Superstar among science popularizers

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.

Doppler Effect!

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!


9 thoughts on “Superstar among science popularizers

  1. Thanks Venkat for coming here. Yes, yours is the first comment here!

    No, I haven’t read the book yet. The only book I have read is the one on Fermat’s Last Theorem. I loved that book.

  2. Hey Abi, I attended SS’s lecture here in Bom on WEd, and picked up his FLT book, and am reading it, and that prompted my post on the cicadas. His lecture here was identical in every respect to yours — the whirling beeper, Cameron Diaz, spherical bastard, everything.

    I have to say I came away slightly disappointed with his lecture. One problem was that I’ve done a fair amount of reading (and courses) on the material he went over (cosmology, the background radiation etc), and so it wasn’t overly new for me. But apart from that, I thought he skipped around a bit too much, and was a little too superficial about the concepts. I don’t think, for example, too many people in our audience would have understood his explanation of how Hubble used the Doppler shift to determine distances and speeds of galaxies.

    My impressions, of course.

    Unfortunately the same impressions are carrying over to the FLT book. It’s easy reading, and covers a lot of ground. But I don’t find it particularly well-written or organized.

    But perhaps I’m just carping. The larger point remains: I think it’s commendable the way SS is going about popularizing science and mathematics.

  3. Dilip: I am not sure where he gave the lecture in Bombay, but in Bangalore it was right here at IISc. I think this environmnent makes one expect a little bit more than he delivered. Like I said, a ‘mere’ wikipedia entry has more meat than what he packed into an hour long-lecture.

    If the talk had been given in a high school, I am sure we wouldn’t be quibbling about it. That’s how I visualize it. After all, the Doppler demonstration is hardly necessary for an audience that has had at least 8 years of post high school science! His other sneaky ‘demo’ of playing Led Zeppelin backwards was not only unnecessary, but also completely misleading, and at some level, insulting to practising scientists who still think that Big Bang is not all that it’s cracked up to be (btw, was Jayant Narlikar there?). But I am sure it was a major hit with the Bombay audience as it was with the audience here.

    Think of it as ‘real’ popularization effort that addresses high school students, and our complaints go away.

    I think it’s a similar thing about Fermat’s last theorem. It really has no real content. After all, it would be difficult to summarize at a popular level a 250 page proof! But the sense it conveys of how a few completely unconnected ideas sometimes come together give a beautiful result was appealing to me. Also, the last section, where Simon talks about the great unsolved problems in mathematics is very good. They look so beguilingly simple, and it is actually difficult to believe that they are too hard for us to solve!

  4. I have long been a fan of Simon’s writing. I haven’t read the “Big Bang” yet but “Fermat’s Last Theorem” and “The Code Boook” are very good reads.

  5. Hello,

    Dropped by through a fellow blogger. Me was at the lecture too. I think it was a brilliant presentation. Facts apart, he did a classy job at promoting his latest novel. The least he could do to keep an audience of 500+ on their toes, was to keep them excited. I think that’s exactly what he did.

    Oh and thanks for that brilliant write-up!

  6. Anon:I too like the one book that I read of Simon Singh (Fermat’s last theorem). Other books, however, will have to wait; my backlog of unread books is running too long!

    Pranjal: Thanks for coming by. You are absolutely right about Simon keeping 500+ people entertained for a full hour.

  7. Abi,

    that was good round up of the event. I was there trying to squeeze myself on a table at the end of the auditorium (and I had arrived atleast 15 minutes before the event0.. did not expect that big a crowd..

    it was a crowd pleasing performance.. definitely one that should be heard by every school kid – to generate interest in science.

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