I am convinced that’s exactly what Simon Singh is. A superstar.
He came to IISc to give a popular talk on ‘Big Bang’, based on his book with the same title. His talk had good publicity, so we knew there would be a big crowd. But we were certainly not prepared to face a full house in an auditorium with 400 seats when we got there a full 15 minutes in advance! We were lucky to get some ‘seats’ on the aisles; those who came later had to stand in nooks and corners, and some even had to stay outside, listening to the talk over the closed circuit TV outside the hall! In all, we probably had about 700 people listening to him.
Well, at 4:00 p.m. sharp, Simon walked in, and with his rock-star-in-a-jacket look (picture). After the speaker introductions were done, the Simon Show started.
Yes, that’s what we had yesterday. A grand, awsome Show. Like a great story teller, he took a pretty complicated idea in cosmology, broke it into bite sized bits, and spiced it all up with anecdotes and little jokes. Just what was the effect of all that slicing and spicing on us? We just lapped it up!
In terms of science, the Wikipedia entry on the big bang has more stuff than what Simon had in his talk. His was a simple narrative, that started with original hypothesis by Georges Lemaitre, took us through key events such as Edwin Hubble’s observation of the ‘red shift’, George Gamov’s prediction about the cosmic background radiation, and ended with the famous discovery of this background by the Bell Labs scientists Pennzias and Wilson. In between, he even managed to sneak in the story about how Fred Hoyle first used ‘”that Big Bang” in a derogatory way to describe this theory, only to watch (with horror, I suppose) the supporters of the theory hijack that phrase!
While the narrative of the science was simple, and had just a few strands, Simon embellished each of them skillfully using an extensive rhetorical toolkit. Some of the devices he used were:
Live demos: For explaining the physics behind Hubble’s ‘red shift’ experiment, he takes an electric whistle attached to a string, turns it on, grabs the other end of the string, and has the whistle going around his head in a circle about half a meter in radius. If you listen with your eyes closed, you hear the pitch of the whistle going up and down rhythmically; if you now listen with your eyes open, you notice the pitch going up when the whistle is coming at you, and going down when it is going away from you.
Anecdotes: Lemaitre was a priest. However, he insisted that his scientific idea should be examined on its own merits, without getting his religion mixed up with it. Apparently he even protested when the then Pope said he liked the idea of the big bang, because it means there was a creation event requiring a Creator.
Jokes: These jokes were largely little pranks that he played using his audiovisual material. For example, when Sir James Jeans wrote a book in 1930 called ‘The Mysterious Universe’, a Hollywood actress called Tallulah Bankhead said this book was so great that it has ‘everything that a girl must know‘! In fact, Simon started with this little gem, and when he finished, he said, ‘you know, I am not as great a physicist as James Jeans , but I would really like it if Cameron Diaz came around and said the same thing about my book’!. During each recounting of the Jeans-Bankhead incident, he had the right pictures and words pop up just at the right time to produce a great effect.
Colourful people and things: One of the early opponents of the Big Bang theory [he also proposed the ‘tired light’ explanation of the ‘red shift’ observation by Hubble] is supposed to have given the English language a curiously geeky cussword: ‘spherical bastard’, one who looks the same (i.e. a bastard) from any side!
With excellent control over the proceedings, Simon kept bringing the focus back to the main story: the Big Bang. All the above are just interesting asides that made the main story more interesting.
During the Q&A, he said he wrote his book to tell everyone about this one big idea, so that we can appreciate it and more importantly, celebrate it. By that yardstick, what we all had was a great celebration.
Thanks for the great Show, Simon!