Singh, Simon 1964-
SINGH, Simon 1964-
PERSONAL: Born September 19, 1964, in Somerset, England. Ethnicity: "Indian." Education: University of Cambridge, Ph.D. (particle physics), 1990.
ADDRESSES: Home—London, England. Agent—Patrick Walsh, Conville and Walsh Limited, 2 Ganton St., London W1F 7QL, England. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: Author and science journalist. British Broadcasting Company (BBC), producer, 1990-96. Director, Fermat's Last Theorem (documentary, also released as The Proof); presenter, The Science of Secrecy (five-part series), Channel 4.
AWARDS, HONORS: British Academy of Film and Television Arts Award for Best Documentary, 1996, and Emmy nomination, both for Fermat's Last Theorem; shortlisted for Rhone-Poulenc Prize for Best Science Book, 1997, for Fermat's Last Theorem; named Member, Order of the British Empire, for contributions to science education and communication.
Fermat's Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World's Greatest Mathematical Problem, Walker (New York, NY), 1997, published as Fermat's Last Theorem: The Story of a Riddle That Confounded the World's Greatest Minds for 358 Years, Fourth Estate (London, England), 1998.
The Code Book: The Evolution of Secrecy from Mary, Queen of Scots, to Quantum Cryptography (also see below), Doubleday (New York, NY), 1999, published as The Code Book: The Evolution of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography, Fourth Estate (London, England), 1999, published as The Code Book: The Secret History of Codes and Code-Breaking, Fourth Estate (London, England), 2000.
The Science of Secrecy: The Secret History of Codes and Codebreaking (associated with British television series), Fourth Estate (London, England), 2000.
The Code Book: How to Make It, Break It, Hack It, Crack It (for children; adaptation of The Code Book), Delacorte Press (New York, NY), 2001.
Big Bang: The Origins of the Universe, Fourth Estate (London, England), 2004.
Contributor to journals and newpapers, including New Statesman, London Daily Telegraph, Guardian, Observer, Sunday Telegraph, New Scientist, and Independent.
SIDELIGHTS: Fermat's Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World's Greatest Mathematical Problem by Simon Singh has been hailed as an appealing book for both a general audience and for mathematicians. Recounting the success of mathematician Andrew Wiles' proof of a theorem that had remained unproven for three hundred and fifty years, it is a dramatic tale that shows the personal side of such a quest. By detailing Wiles' nearly life-long interest in the theorem and the remarkable efforts of mathematicians before him, Singh provides a fascinating background to what is considered the most important mathematical event of the twentieth century.
The seventeenth-century judge and amateur mathematician Pierre de Fermat asserted that he had proven that the equation x to the nth power plus y to the nth power equals z to the nth power could not be solved using whole positive numbers when "n" is greater than two. This theorem was penciled into the margin of one of Fermat's books, along with the comment that there was not enough space to write down the proof. The absence of this proof has intrigued mathematicians ever since, and many have devoted themselves to solving it. Indeed, amateur mathematician Paul Wolfskehl even claimed that the theorem saved his life, when having intended to commit suicide at a specific hour the puzzle distracted him and his decision to kill himself was abandoned.
Singh began researching the subject of Fermat's theorem for a 1996 BBC television documentary in the Horizons series which he produced with John Lynch. Having spent many hours interviewing Wiles and gathering relevant mathematical history dating back to ancient Greece, Singh proceeded to turn his work into a more inclusive book. The result was a rare popular work on mathematics, one that Library Journal reviewer Gregg Sapp called a "mathematical page-turner." Sapp also compared Fermat's Enigma to another book, Amir Aczel's Fermat's Last Theorem, and found that "Singh's book has more perspective and builds to a truly engrossing climax." Likewise, Alan Clark noted in a Lecturer book review that "even though I knew the ending, I was captivated. This will join my (very small) collection of truly popular books on mathematics."
Other reviewers focused on the more academic merits of Fermat's Enigma. Richard Pinch, writing for New Scientist, expressed some reservations regarding Singh's presentation of mathematical theory, and noted "Singh makes a worthy effort at explaining the highly technical theory of elliptic curves....But there are some decisions in the exposition that seem ill-judged." Specifically, Singh chose to use some non-standard terms in his explanations that might ultimately confuse a reader who sought additional information elsewhere. Pinch, however, concluded that "overall the presentation succeeds in conveying some of the flavour." Writing for the New York Times Book Review, Roger Penrose asserted that Fermat's Enigma is more than just an engaging story: "More important than Singh's accounts of individual mathematicians and particular mathematical events is his conveying of something of the mathematical ethos.... What motivates mathematicians is not the desire to solve practical problems, or even problems of science. The important drives are esthetic, coming from the internal appeal of mathematics itself." Penrose concluded, "I strongly recommend this book to anyone wishing to catch a glimpse of what is one of the most important and ill-understood, but oldest, cultural activities of humanity."
For his second book, Singh chose the subject of codes and secret languages, their impact on history, and their implications for the future. Reviewing The Code Book: The Evolution of Secrecy from Mary, Queen of Scots, to Quantum Cryptography for the London Review of Books, Brian Rotman found the work to be "a very readable and skillfully told history of cryptography." Robert Osserman of the New York Times Book Review commented that "The almost universal fascination with codes undoubtedly derives from the extraordinary feats of ingenuity that have gone into devising and breaking them, as well as their enormous impact on world events. Singh's book offers more than its share of both."
In the Code Book, Singh begins his discussion with one of the simplest codes or ciphers, known as "Caesar's Shift" because Julius Caesar was one of the first to employ it. This monoalphabetic cipher shifts a letter of the alphabet a given number of places, three in Caesar's case, and replaces the first letter with the second. By the ninth century, Arab philosopher-mathematicians al-Kindi discovered that codes such as this could be easily broken by recording the frequency of letters in a message. In English, the letter "e" occurs with greater frequency than any other letter, so it becomes the first key to deciphering an encrypted message. As Singh points out, the Caesar Shift was used by Mary, Queen of Scots, and her co-conspirators in 1586 while plotting to overthrow Elizabeth I and seize the British throne. Due at least in part to the efforts of cryptanalyst Thomas Phelippes, who cracked the code using the frequency approach, the plot failed.
The next advance in codes, a polyalphabetic cipher, was first formulated in the Renaissance and rediscovered in the sixteenth century by Blaise de Vigenere. Known popularly as the "Vigenere Cipher," this method varies the shifting factor by some prearranged method. Thus the first letter in a message might shift three letters in the alphabet, the second letter, seven, and so forth. Such codes were considered indecipherable until the nineteenth century when Prussian military officer Friedrich Kasiski and English inventor Charles Babbage hit upon a solution simultaneously.
Singh devotes a good deal of his discussion to the Enigma Code used by the Germans during World War II. This code, also considered unbreakable, was fashioned by a machine that changed the key to the code every day. The breaking of the Enigma Code, over a period of years, can be credited to the combined efforts of Polish mathematician Marian Rejewski and Englishman Alan Turing, who refined Rejewski's methods in response to a German refinement of the code.
In the last section of The Code Book, Singh explores modern developments in cryptography that are derived in large part from the studies of the English mathematician G. H. Hardy and his work with the theory of numbers. Hardy felt that his mathematical research was pure abstraction in the sense that it would never find a practical application. Yet, as Singh notes, Hardy's theories paved the way for public-key cryptography. First posited in 1976 by Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman, and later refined by mathematicians at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and patented as the RSA—Rivest-Shamir-Adelman—algorithm, public-key cryptography has evolved into a two-hundred-million-dollar per-year business that is responsible for keeping information of all sorts secure in computer network environments. Singh argues that RSA programs produce codes that are for the first time truly unbreakable. Reviewing The Code Book for the New York Times, Richard Bernstein remarked: "Singh knows his subject and is a skillful popularizer of it. It would be hard to imagine a clearer or more fascinating presentation of cryptology and decryptology than nonspecialists will get in this book."
Singh tackles another major theory in his book Big Bang: The Origins of the Universe. He sets out to explain the science of the explosion which created the universe in terms that all can understand. In Bookseller, Singh is quoted as saying: "People use the phrase 'the Big Bang' all the time but it struck me that very few people understand what it is and why we should believe in it. At the same time I was aware that it's actually not that complicated....With a little bit of effort, readers can understand one of the fundamental concepts we've developed over the past century."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, September 1, 1999, Gilbert Taylor, review of The Code Book, p. 5.
Bookseller, July 2, 2004, review of The Big Bang, p. 30.
Economist, August 26, 1999, review of The Code Book: The Evolution of Secrecy from Mary, Queen of Scots, to Quantum Cryptography.
Forbes, September 20, 1999, Susan Adams, "I've Got a Secret," p. 260.
Foreign Affairs, November-December, 1999, Eliot A. Cohen, review of The Code Book.
Kirkus Reviews, September 1, 1997, p. 1372.
Library Journal, October 15, 1997, p. 88; October 15, 1999, Dayne Sherman, review of The Code Book, p. 102.
London Review of Books, June 1, 1999, Brian Rotman, "Pretty Good Privacy," p. 15.
Maclean's, October 18, 1999, Brian Bethune, "A History of Secrecy," p. A11.
Nature, June 26, 1997, p. 868.
New Scientist, May 17, 1997, pp. 44-45.
New York Times, November 10, 1999, Richard Bernstein, "Crack a Communiqué, Shatter an Assumption."
New York Times Book Review, November 30, 1997, p. 12; November 7, 1999, Robert Osserman, "Cryptanalyze This."
Publishers Weekly, August 23, 1999, review of The Code Book.
School Library Journal, May 2002, Shauna Yusko, review of The Code Book: How to Make It, Break It, Hack It, Crack It, p. 176.
Simon Singh Web site,http://www.simonsingh.net (August 11, 2004).*