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October 4, 1999


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Scientist In Search Of Stimulation

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Apoorva Mandavilli in New York

Simon Singh

A few hours after his lecture to the South Asian Journalists Association, Dr Simon Singh is seated in a garishly lit pizza parlor in midtown Manhattan. As the SAJA members around him raucously debate politics, he is shy and reticent, only occasionally offering a comment. Then the conversation turns to television and suddenly, Singh, physicist-turned-documentary-filmmaker-turned-bestselling author breaks into a wide, boyish grin and says, "I love TV. American TV is wonderful, fantastic."

On first glance, Singh looks much like the stereotypical scientist he used to be, tall with a slight stoop, checked shirt under an oversized Mr Rogers-like cardigan, round glasses perched on an unremarkable face.

But as he begins to talk animatedly, I notice that his hair is greased into pointy spikes, he is witty and articulate, and his shyness masks an easy, natural charm. Soon, he has us all laughing and a few young women in our group start plotting his marriage.

For all his unassuming appearance, Singh, at 35, has led an extraordinary life. Once a physicist in England, Singh has taught at schools in South Africa and India, produced an award-winning documentary on Fermat's theorem that aired on Nova, the popular science show. He is also the author of two books, the bestselling Fermat's Enigma, inspired by his own documentary, and the newly-released The Code Book.

It offers a peek into cryptography and codes, and takes the readers from ancient texts through computer encryption, revealing how codes and ciphers have played key role in warfare, politics, and royal intrigue. His first book focused on how a Princeton University professor, Andrew Wiles, announced in 1993 a solution of 350-year-old theory by Fermat.

After a flaw was discovered in the proof, Wiles had to work for another year -- he had already labored in solitude for seven years -- to establish that he had indeed solved the problem.

Singh was born and raised in a small English community in the middle of England. His family, farmers from India, moved there before he was born and he grew up with little exposure to the arts. Singh's mother can't read or write English and his father can only read newspapers.

But when he earned his PhD from the University of Cambridge, Singh recalls, his parents understood that he had accomplished something.

"Doctor Singh. Now that was very good, that was top marks," he says smiling. When he moved to television, his parents could of course watch his shows and appreciate them. And, now that he is a best-selling author, he gets interviewed on television all the time.

"They liked it when I was on BBC Breakfast News (the equivalent of Good Morning America)," Singh says. "And as their child, of course, their approval means a lot to me."

Singh's hometown had no other south Asian families but the friendliness of the community and the complete absence of cultural reminders kept him inured from any sense of "differentness". It wasn't until he was in his 20's, when he taught at a Zulu school in Africa that he was suddenly faced with the tensions of racial politics (he was not allowed to live with the two other white teachers). Still, he remains largely apolitical and does not make much of his south Asian identity.

"My parents did try to engender us with an Indian identity," explains Singh while acknowledging that although he understands Punjabi, he speaks the language poorly. His brothers Tom and George (Singh jokes that all three sons were named for nursery rhymes), and his sister Christine are all married and their children, he says, have almost no emotional connection with India. Singh hopes that when he has children, he will at least be able to give them the choice of being more tied to India.

The women in our group overhear Singh mention marriage in a wistful tone and immediately tune in. One animated young woman even offers to set him up with a friend. Singh, a thoroughly good sport, laughs and plays along. His modesty surprises all of us, his self-deprecating humor and disarming vulnerability reminiscent of that other young British male, so popular with movie-going audiences. Like the romantic hero played by Hugh Grant in the hit movie, Notting Hill, Singh too lives in Notting Hill, a vibrant and colorful neighborhood.

"I live on my own and write on my own," he says. Later, he explains that as much recognition as his writing has brought him, the disciplined lifestyle has also isolated him from friends. "I doubt I'll write another book," he says. "If I write any more, I might never get married."

Singh meandered his way into writing from science and television. "When I was young, I always wanted to be a scientist" he says. "To be an artist, you need something of a cultural background. But to be a scientist, all you need is encouragement."

Fascinated by the mechanical things his father showed him, Singh went on to study physics but remained restless for more. "I realized I could never be a great scientist so I wanted to try and get other people excited about science."

He is refreshingly honest about his break into the television world. "I blatantly lied and expanded my accomplishments," he admits. "You just need one break to get in there." Singh spent five years at a BBC magazine show making documentaries.

Television stories often need a hero, someone who embodies the spirit of the piece and moves viewers. Andrew Wiles, the mathematician "hero" of the documentary Singh wanted to make about Fermat's theorem, was wary of journalists and had previously turned down many offers to be interviewed.

Singh knew that without Wiles, there would be no documentary. So he wooed Wiles with careful attention and sensitivity and won his trust. Wiles, reticent and reluctant to grant interviews at first, became so comfortable with Singh and his cameraman that at one point while filming, he started to say of his obsessive quest, "Nothing I do will ever..." and then broke down crying.

After he made Fermat's Enigma, Singh became frustrated with the limitations of television. There were so many things he could not explain, so many wonderful stories he could not tell. At a colleague's urging, Singh decided to expand the documentary into a book.

"[Fermat's Enigma, the book] is about mathematics, about an ancient problem, but it's also about obsession, passion and childhood ambition," he says.

The book's big success gave Singh the cushion he needed to leave television and get into writing. His current work , The Code Book, Singh says, is his "first real effort" at writing.

Singh's charm is not obvious or flashy and is all the more persuasive for being subtle. Often, during our conversation together, he has to be reminded that I am supposed to be asking him questions. He is not moved emotionally by art or music, he says, but does enjoy reading and television.

Obsessed By Codes and Enigmas

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