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The Simon Singh Interview


At a lecture theatre in the Blackett laboratory packed with listeners, Simon Singh dipped in and out of the history of code breaking and a world that has continued to help him keep a high profile in the bestseller lists.

He spoke of words concealed in messengers scalps and scrambled messages appearing on the exterior of houses from Cirencester to Pompeii.

Simon Singh
Simon Singh
Every letter has a personality, he explained while demonstrating on a blackboard how to break a code. Vowels are very sociable and happy to sit next to every other letter. Consonants on the other hand are much snootier, much cliquier; they tend to avoid most other letters in the English language.

"The Kama Sutra had 64 arts. One of those was to teach women to write in code so they hid their liaisons with secret meetings."

His phenomenal success with The Code Book, the Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography, was borne out of his previous bestseller, Fermat's Last Theorem.

That in turn grew out of his BAFTA award winning programme for the BBC. Apart from the odd spell spent as a child detective working out codes, he had very little to do with them until then.

"I started off throwing in every story I could think of for Fermat's Last Theorem then threw out any which weren't needed.

"The one which stayed was cryptography, I was so fond of it, I couldn't get rid of it."

The former IC physics graduate spent two years completing eight chapters, spending a month researching and a further month writing each before filling in gaps.

The end resulted is sandwiched this week between the biographies of Alex Ferguson and Michael Crawford. His advice to writers at Imperial is to have a go, it's very easy to do as long as you write whatever you think is interesting.

Simon was born in Somerset and went to the local Wellington Grammar School. He spent three years at Imperial between 1984 and 1987 and was President of the Royal College of Science Union and departmental representative of physics in the second year before going to Cambridge to complete his PhD in particle physics.

"I wrote the odd article for Felix and started up the Halls of Residence newsletter, Otto, as well as a departmental news letter called Schrödinger's Cat. They were my first published writings."

He worked as a teacher in India and South Africa before applying to the BBC where he made segments for Tomorrow's World and full length documentaries for Horizon and Earth Story.

"At Imperial, having a PhD in science may not seem that great, but if you go into the media, it's really noticed. You need something to stand out when you apply for a job."

While at Tomorrow's World, he drew on material from Imperial for stories. In 1993, he worked with material scientists in a collaboration with the V and A preserving Venetian glass. A year earlier, chemical students appeared on the programme to help him produce the legendary "Will O the Wisp" ghosts of combustable gases, found in the Norfolk fens.

"People enjoy things if there's some depth to them. I really enjoyed teaching abroad and I was teaching while in television although it's not fashionable to say so. If you teach properly, it should be enlightening.".

At a talk he gave to the Royal Dublin Society, a friend brought his child along who drew codes for Simon and asked him to work them out. In America, Simon became aware of how frequently newspapers carried cryptograms next to their crosswords; a relatively rare occurrence in the British press.

The Derby Football Club supporter remains modest about his success. "It helps not being the brightest person in the world. I seem to have a talent for interpreting science for a lay person and for other scientists.

"When I finished my PhD, I knew I wasn't exceptionally good and would never get the Nobel prize. As a kid, I wanted to be a footballer then a commentator. If I couldn't be a physicist, I'd write about it."

He doesn't know his next project, he may write another book or take four months off to examine other ideas. Perhaps it should be about blackjack which he plays once a week.

"It's a semi-social way to empty your mind. You put your brain to work, even in leisure. It's a mathematical game which I'm teaching myself to play well; I'm concentrating on card counting."

Casinos everywhere should take heed.

*** © Imperial College 1999. This article originally appeared in IC Reporter, the staff newspaper of Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine. Please contact the editor (Email: icreporter@imperial.ac.uk, Telephone: +44 20 7594 6697) for permission to re-use any or all parts of this article. ***

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