'Study maths and change the world' - Simon Singh boosts students at Newham college
PUBLISHED: 11:59 29 January 2016 | UPDATED: 14:42 29 January 2016
What do writing for The Simpsons, curing cancer, working for Google, winning wars and changing the future have in common?
The answer, of course, is that they can all be achieved by studying maths.
That’s according to bestselling author Simon Singh, who sung Newham Collegiate Sixth Form’s praises during a recent visit.
“By studying maths you could change the world,” says Singh. “And I don’t mind talking about money, either – you will earn more, on average, if you have a maths degree compared to another degree.
“Coming to this school, it’s great to see kids who are enthusiastic about the subject. We desperately need these people because the future is going to be built on logical thinking.”
Singh, whose 1997 book Fermat’s Last Theorem tells the story of a maths problem that took centuries of obsessive devotion to solve, tours schools throughout the country to promote his adopted subject.
“I’m typically visiting a school a week now,” says Singh, who himself has a PhD in physics. “That’s 400 a year. No, wait, it isn’t – my maths isn’t very good, believe it or not.
“But the reason the college is so good for maths is because if you’re interested in studying it at university, the sixth form years are when you need to be stretched.
“You will get that here and that’s really valuable.”
Though Singh is keen to stress the practical applications of numbers, he is also committed to spreading a love of maths for maths’ sake.
“Things like solving Fermat’s Last Theorem – it’s pointless,” he says. “It won’t increase GDP, only pride. A bit like climbing Everest.
“But a symphony is also pointless.”
Before I can ask why anyone should therefore bother with the likes of number theory, Singh offers an explanation.
“Take The Simpsons as an example – a lot of its writers are trained mathematicians, and there is quite a bit of high-powered maths in the show.” And Singh has even written a book about them – The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets.
“That isn’t a coincidence because maths teaches you to think in an abstract way, and humour is often about illogical things.
“So when you study maths it can take you to places you wouldn’t imagine – like Hollywood.”
It can also take you to a place like Bletchley Park, a Buckinghamshire mansion that during the Second World War hosted a group of number whizzes responsible for intercepting Nazi communications.
“Some people say they won the Second World War,” Singh says.
“Some say people on battlefields win wars. But what’s certain is they saved dozens of ships from being sunk by U-boats and they shortened the war by two years.”
As we venture into the classrooms where the college’s maths magic happens, I soon spot a board with “my favourite mathematicians” written at its top. It features Albert Einstein, Florence Nightingale, Stephen Hawking, Alan Turing and Simon Singh.
Asked how he feels about being part of such company, he responds both humbly and teasingly.
“It’s really great to be on there,” he says. “Especially since my background is physics.”