Degree Speeches
Summer 2003

Dr Simon Lehna Singh

Public Orator, Professor James L Alty, presented the Honorary Graduand at the Degree Ceremony held on Thursday 10 July at 10.30am.


In the 1950’s, the general public held science and scientists in awe. Whilst they were perceived, inaccurately, as being slightly mad people in white coats, their pronouncements and predictions were seen as unbiased and honest attempts at dealing with the difficult problems that the world faces. Today it is very different. The general public are suspicious of scientists and question their motives. It is now difficult to hold informed debates on vital issues such as genetic crop modification, or the effects of electromagnetic radiation. What is urgently needed is an informed public capable of contributing to these great debates. Today’s Honorary Graduate, Dr Simon Lehna Singh, has made a huge contribution in raising the public awareness of science.

In 1950 Dr Singh’s parents emigrated from the Punjab and settled in Wellington, Somerset and we are delighted to welcome his father here today. Simon was born in Wellington in 1964, only 5 miles from the birthplace of Thomas Young, the advocate of the Wave Theory of Light. Early on he became passionately interested in science and at the tender age of nine surprised his parents by declaring that he wanted to become a nuclear physicist.

It is essential that any aspiring scientific author or journalist have a thorough training in science. I am reminded of a story of John Nash, the Nobel Prize winning mathematician, who was the subject of a recent film - “A Beautiful Mind”. The young Nash moved to Princeton where Albert Einstein was a Professor. Although a Mathematician, Nash had some ideas about Gravity. He sought an audience with Einstein and soon was animatedly discussing his ideas in Einstein’s office. Einstein listened patiently and then declared, “Interesting, but you had better go back and study some more physics young man”.

Simon Singh did not make this mistake. He has a thorough grounding in science. In 1983-86 he read Physics at Imperial College, and after a short teaching spell in India went to Cambridge to realise his childhood dream and was awarded a Ph D in Nuclear Physics in 1990 searching for the top quark.

Following his Ph D, he decided to pursue a career in journalism and scientific communication and applied to the BBC, whom he worked for between 1990 and 1997. During this period he produced many programmes about science – covering subjects as wide ranging as Volcanic Activity, the Hubble Telescope and Code Breaking.

It was whilst working for the BBC he directed an award winning documentary on the world’s most notorious mathematical problem – Fermat’s Last Theorem - which he also published as a book. The theorem states that if n is an integer >2 the equation xn + yn = zn has no integral solutions. It doesn’t sound like a best selling title of a book does it! Fermat claimed he had a “truly wonderful proof” but never wrote it down. The proof was only obtained 200 years later in 1995 and the quest to solve it is a wonderful story. The book has now sold an astonishing 250,000 copies. In 1999 Dr Singh followed this with the “The Code Book”- the secret history of codes and code breaking - which also became a UK best seller.

It is not a great jump from code breaking to gaming theory – the subject of the Nobel Prize of John Nash. Dr Singh thoroughly understands the mathematics behind the game of Blackjack. The Mail on Sunday challenged him to show that, through the use of mathematics he could win at Blackjack and they funded him to go to Las Vegas to prove it – and he did! Chancellor, there may be people in the audience wondering “if this is true, why is Dr Singh here accepting an honorary degree when he could be at the tables amassing a guaranteed fortune at BlackJack”. Dr Singh explained to me that unfortunately to do this you have to have very large monetary backing and only win by small increments – you have to be a millionaire to start with!

Dr Singh has worked tirelessly to promote science. He is so excited by science that he wants others to share the experience. He is, the owner of a Second World War Enigma Machine and one of his projects is touring schools to engage children in Mathematics and the History and Science. Recently as an independent producer, he has produced “The Science of Secrecy” for Channel 4, “Mind Games” for BBC4, and a science program for the Discovery Channel. Currently he is working on a book on Cosmology.

Dr Singh has been recognised by Society more generally. He is a Trustee of the Science Museum and for NESTA. He has received an Honorary Degree from the University of East Anglia, and this year was awarded an MBE for services to Science, Technology and Engineering in Education and Science Communication.

Therefore, Chancellor, I have the honour to present to you Dr Simon Lehna Singh, MBE, for the conferment of the degree of Doctor of Letters (honoris causa).

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