CULTURE

Science helps Singh create own big bang

British author, journalist and TV producer Simon Singh received international acclaim after his first book «Fermat’s Last Theorem,» published in 1997, managed to achieve the seemingly impossible by making riveting reading out of the story of how a three-centuries-old mathematics problem was solved. His book focuses on the story of Andrew Wiles, a British mathematician, who as a 10-year-old was enchanted by the story of 17th century French mathematician Pierre de Fermat and his tantalizing suggestion that he had found a solution to a problem that had baffled the world’s greatest minds since the ancient Greeks. Wiles then devoted seven years of his life, much of it in secrecy, to finding the solution that Fermat had hinted at and Singh’s book is a gripping account of this incredible journey. Buoyed by his success, Singh has since gone on to tackle equally complex subjects in his most recent books, while always maintaining a style that allows readers with little mathematical or scientific knowledge to feel part of this often detached world. In «The Code Book,» Singh recounts the fascinating history of codes and code-breaking from ancient Greece to the age of the computer. In his latest book, «Big Bang,» which was published last year, Singh attempts to trace the story of how the theory of the universe, as made famous by Albert Einstein, developed. Singh will be in Athens on April 11 and 12 for two presentations of his latest books and a book-signing session during a visit organized by the British Council, Travlos publishers and the National Research Foundation. He spoke to Kathimerini English Edition ahead of his trip. At first glance, a book about an age-old maths problem doesn’t seem the most obvious formula for a best seller. What do you think are the elements that attracted so many readers to «Fermat’s Last Theorem»? I used to work in television, so that taught me how to tell a story while explaining scientific or mathematical ideas. So when I write, I always remember the importance of telling a story. «Fermat’s Last Theorem» has one of the most wonderful stories imaginable, which makes my job as writer very easy. In fact, I always try to make my job easy by picking subjects with great stories. How difficult is it to make complex ideas like the ones in «Fermat’s Last Theorem,» «The Code Book» and «Big Bang» accessible to a wide audience? My background is in particle physics, so I have always had to work hard to understand the areas that I write about, which have little or nothing to do with particle physics. A cosmologist would not struggle to understand the Big Bang, but I did have to struggle, so when I try to explain the Big Bang to the public I know through personal experience which bits are difficult and how to overcome those difficulties. Also, a cosmologist sometimes takes the Big Bang for granted, whereas I was learning staggering things every day, and I always tried to remember how amazing these ideas were, so that I could pass on this amazement to my readers. You have had a go at making science lectures theatrical and presenting them to a more mainstream audience through the Theatre of Science. What was it like as an experience? I worked very closely with Richard Wiseman, a psychologist with a background in theater and magic, and he taught me a huge amount about structuring a talk, pacing it and introducing humor. In fact, we will be working together again this summer on a new science show in London. At the moment it seems scary, because we have not written any material, but sometimes it is good to be scared and step outside my comfort zone. As there are few mountains in the world still unconquered and hardly any journeys that have not been traveled, is it possible that maths is one of the few fields that still allows people, like Andrew Wiles, to feel like pioneers? I think many people think mathematics is complete. We all know how to add, subtract, divide and multiply – what else is left to do? People don’t realize that there are huge areas of mathematics that have yet to be explored, and it is the great mathematicians who venture into these territories in an attempt to make sense of them. The same is true of the Big Bang. The basic model of the universe is solid, but it has gaps that still challenge the great cosmologists. It was discovered in 1998 that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate, which was not predicted at all. Making this measurement was exploring the frontiers of observational astronomy, and explaining this acceleration will require conquering new theoretical territory. Do you think there is a genuine interest in mathematics or science out there or are people just interested in numbers if they have a pound, dollar or euro sign before them? People often ask me: What is the point of Fermat’s Last Theorem or what is the point of understanding the Big Bang? There is no point, inasmuch as it probably will not feed us, cure us of any disease, put a roof over our head or keep us warm in winter. But neither does a symphony or a magnificent painting. Instead, pure science like great art is about lifting the human spirit. We are curious organisms and it is our desire to learn about the world around us and create beautiful things like Einstein’s theories or Rembrandt’s masterpieces. Fermat was inspired by the work of Diophantus, a Greek mathematician from Alexandria. Can ancient Greece still provide scientific nuggets like that, or have all its waters been charted? The whole of Western science can be traced back to Greek roots. Newton talked about seeing further because he was standing on the shoulders of giants, by which he meant that each scientist built on the work of earlier scientists. The first giants were the ancient Greek scientists. How does making documentaries compare to writing books? Are there different disciplines and rewards involved? I think that the two are different in every way. TV documentaries are relatively short projects, collaborative and can reach millions, whereas books can take years to write, they are solo projects and they reach a hundred thousand people if you are lucky. But the impact on readers can be huge. I love hearing from young people who say that they are now studying maths because they read «Fermat’s Last Theorem» or hearing from retired people who tell me that they now understand the Big Bang having hated science at school.