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From Fermat’s Last Theorem to The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets

Simon Singh | Gotopia Bookclub Episode • November 2021

Math is all around us, you just need to look for it. And look he did. In this GOTO Book Club episode, Simon Singh, author of the best-sellers "Fermat's Last Theorem," "The Code Book," and "Big Bang" gives fascinating insights into the mathematical secrets embedded in the celebrated TV series The Simpsons. You'll learn how Simon started on the path to writing this story, and why he thinks it will be his last book.

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Math is all around us, you just need to look for it. And look he did. In this GOTO Book Club episode, Simon Singh, author of the best-sellers "Fermat's Last Theorem," "The Code Book," and "Big Bang" gives fascinating insights into the mathematical secrets embedded in the celebrated TV series The Simpsons. You'll learn how Simon started on the path to writing this story, and why he thinks it will be his last book.



Kevlin Henney: Good afternoon, good morning, good evening, good very late night, depending on when you are reading this. Welcome to the GOTO Book Club. This interview is in real-life from CodeNode in London, all the previous book clubs have been online. My name is Kevlin Henney and I'm joined here by Simon Singh, who has an incredible list of publications and broadcasting credits to his name, starting with directing "Fermat's Last Theorem," an award-winning horizon program in the mid-'90s, that tracks the story of Andrew Wiles's wonderful proof and the human story behind it.

And from there, Simon's gone on to explore cryptography in "The Code Book," the beginnings of everything in the "Big Bang." And then basically, something much more personal, on a day-to-day level, our health and well-being, "Trick or Treatment?" A book that investigated alternative medicine. But what we're going to really try and talk about for most of this discussion is "The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets." That might be one of the most excellent nerdy crossovers. You're appealing to such a demographic there.


How did "The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets" come to life?

Simon Singh: I love The Simpsons. I love maths and mathsy people tend to like The Simpsons as well. And so, when the idea came to me, when I realized there was math embedded in The Simpsons, and not in just one or two examples but throughout the series, season after season, episode after episode, it was an irresistible book to write. It was a joy to write.

Kevlin Henney: What I find absolutely fascinating about this is that the internet loves a good conspiracy. It actually likes quite a few bad ones as well, but here's something hiding in plain sight that only relatively few people caught on to.

Simon Singh: You mentioned that I've written the book "Fermat's Last Theorem," and I made a film about Fermat's Last Theorem. Then I was watching The Simpsons and there was a clear reference to Fermat's Last Theorem and all of these references are background references, they're in passing. You know, if you blink, you'll miss them. Sometimes they're known as freeze-frame gags where you have to pause the video before you can notice them. But I'd noticed, here is a clear and direct reference to Fermat's Last Theorem. In fact, it was an equation in "Treehouse of Horror VI," I think, where it says some number to the 12th power plus another number to the 12th power equals a third number to the 12th power, which is impossible, it cannot exist. Fermat's Last Theorem says this combination of numbers is impossible.

So I got in touch with the writers. I had no idea how I would do it, but I just emailed I think David X. Cohen, who people will know as a writer of The Simpsons, but also one of the driving forces behind "Futurama." I had no idea whether he'd ever get it or whether he'd ever reply, but he came straight back to me and said, "Yeah, sure. That was one of my references, in fact." And I said, "Oh, one of your references? You mean, there's a lot of references in there?" And he said, "Yeah." He explained that his background was in physics and then computer science. He'd written academic maths papers and had been published, and that he wasn't the only mathematician.

And he wasn't the only mathematician, there were many mathematicians working there. Ken Keeler, has a Ph.D. in applied maths from Harvard. Jeff Westbrook was a professor at Yale. J. Stewart Burns was doing a Ph.D. at Berkeley in maths. And all these people gave up their maths to become comedy writers. But they still love maths and so the way they express their love of maths is by hiding these little equations or references in the show. And so that's an irresistible book. At that point, you just have to write about the maths that's in The Simpsons and the writers and that's what I did.


Correlation between numbers and relationships

Kevlin Henney: Your eyes are clearly sensitized to this because of Fermat's Last Theorem. I just wrote down the numbers to it. Just for anybody that's reading this and would like to check this on their calculator, don't do it in Python because you'll discover that this might not actually work the way you think it does, the equation 3987 to the 12th plus 4365 to the 12th equals 4472 to the 12th. An apparent violation and contradiction of Fermat's Last Theorem.

Simon Singh: If you check that on a simple calculator, probably a 10-digit calculator, it seems to work because it almost works, it's a near-miss solution. But obviously, a near-miss solution is not good enough. If you have a proper display or a proper computer, you'll see that there's a discrepancy. There were actually two examples of this in The Simpsons. And one of them might have been the "Treehouse of Horror" example. You actually have an odd number to the 12th power plus an even number to the 12th power equaling an even number to the 12th power. And so just by parity, it doesn't work.

Kevlin Henney: It doesn't work.

Simon Singh: You don't need to get your calculator out. And so, David X. Cohen repeated the gag in, I think it was an episode where Homer wanted to become an inventor. He was in his basement scribbling on a blackboard. And there you have a more convincing example.

Kevlin Henney: It's just these little bits and pieces. Of course, they went back and did the joke better.

Simon Singh: Yes.

Kevlin Henney: So they found better numbers. This is a level of calling to writing a good script that goes beyond just like, "Yeah, that seems like a good line, let's throw it in there." To go around hunting for 12th powers, that requires somebody going away, typing in a bit of code, kicking something off, you know.

Simon Singh: And there is another example. In the episode, "Marge and Homer Turn a Couple Play," Marge and Homer counsel Tabitha Vixx and her husband, the baseball player, Buck Mitchell, who are having problems in their marriage. By the end of the episode, Tabitha is back in love with her husband and her husband is in love with her, and she appears on the jumbo vision screen. She tells the crowd how much she loves her husband. There are then these three numbers on the jumbo vision screen and the question for the crowd is, "What's the crowd today? Is it..." Three numbers which, sure, I will try not to remember in case I get them wrong.

Kevlin Henney: Oh, it's okay. I've got them written down here. It's 8191, 8128, and then 8208.

Simon Singh: Fine. The first one is a Mersenne prime, not just any old prime, but a Mersenne prime, a really nice prime. The second number is a perfect number. And there are these relationships between perfect numbers and Mersenne prime. So, these are not just interesting numbers, they're interesting numbers that have interesting relationships. And then the third one is a narcissistic number. So, again, it's not just the case of, "Oh, let's just pick a number that people find interesting." It's a case of finding interesting relationships between numbers as well.

Kevlin Henney: I think a lot of people are familiar with some of the relationships and certainly, for some people who care, in the computer science space, Mersenne primes are important. There's a random number generator, the Mersenne Twister, that is based on that. But normally, if you ask a software developer to come up with a bunch of numbers around 8,000, they would typically choose powers of 2. So, 8192 for example. But then bringing Mersenne prime, a perfect number and a narcissistic number together is brilliant. I never heard of a narcissistic number before.

Simon Singh: It was new to me as well. Completely new to me. 371 is a nice example because it got three digits. You raise each digit to the third power, 3 to the 3 plus 7 to the 3 plus 1 to the 3 equals 371. The number regenerates itself, it's almost as if it's in love with itself so therefore, it's a narcissistic number. And I think there was a turning point. To start with, the writers from the get-go, people like Mike Reiss, who worked on the very first series of The Simpsons. When he was a teenager, he was writing to Martin Gardner about maths questions. People might remember the great popularizer, and puzzle genius, and mathematician. You have people like that who really loved maths, and they had people like Al Jean, who was such a brilliant young mathematician, I think he went to Harvard when he was around 15 or 16.

They were there from the get-go and they put in these old bits of maths. I think it was just for their own pleasure, they didn't think anybody would notice. But then, as the internet grew, and as there were forums where people would say, "Hey, I think I spotted this reference to Fermat's Last Theorem." Then the writers could see that the audience is really picking up on this and it became much more a case of the writer saying, "You know what, when I was a kid, I felt a bit lonely, you know. And I love math, but maybe other people didn't. And if we can put maths in the show for those kids who are a bit like us, or a bit like we used to be, then hopefully, they'll think, 'The writers of The Simpsons love maths, I love maths, maybe that's a good thing to do.'" And so, there was a point at which it went from a private joke to something they really wanted some members of the audience to appreciate.

Kevlin Henney: I think the idea that there's a playfulness there is absolutely joyful. And it is actually the story of many kinds of works, whether it is paintings or codes that people will put in little Easter eggs and these little references. And they're not for everybody, but the person that picks up on them gets an extra reward and a delight, and the people that put it in there, also get a certain kick out of it.

Simon Singh: We're talking about the mathematicians in the team, and there are a lot of mathematicians who write for The Simpsons. But there are also people with other fascinations, and they will drop their Easter eggs in as well for their own little audience.


Mathematicians as comedy writers

Kevlin Henney: So, that's kind of an interesting one. Because the originator of The Simpsons, Matt Groening, he's not a mathematician.

Simon Singh: No, no, he isn't.

Kevlin Henney: He ended up creating the show, but then the subtext has taken on a life of its own.

Simon Singh: Yes, but there are many, many other subtexts. I'm sure, there is someone who's written a book about the philosophy of The Simpsons, and somebody else has written a book about the economics of "The Simpsons." I'm sure there are other books to be written, but I think it's shocking that there's so much math. I mean, that's what was so weird about the book.

And also there's the science fiction or the science of "Star Trek," and that doesn't particularly surprise you, it's a science fiction show. But the maths in The Simpsons is just overwhelmingly shocking. There are references to Pi. I think there are six different references to Pi. And because that's something that everybody's heard of, and everybody studied at school, that can appear in the dialog, and it appears front and center at the heart of a gag. But the more obscure references come through thick and fast, but they're much more in the background.

Kevlin Henney: Anything to do with primes, people kind of latch on to. Potentially Pi is a good one. But then, narcissistic numbers. Then there's some topology in there. Your background is a particle physicist, there's a foreshadowing, a calculation of the mass of the Higgs boson at the end of the 20th century.

Simon Singh: Yeah, it was about a dozen years before the Higgs boson was discovered. I think David X. Cohen, who has a physics background, contacted one of his friends from college who was at Columbia and said, "Look, can you come up with an equation that looks like it might predict the mass of the Higgs." And so, his friend created this equation, which predicted the mass of the Higgs which appeared in The Simpsons. And you know what, the mass that it predicted was not so far from the mass that we eventually discovered for the Higgs boson. There's all sorts of interesting maths there, and all sorts of interesting physics as well, occasionally.

Kevlin Henney: I think there's sort of a joy in the creation. So, they're putting stuff in there that is way ahead of its time in some cases, the reference to googolplex being classic.

Simon Singh: Sometimes I give talks to school kids, and I show the movie theater in Springfield. I think there are two movie theaters, there's the Aztec which closed down, and then there's the Googolplex. I explain that kids nowadays know what a googolplex is. I think when I was a kid, we used to write infinity, and our kids look at googolplex as being the new, big, super-number that other kids are not supposed to know about. But back in, I think, 1989 when this appeared in The Simpsons, Google, the company, didn't exist. So, googol, the mathematical term was much, much more obscure. That's the kind of thing that was the bread and butter of the maths references early on. Very obscure back then, now something that a lot of people would know about.

Kevlin Henney: And that's the thing, they got in there all that time ago. I can actually remember when I learned about a googol, it was Carl Sagan's "Cosmos." That was the one source that I had, googol and googolplex. And I didn't see it again for a number of years. Now, it's everywhere and easily discoverable. So basically, we should be looking at The Simpsons for what's coming up in the Nobels and maybe, you know, the Fields Medal over the next few years.

Simon Singh: There's a couple of Nobel laureates who have appeared in The Simpsons after. I think there's a Nobel laureate for chemistry, whose name escapes me, who was in The Simpsons as a voice, not a character.

Kevlin Henney: Was it Linus Pauling?

Simon Singh: No. But yes, track The Simpsons, and you'll find out.

Kevlin Henney: Basically, it's all there if people want to start placing bets on various things. There's another thing fascinating here. Why did these mathematicians end up writing scripts, comedy? I think many people are very used to the idea of interdisciplinary, kind of, crossbreeding. We often talk about maths and music, we see these kinds of connections and people draw it out. But this one is different. It seems a little further until you look closer. What is it that is drawing these mathematicians to this world of comedy? What's been triggered?

Simon Singh: I asked each of the writers, "Why are there so many mathematicians here? Why is that the case?" And they all came up with different reasons. And one of the reasons was that comedy writing, certainly in America, is a very collaborative process. People sit down, and they think about these jokes together. They said, "That's how we used to do maths in college. We used to sit around the coffee table and work through our weekly maths problem sheet." So, working together is an important factor.

Secondly, writing comedy is intellectually really demanding. You need people who are really bright. I guess these people are mathematicians, and that kind of makes them pretty bright. Also, you need stamina. You need that ability to sit down for hours and hours, thinking through joke after joke, and refining and refining. And again, if you're doing maths, you need that tenacity, and you need that instinct to think, "I've got this problem, which direction am I gonna go and solve it? I, kind of, feel it's in that direction.", and sure enough, it gets there. And similarly, you need to have a sense, an intuition, of where the jokes, where the comedy is gonna be, and where the humor is gonna be.

Mathematicians love logic, and like playing with logic, and bending logic, and breaking logic, and often that can lead to humor. Al Jean said, "Okay, that maybe explains why there are so many mathematicians as comedy writers at The Simpsons." And there are lots of other mathematicians in comedy, more generally in England. People like Dave Gorman. He was doing a degree in maths before he gave it up to become a BAFTA-winning comedy writer, and now a top-notch cryptic crossword puzzle writer as well. That seems to be his latest fascination. And Dara Ó Briain has a degree in maths and physics, and many, many other people that have these maths backgrounds go into comedy.

But the second question is, why The Simpsons? Why not another sitcom, a live-action sitcom? And he felt what mathematicians have is they have control. You know, everything they write down, every number is perfect. These aren't measurements with error bars and inaccuracies and dodgy observations, it's a controlled discipline. And he felt that in animation, you have that control. What you want to write, your script is there delivered the way you want it to be delivered. Whereas in live-action comedy, I guess actors improvise on the day, weather conditions change, directors suddenly have an inspiration, and you lose that control. So, if you have that obsessive objective view of the world that mathematicians have, then animation might be the best place to display that.



Kevlin Henney: That's really interesting. Because in the performance, you can always go back and say, "I could have done that differently," or, "That was a good piece of improvisation, we took it this way and that way." I was watching something recently on how much of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is actually improvised. It's certainly a lot more than people expect, and a lot of their treasured moments. But then we look to this more absolute truth that is very much true in maths. I mean, a theorem is once proven, that's it, it's done. Nobody's going to come along and necessarily say, "Yes, the wind has changed. This is different." Or, "We found something that falsifies the theory," or, "There's an edge case here that takes from Newtonian to Einsteinium physics."”" It's like the theorem, that's it, it's done.

Simon Singh: G. H. Hardy said if you want, immortality may be a silly word, but if that's what you want, then being a mathematician gives you that best hope of achieving immortality. And I think he said, "Archimedes's name lives on for centuries, for millennia." We laugh at what the Greeks said about medicine and astronomy is a bit of a joke. But what the Greeks learned about mathematics, we still teach at universities today because it doesn't change. It's there forever.

Kevlin Henney: It's interesting you mentioned the name thing. I hadn't really thought about that one. The names we are talking about are Pythagoras, he attaches his name to something, we've got Fermat, he attaches his name, there's Goldbach, Riemann. All of these people end up with a name attached. But when I go through physics, it's not there as much. We tend to name it after the thing rather than the person a lot more.

Simon Singh: That's true and that's what happens. You have a Newtonian theory of gravity and it gets overturned or certainly gets refined by Einstein, and then Einstein's theory of gravity gets refined or overturned by what will come next and so on.

Kevlin Henney: Which we found in The Simpsons undoubtedly.


The beauty of proof

Simon Singh: Yes, absolutely. So, yeah, maths is a very, very different discipline. And it's important for students to understand that maths is a fundamentally different subject. That beauty of proof is something that often gets lost at school. And it's one of the things whenever I visit a school, or whenever I talk to kids, is to reinforce this idea that there is this profound beauty in proof in mathematics. It's different from any other proof in any other discipline.

Kevlin Henney: Exactly. There is an elegance. I do remember at school when I was taught proof by induction going like, "Wow, this is totally different." Everything else had been presented as is and here was a way of demonstrating something that was somehow timeless in time.

Simon Singh: Yes, I actually remember a very similar point as well. It's astonishing.

Kevlin Henney: Then there's this other aspect, the collaborative aspect working towards something, bouncing ideas off something, you are constructing something. And that, I think, is fascinating because that team writing, you're drawn to, again, why The Simpsons? I can't imagine that that would have worked here at the same time in the UK because that's not how comedy is written.

Simon Singh: I think it's changing a little bit, but we do have this tradition in the UK of two or three people, or one person even sitting there. Well, actually, it tends to be double-acts, isn't it?

Kevlin Henney: Yeah.

Simon Singh: Ray Galton and Simpson and Ian La Frenais and Dick Clement. And you do two or three or four series, and then you draw a line under it, and in each series, there are six episodes. Whereas in America you have a team of writers and people come in, and people come out, and you do your 15, 16 episodes, and you do it year after year, after year. And it's an industry that delivers, but it doesn't work the same here, or certainly, didn't work that way in the past.

Kevlin Henney: There's a sort of Darwinian element to this kind of work, but it also scales. And as you say, short-run series. Obviously, The Simpsons is an outlier here. Right at the end of 1989 so we can claim quite a few decades there and it's still going. And "Futurama" went for, let me think, 15 or 16 years? That's astonishing.

Simon Singh: With some big gaps in the middle.

Kevlin Henney: Yes, they were eight seasons or something, rather. This is remarkably successful.

Simon Singh: I do write a bit about "Futurama" in the book because a lot of those writers who are in The Simpsons also worked on "Futurama." There's a ton of science on "Futurama" but there's also a huge amount of maths as well. They love their maths, and it's there. I was lucky enough that I got to go over and spend some time with the writers. I spend a week there, in their offices, interviewing them, but also going to table reads of the scripts, which is fascinating. I got to go to the edit suite and see new episodes of "Futurama" being edited and put together before they were broadcast. It was a really remarkable time. Yes, I remember staying in a really dodgy motel. Such a dodgy motel.

Kevlin Henney: So, this is gonna be a dodgy motel in L.A.?

Simon Singh: Yeah, I had to sleep with my laptop in the bag under my head because there were sirens going off right next door, and it just felt really bad. And somehow, my laptop was still on and so it started overheating, and this burning smell from my back room. That's my other memory I have of spending my week at The Simpsons.

Kevlin Henney: That sounds very L.A to me. I've seen films like it, sort of. The writer goes to L.A. and befalls all kinds of strange things. But you're back with us here. That's a hell of a story because when you originally contacted them, it was a case of "It's Fermat's Last Theorem." thing. You didn't know you're gonna end up writing a book. You pulled this thread and discovered there was a lot more. I confess, I watched The Simpsons and thought, "Oh, nerd joke, nerd joke." every now and then. I just left it at that, but you pursued it to beyond its logical end as it were.


Research done right

Simon Singh: Once that initial contact was made, they were very open. Scott and I, we've had a load of stuff. "Here it is. Look here, here, here, and here." And, "Here's some stuff we've got coming up very soon, here something that nobody really noticed before." They were really generous with their time and they put all this stuff in there. They want the world to know about it and they were really happy to share it with me. And sometimes I would just watch episodes over and over again, go back and watch old series just to try and see if there was something I'd missed. At the time my wife was writing a book about an Indian suffragette here in London. She would go off to The Archives and queue. She would get these documents and diaries out. She'd faithfully transcribe them and take these notes, a painstaking labor of love which took her months and months and months to get the source material together. She'd come home having done all this transcription, come in, and I'd be lying on the couch watching The Simpsons doing my research, and I'd kinda think I picked the right book to write.

Kevlin Henney: It's research.

Simon Singh: Yes, yes.

Kevlin Henney: You know, I never really thought about it from that point of view, that's an absolute win. Really, everybody, for the last 18 months, whatever it is you've been doing and binge-watching, claims it as research. There are over three decades of "Simpsons" there you can now do research on. But again, you'll be diligent because I presume you're hitting the pause key every now and then.

Simon Singh: There are some episodes you watch again, and again and again because there's so much math in there, and others, it's a single watch, and you're on to the next one, but there's still a lot to do.

Kevlin Henney: So, there's some kind of interesting things there about. The role of, or the presence of maths in popular culture. You know, clearly, we see it in The Simpsons, which is a program about a dysfunctional family on one side but a charming and wonderful family in other ways. It has this mathematical element. But then we also see maths popping up in other places. As you said one is not surprised by the science in "Star Trek," because you kind of expect that. But we see it popping up in other places in all these little references that are not necessarily there for everyone. For example, there's a Fermat reference too in "Doctor Who." I remember it was Matt Smith, and he makes a reference to Fermat's Last Theorem. And that's just kind of a part, that's done in a few sentences.

Simon Singh: I think he has to go back in time to somehow glimpse the original proof that Pierre de Fermat had, the proof he claimed to write at the margin. And I think that what Matt Smith was trying to do, is to go back in time to witness that proof in order to prove that he really was The Doctor. Fermat pops up very often because it's so glamorous and it's so famous. Short stories where people are making deals with the devil, and the devil is challenged, "Well, you can take my soul as long as you can go and prove Fermat's Last Theorem." And of course, the devil can't and therefore can't steal someone's soul. "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," I think it starts off with it. "Arcadia," has lots of references to Pierre de Fermat, Fermat's Last Theorem. There was a whole off-Broadway light opera. I think maybe just a musical, but "Fermat's Last Tango," is all about a mathematician going off to try and prove Fermat's Last Theorem.

It's lovely to see Matt appearing in this way. Part of the reason for writing The Simpsons book was that I realized that "Fermat's Last Theorem," is a very human story, and I think it's very engaging, it's written for a general audience. I know there's only a certain group of people who will go and pick up a maths book and read it. My hope with The Simpsons book was that it would reach a different audience. The maths in it is still very serious. In "Fermat's Last Theorem," I talk about infinity and some of the work of David Hilbert and Cantor. But in The Simpsons book, I go one step further and talk about uncountable infinities because that pops up in "Futurama." But there are people and teenagers in particular, who say, "Well, if it's a Simpsons book I'll give that a go because I know I'm gonna have Bart or Lisa holding my hand, taking me through some of the maths."

I think one of the mistakes I make when I write books, I fill five big chapters, six meaty chapters, that's how you write a book. I started to do that with The Simpsons book and in fact when I was flying over to Los Angeles to meet the writers, it just wasn't working, these big, hefty chapters. I just rewrote the entire book on that 10-hour flight. I just rewrote it into 17, 18 chapters, which were short, punchy, and snappy, much more like a little Simpsons episode where you get in there, learn some maths, hopefully, have some fun, jump out again, let's do some more math in another chapter. So, it's got a different style and a different pace. And, yeah, just reaches a slightly different audience, I think.

Kevlin Henney: That’s a point about reaching different audiences. There's all these references and each one of them can be explained just on its own terms, but it could also draw in a bigger topic. We were talking about the jumbovision numbers and there are also references to taxicab numbers and so on. So for anybody sitting there, these are incredibly advanced ideas in terms of number theory, or they're touching on things, they show you things, but they're accessible. It's kind of like a ground-floor elevator there.

Simon Singh: Yes, and you can get to quite a difficult challenging level, and then bang, it's the end of the chapter, and you're off again. I hate it if I've left a reader confused, because then I haven't done my job properly. You know, my background was in television before I was a writer and so, when you write for television or when you make TV shows, clarity is really important, drama is important, you've got to hook people in, you don't want people picking up the TV remote and switching channels. I've always tried to write in that same style of keeping the audience on board, repeating an idea if I have to, explaining in a second way if that's gonna help the reader. But in The Simpsons book if it does get a little bit too tricky, bang, we're way on to another chapter anyway. So, it doesn't matter.

Kevlin Henney: It's like buses. There'll be another chapter along, there'll be another idea along, and that'll treat you in a very different way. Another thought that comes out of that, there's a lot here about communication, portraying maths, trying to show people perhaps a side of maths they hadn't appreciated. But also connecting with people who are seeing maths but perhaps they're not being presented with enough maths as it were for their own lifestyle. And that seems to be a kind of a constant theme that is now taking you in a different direction at the moment. You're doing some Masterclasses online, I've seen on Twitter.


Math: In school and beyond

Simon Singh: Yes. The thing that I'm really excited about there, the thing that I spend most of my time thinking about is, I was really lucky I grew up in Somerset, where did you grow up?

Kevlin Henney: I grew up in London. It's the county next door. I live in Bristol.

Simon Singh: So, you've come from here to Bristol, I've come from, kind of, the Bristol area.

Kevlin Henney: It's a fair swap.

Simon Singh: Where I grew up, we used to have the simple direct grant schools. So, if you pass the 11-plus exam, you got to go to a direct grant school. I had really good maths teachers. We had, like, 10 or 15 of us who were quite b mathematicians, and people who are certainly ber than me. I always find maths challenging and difficult and that was good because it stretched me and it prepared me for going to university and everything I did afterwards. My feeling today is if you're pretty good at maths like I was, and other people in my year, then maths at school is not that hard, and it's not necessarily that interesting. GCSEs, which we have here in the UK, are fairly straightforward if you're good at maths. If you're not that good at maths, they're very challenging. But if you are, it's not really very interesting.

So, schools have got 200 kids to worry about in a certain year. And if you've got kids at the top who are doing really well, not surprisingly, you'll focus on the other 190 because some of them are gonna really need a lot of help. So, the challenge that I'm interested in is how do you help those 10 at the top go from being good mathematicians, really good mathematicians, into excellent mathematicians, people who can build their futures and build their careers on their mathematics? And although we've talked about mathematics over and over again, and I'm talking about mathematics now, what I'm really talking about is thinking about difficult problems, and learning some of that determination and grit, and enjoying difficulty, and thinking about how you problem-solve so that those students are prepared, not just for A-level, but prepared for university, and computer science, or engineering, or physics, or cosmology, or mathematics.

I've been thinking about this for about seven or eight years and tried different models and different approaches. And the model that we're working on at the moment is we start with kids who are about 12 years old, what we call year 7. We have 500 kids at the moment who join us online once a week in groups of 6. We challenge them with maths every week and we'll do it throughout their year 7, throughout their 12th year, age 12, and then for the next 5 years. So, it's not a short-term intervention, it's not a summer camp, it's not an after-school guest lecture, it's week after week after week, year after year after year. So they really build a knowledge base, but also an ability, and a confidence, and a love of tackling difficult problems. And a playfulness with Maths as well.

We've only just started in the last couple of years, but all of our students are in the top 1% or 2% of their year. So, they're all pretty good. And half of them are from disadvantaged backgrounds, backgrounds that are really underrepresented when it comes to STEM. So my hope is that we're gonna increase not just the number of excellent mathematicians, but also the diversity of excellent mathematicians as well. It's been really interesting to get this up and running and to see this new cohort of mathematicians grow week by week.

Kevlin Henney: It's fascinating. You're not attempting any kind of short-term intervention, this is a very continuous build-up. And I think that it must be, from the kids' point of view. I think that that's where the confidence is going to come from, in that engagement. 

Simon Singh: Yeah, and they can be from anywhere in the country because we're doing it all online. They get to meet other mathsy kinds of kids of their age doing equally difficult problems. And they turn up every week, which is terrific. And we're gonna add other things as well, like guest lectures, and we're gonna have chess tournaments, and we're gonna just talk too early, I'd like to add a coding element. So, you know, you turn up every week, you do the maths, that's what we're here for. But, "Hey, why don't you try this? Why don't you try that?" You know, certain kids from certain families at certain schools, they're switched on to "Numberphile." Do you watch "Numberphile?"

Kevlin Henney: Yes, "Numberphile" is wonderful.

Simon Singh: Yes, they've had half a billion views of maths videos. It's an extraordinary success. But not all kids realize it's there, and that, actually, if you really love maths, you can go on and watch maths videos. You know, they've also got a channel called Computerphile and Sixty Symbols, physics channels. So, one is getting them to think about these maths ideas, but two, it's about saying, "Look, these are all the other resources that you can explore, that are open to you if you're curious and ambitious."

Kevlin Henney: I think that shows that connection is really important. Connecting math to everything, but also saying, "Yeah, you can go out and find this. This is all out there, it's a case of looking." I think that’s one element, and the other point of view is, meeting other people and seeing other people like yourself, especially for kids who might feel a little bit pushed to the edge in one way or another, is like, "Oh, it's not just me. There's somebody else who geeks out on this as well. And they're like me in other ways." And that's a wonderful thing.

Simon Singh: The slight challenge for some of those kids is, they will have been at the top of their class, and they'll be in a group of six where they're, kind of, in the middle. And they're not always the quickest to the answer. I think it's better that they learn that other kids can do stuff quicker than them when they're 12 than they hit that brick wall when they're 18 or 17. But maybe they're gonna be quicker at geometry, or whatever it is, we can all just get better together, and that getting things wrong, is the point at which you start learning stuff.


Simon's last book?

Kevlin Henney: I think that's easier to do in this longer format. And also, if you're gonna be disillusioned about anything, about your own position in the world, best to get that one in early. To understand that actually there are other people, I'm not alone. That kind of recalibrates that. I think I'm just going to end one or two other small notes that I did notice. One of the things is you start The Simpsons book on chapter zero, which as a programmer, is wonderful from my point of view.

Simon Singh: Good. I forgot that.

Kevlin Henney: It was one of those things, I'm highly sensitized, does the book begin with a chapter zero? I've written a book that begins with chapter zero, and I thought, "He wrote with a chapter zero." I was just like, you know, but that's not a programming book. So, can you remember why you did that?

Simon Singh: I have no idea.

Kevlin Henney: That's lost to history, oh, no.

Simon Singh: That was my last book, I think. Last book in terms of the last book that I've written, but probably my last book full stop. I don't have any other ideas for books to write. I actually came across the The Simpsons idea in about 2007. I was fired up about it, and that's when I first emailed David X. Cohen and the first time I got in touch with the writers. And then I got really angry and upset about alternative medicine and some of the dangerous claims that were being made. And I just thought, I've got to write this book first because I'm just really frustrated and angry about it.

And the book, "Trick or Treatment?" is about alternative medicine. It's not a book that goes out to destroy alternative medicine. I co-wrote it with a professor of complementary medicine, and our mission was to look at all of the different therapies for all the different conditions and to evaluate the evidence. And just to say to people what works, not very much, what doesn't work, what is safe, and what's dangerous.

Kevlin Henney: And I think what's dangerous is the one question that's interesting.

Simon Singh: So I had to get that out of my system first. It's very different from all my other books because my other books tend to be about how great is cosmology or how great is maths? This was very much the case of challenging bad science rather than celebrating great science. But once I got that out of my system, I got back to writing about The Simpsons. And I just don't have any other ideas where I think I've got to go and write. I'm not necessarily looking for those ideas. I also think there's so much brilliant stuff that's online for free.

You know, when I started writing, we didn't have "Numberphile," we didn't have long-form blogs. It's a completely different landscape. Whereas in the past, I'd be happy to set aside two, three, four years to work on a book, in the hope that it might do really well, I've now reached an age where I don't wanna risk spending three or four years writing a book. I've written a book before, and I know how that works, I don't think I'm gonna learn very much. I don't necessarily think the audience is gonna learn very much either because I've written about all the things I want to write about. Whereas if I can get this maths thing to work, if we can get 1000 kids every year joining our project and going into that pipeline, and if we can export the model to other countries, because it clearly works, if it works here, it'll work anywhere, then that to me seems like a more interesting and more useful thing to do.

Kevlin Henney: I'm just thinking there's all kinds of puns that come to mind. I mean, you start with "Fermat's Last Theorem," and, "The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets," is effectively Simon's last book. It's nicely bookended there quite literally. You read it here first, folks. I could do this for hours. I have a lot of notes on mathematical geekery, but that's all there is time for, I'm afraid. And, on that note, thank you very much, Simon. This has been excellent. Thank you very much.

Simon Singh: Thank you. Thanks a lot.



About the Author

After completing a PhD in particle physics at Cambridge, Simon Singh joined the BBC science department and worked on "Tomorrow's World" and "Horizon" — his documentary about Fermat's Last Theorem won a BAFTA in 1996.

In 1997 he authored "Fermat's Last Theorem," the first book about mathematics to become a No.1 bestseller in the UK. Since then he has published "The Code Book", "Big Bang" and "Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial." He has written for several national newspapers and magazines. He was sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association in 2008, and was vindicated in 2010. The resulting Libel Reform Campaign led to the Defamation Act 2013.

His latest book is "The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets".


Simon’s past appearance at GOTO

GOTO Amsterdam 2016 - Cracking the Cipher Challenge

About the speakers

Simon Singh
Simon Singh

Physicist, journalist and best-selling author with the first book about mathematics to become a No.1 bestseller in the UK