “No, it’s a long way to go yet.” Singh uses mathematics to make sense of his surroundings, but in other areas he is less assured.

“I’m kind of socially phobic,” he says frankly. “I just don’t understand the rules. With just one other person I’m fine, because you speak and then I speak. But with more than that I get confused. I never go to dinner parties. If there are three of us, I never know whose turn it is to speak, if I can interrupt.”

He comes across as perfectly socialised, if a touch remote. He is clearly, however, a control freak. Singh grimaces politely, and plays with his knife. “Perhaps. I don’t think so, I just need to know somebody is in control. Television is a very collaborative business, although when I emerged from writing after four or five years I was really difficult to work with.

“I couldn’t tolerate anybody else’s opinion or understand anyone else’s points of view. I’m much better now – it’ll be interesting to see if I can devolve this schools project to a group of people I can trust.”

His passions are solitary. “I used to enjoy gambling a lot after work. I’d work very late at the BBC and casinos would still be open. I found it very relaxing, just chatting to people, and I used to do a bit of card counting. I could have made a living that way, I guess, but I got tired of it.

“These days I just tend to work through and watch television. That’s always been my first love, it’s what inspired me in the first place, watching the Apollo landings and people like Magnus Pyke. I love The Office. And I still watch Richard and Judy, even though they are on at 5pm now.”

It is time to leave, not because of looming Richard and Judy, but because Singh – who has already written a newspaper article today – has to lecture to 300 people at Birkbeck College.

Such events must terrify him. “Oh no, because then I’m in charge. I allow three heckles and that’s it.”