The appliance of science in Leeds

Simon Singh is appearing at Leeds Festival of Science this week. (photo credit: Bill Green).
Simon Singh is appearing at Leeds Festival of Science this week. (photo credit: Bill Green).
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With Leeds Festival of Science under way, author Simon Singh talks to Chris Bond about the importance of maths and why we need to do more to help our brightest pupils.

IF you stopped someone in the street and asked them to name a TV programme with a lot of maths in it, the chances are you would be greeted with a blank look.

They might say The Sky At Night or Wonders of the Solar System, but I doubt whether many people would give a shout out for The Simpsons.

The animated show is one of the most successful series in TV history, but few people perhaps realise that as well as keeping people entertained for more than 25 years, The Simpsons’ gang of mathematically-gifted writers have also used the show to explore everything from calculus and geometry, to pi and infinity itself.

It’s something that science writer Simon Singh, author of Fermat’s Last Theorem and Big Bang, discusses in his latest book – The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets – in which he shines a light on the mathematical ideas that have been smuggled into the show over the years.

“The Simpsons has the most mathematics in a primetime TV show in history and if you love maths then you probably love The Simpsons,” he says. “Many of the writers have advanced degrees in mathematics and one of them was a professor at Yale [University] and they express that love of maths through the show.”

Similarly, Singh has that happy knack of making science fun and accessible to people who might otherwise have given it a wide berth. For as well as having written several books on science he made the news when he convinced Katie Melua to re-record her single Nine Million Bicycles to correct some inaccurate lyrics about the age of our universe.

He is in Yorkshire on Wednesday afternoon when he will be giving a talk as part of Leeds Festival of Science. The annual festival, run by the University of Leeds, includes a series of public events covering everything from technology to hardcore maths. Science, he says, impacts on our lives more now than at any other time in history.

“Genetic engineering, climate change, vaccinations and the question of whether or not they’re safe – these are just some of the major issues we face that all have science at their heart,” he says.

“People are much more aware about science now than they were before. We’ve had space probes landing on comets and the Higgs boson theory which have helped to create a real buzz.”

But while it’s behind everything from the tools we work with to the food we eat, Singh is critical of the way science is reported in the Press. “The media does a pretty shoddy job, it’s either a story about some miracle cure, or it’s a disaster waiting to happen and the science is left somewhere in the middle.”

Too often, he feels, TV science discussions are set up to provoke a slanging match that invariably leaves us mere mortals none the wiser.

Singh’s own fascination with science dates back to those heady days in the wake of the historic moon landings. “I grew up with the Apollo space missions and watching people like Magnus Pyke and Patrick Moore on TV,” he says.

It inspired him to knuckle down and do the hard work needed to be a scientist.

After studying physics at Imperial College London, he completed a PhD in particle physics at Cambridge University and at Cern, in Geneva, before going on to join the BBC’s science department.

“I think everybody should be interested in science. Who doesn’t want to know how humans evolved, or where our planet comes from? Science is all about these questions. Kids love to know about things like this, they’re fascinated by the world around them. But as people grow up they lose that curiosity and that’s a real shame.”

One of the problems is that behind exciting stories about space exploration is years of detailed, often prosaic, work. “If you really want to study science then you have to do the maths, because it’s integral to science. But that’s where people sometimes lose interest because the maths is hard. I was better than average but I wasn’t a natural mathematician, I had to work hard at it.”

His passion for the subject is infectious but he feels children interested in science in this country are being let down by the education system. “It’s good at helping the pupils who struggle but it doesn’t help the best people excel, and we need them if we’re going to have the inventors and pioneers in the future.”

He says education is crucial when it comes to producing the scientists of the future. “Most of the science people learn is at school and we have to get that right. It’s great that we have all the TV shows but unless the education is appropriate then we are wasting our time.”

Singh believes the school curriculum and the way it is implemented needs to be changed in order to help the brightest students reach their potential. “

There’s been the same policy for three decades which has been focused on trying to help those who struggle with science. And that’s great, nobody can criticise that. But it’s failed the students at the top.

“We need to develop the curriculum or create a separate one that stretches the best students. Pupils need to be doing tougher maths when they are younger, when they’re 11, 12 and 13, or else we’ve lost them,” he says.

“Everything I have done in my life has been built on the science I learned at school. But science today is a diluted version compared to what was taught 30 or 40 years ago.”

He agrees that the UK has a global reputation as a hotbed of scientific endeavour but points out that many of our leading scientists come from abroad.

“We have some of the best research facilities and we have some of the best scientists in the world and we still pick up a Nobel Prize from time to time.

“But most of the postgraduate students are coming from overseas and we attract them because we have a brilliant reputation. But it’s really sad that we have to rely on overseas scientists and aren’t creating our own – where’s the next Newton, Faraday or Darwin?”

Despite his concerns, Singh still believes in the power of young people’s inquiring minds to continue asking the big questions. “If you’re a student and you love maths but you’re the only kid in class who does, because everyone else likes football and music, it can be a bit depressing.

“But if they see that the writers of The Simpsons love maths as much as they do, they might think ‘well, they’re pretty cool,’ and hopefully that inspires young girls and boys to keep pursuing it.”

Simon Singh’s ticket only event takes place on Wednesday at the Rupert Beckett Lecture Theatre, University of Leeds, at 2.30pm. Leeds Festival of Science runs until March 27.