Simon Singh is one of the most well-known science writers in the world. The 49-year-old has a PhD in Particle Physics from Cambridge, he’s a former CERN physicist, he’s made fantastic documentaries (his 1996 film Fermat’s Last Theorem, about one of the most difficult mathematical problems, won a BAFTA for the best documentary). He then wrote his bestselling book, Fermat’s Last Theorem (1997). He co-authored Trick or Treatment?: Alternative Medicine on Trial (2008), which, interestingly, got him sued for libel – but he won.
His latest book, The Simpsons And Their Mathematical Secrets is about advanced mathematics in The Simpsons (that’s right, the hilarious animated series about the dysfunctional American fictional family, the Simpsons). Turns out, some of the writers of the series are math geeks and have been smuggling complex mathematics into the show more often than you would believe.
Even more interestingly, he’s Indian. His grandfather – originally from a village in Punjab – migrated to Britain in 1938. (His parents moved there in 1950). England is where he was born and grew up. He came to India the first time when he was eight – they couldn’t afford to visit sooner.
We met him earlier this week. Excerpts from the interview:
What made you write the book?
I tried to identify all the examples of mathematics in The Simpsons. So I had a big database. I tried to pick the most interesting parts, something about the history of mathematics, something about the future, something about the show. I went to America to visit the writers. I spent a week with them and that was great, they gave me new ideas. They’d read some of my books, they knew what I did, I obviously knew what they did. I sat through one of their recordings, what they call a read-through. They write a script, go through it about six times, changing it. And just when they think it’s perfect, they do the read-through with the actors and they always want someone in the room because that tells them whether it’s really funny. It was great, great fun.
The Simpsons is a great show and very humorous, but there’s real maths in it! Some of the maths in the book is more complicated than the maths I’ve done in my other books!
When did you get the idea?
Ten years ago, I saw an episode of The Simpsons that featured an equation from Fermat’s Last Theorem and I thought, wow! Somebody on this team knows some mathematics. Then I realised it was David X Cohen, and that there are lots of people [writers on the show interested in maths] and they’re all doing it. And when you realise that you have mathematics and The Simpsons, it’s an obvious idea for a book and I couldn’t resist it!
Then, I got angry about alternative medicine... I co-authored a book with a professor of alternate medicine and then I got sued for libel [by the British Chiropractic Association].
They wanted you to apologise. But you spent £3,00,000 on the case! Why didn’t you just say sorry?
I won the case, so the other side had to pay nearly all my costs. But for a very long time, I thought I was going to lose because the initial judge said I was wrong. And I had to appeal three times.
Chiropractors, they believe that the health of everything in your body is dictated by your spine, so if your spine is slightly wrong it will give you asthma, diabetes, ear infections. It’s the most ridiculous thing! So I said it is stupid and irresponsible. They target children! So if I apologise, then I’m saying that “Oh, actually this does work.” And that’s not true.
But that’s still a lot of money to risk!
By that stage I had written three international bestsellers, so I knew I wouldn’t be destroyed. I had enough money; I knew this is right so you can’t bully me.
My wife is a journalist as well, and she understood. That was very important, because this is the kind of thing that wrecks marriages. So for me, it seemed like an obvious thing to do.
You and your wife, Anita Anand, are seen as a ‘power couple’ in the UK – how Indian are you two?
(Looks embarrassed at being called a power couple) Well, we both work in television and radio. And we’re the very first generation to have done that.
We met at a literary festival, we just got chatting... and we’re very similar in some ways, our parents were born in India, we both grew up in England. We both feel very British but Indian as well. England is our home, it’s where our child [their four-year-old son] will grow up. We’ve brought him to India twice already and we want him to build a relationship with India and his relatives here.
Your family has lived in England for a very long time. What was growing up like?
My grandfather was one of the very first Indians to go to England. At that stage because it was such a small number; they really had to assimilate. My father cut his hair, my grandfather cut his hair [the Singh family is Sikh]. I think they even had English names so it was easier for people to remember their names.
My mother can’t read. My father left school when he was about 13-14. They grew up in a small village in Punjab, very much a farming family. So they realised that the reason they came to England was to have their children educated. It was always emphasised how important education was. They worked incredibly hard because they were immigrants. They wanted us to work hard so we could have the security they never had.
What did they do for a living?
They used to sell things. The villages in England – this is 1938 – had no shops, if people had to buy a dress, they had to travel 20 miles. My father and grandfather would travel on a bicycle with a big basket of things and they would sell door to door and in markets. Then they bought a shop and then two shops. Eventually they built a successful fashion retail business. But to start with, they sold Wellington boots.
I remember, I wrote an article in England about the history of my family, and one woman wrote to me and said, “I remember when your grandfather came to my house when I was five.” This was 50 years ago, she could still remember because one: she got socks! It was a big deal, getting socks was a special day! And this was a brown man. A big brown man at the door was very memorable for lots of reasons for her.
When did you decide you were going to be a science writer?
I think when I was finishing my PhD, I could see other people finishing their PhD and they were better than me. So I thought, those people are going to be real scientists, I can be a scientist but not a great scientist. So what else can I do? I loved science. I wanted to talk about science, teach science [he taught at Doon School for two months in 1987]. And I loved television. I grew up watching science on television. So I worked with the BBC for six years. Then I made the film about Fermat’s Last Theorem... I was always complaining that a film is a very short medium. Someone suggested I write a book, so I just gave it a go.
Do you ever wonder what your life would’ve been if you were in India?
For 50 generations, we must have been farmers, so I would have been a farmer. But I’m a terrible gardener, so...
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From HT Brunch, January 12
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