Monday, February 3, 2014

Author’s Interview: Simon Singh

    It is an honor to have with us Simon Singh, a particle physicist who obtained his doctorate from Emmanuel College, Cambridge and CERN, Geneva. He later joined BBC's Science Department as a producer and director in programmes such as Tomorrow's World and Horizon. He then got into writing a genre less popular called Popular Science and has written on very diverse topics from cryptography to therapy. His four amazing books, which are  like Fermat's Last Theorem, The Code Book, Trick or Treatment and Big Bang and now his latest book's title "Simpsons And Their Mathematical Secrets" makes you just curious. "Simpsons And Their Mathematical Secrets" is a decoding and amalgamation of Mathematics and the beloved TV show The Simpsons.  Read on 

     Q: What prompted you post being in academia into the creative world, writing and taking science to people?
A: I think that being a scientist is the best job in the world, and I would have loved to have built a career in science and made a great discovery. However, I could see towards the end of my PhD that some of my colleagues were in a league above me and they (not me) were destined to be scientists. So I moved into journalism, as I felt that writing and making programmes about science was the next best thing to being a scientist.

      Q: Tell us your journey into writing your first book. Were there any roadblocks from writing to publishing?
A: My first book was Fermat’s Last Theorem, and it followed a BBC TV documentary that I made about this notorious mathematical problem. The documentary was critically acclaimed, so I think publishers could easily see that this was an interesting story. In terms of writing, my approach is to simply get on with it. There is no mystery – just write a few hundred words every day and do not tolerate the notion of writer’s block. If there are bits of the first draft that do not work, then they can be fixed in the second draft, or the third draft and so on.

   Q: You have written on very diverse topics from the big bang theory, to cryptography, to some healthcare methods and now mathematics and The Simpsons - what prompted you to write on these topics?
A: I wrote The Code Book because nobody had written about cryptography in recent decades, and yet it was a topic of great relevance in the information age. This topic is also a mix of history and science. In the case of my third book, Big Bang, there were already lots of books about cutting edge cosmology, but very few that looked at how the current big bang model had come to be. Again, this book was a mix of science and history. Trick or Treatment?was prompted by my annoyance that there is so much misinformation about alternative medicine, so the goal was to present the public with the best available evidence on various therapies (which in general are ineffective and sometimes dangerous). And I wrote The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets because I love mathematics and I love The Simpsons.

   Q:  Tell us something about your latest book "The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets."
   A: Very few people realize that many of the writers of The Simpsons have strong mathematical backgrounds, ranging from degrees to PhDs. In fact, one writer, Jeff Westbrook was a professor at Yale University before he became a comedy writer. They are no longer mathematicians, but they still love mathematics and they express that love by smuggling equations and special numbers into different episodes of The Simpsons. The book looks at these mathematical references and explains them, while also looking at the writers and exploring the show. I think readers will be surprised by the quantity and quality of mathematical references, which cover everything from calculus to number theory, from infinitesimals to infinity.

  Q: Did the idea that Simpsons had hidden Mathematics in each episode as you have pointed out amazingly well in your book strike you when you watched the first episode or was it gradual?
A: I was watching The Simpsons for about ten years before I realized that one episode (The Wizard of Evergreen Terrace) contains a reference to Fermat’s Last Theorem. Then, when I looked more closely at other episodes, I began to see that there is vast amount of mathematics in the show.

  Q: Do you write popular science for fun, education or as a responsibility/contribution to the society?
A: Writing science is a genuine privilege. It is certainly fun, as I get to travel and meet some of my heroes. I am also constantly learning new things while I research material for my books. And, I hope I am doing something useful. My books are read by three types of people. First, there are geeks like me. Second, there are those people who are not geeks, but who are curious about mathematics. Third, there are teenagers who think they may be turning into geeks. I hope my books help inspire the next generation of geeks.

Q: What are your upcoming projects? 
A: Having just written a book that celebrates something wonderful, I think my next project will involve attacking something terrible, by which I mean some form of pseudoscience. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of pseudoscience in the world, ranging from homeopathy to astrology.
Q: Any advice for budding writers?
A: Writing is relatively easy, and I think the real challenge is finding something to write about. Then, having written something worthwhile, the challenge is to persuade others to read it.

Q: A message for your readers.

A: I think those of us who appreciate science will often moan about pseudoscience, such as a preposterous advert making unjustified claims, or a sensationalized science report in a newspaper, or a politician in Kerala endorsing homeopathy. I would encourage people to stop moaning and to take action, which could mean complaining about adverts, emailing newspaper editors or tweeting about pseudoscientific politicians.

Thanks to Simon Singh and Bloomsbury India for giving this privilege to interview an author in my most favorite genre.


  1. Visited your blog for the first time and this is first read. You write brilliant. :-)