Speech Acts

Britain’s libel laws, the harshest in the democratic world, have increasingly been deployed to suppress freedom of expression. Can a diverse new coalition of scientists and writers make the United Kin

01 November 2010
The halcyon days of English Judges in wigs: circa 1937.
The halcyon days of English Judges in wigs: circa 1937.

ITH HIS SPIKY HAIR, round-rimmed glasses and impish grin, Simon Singh looks like an older version of Harry Potter. Like the fictional wizard, Singh is curious about phenomena that cannot be easily explained; unlike Potter, he wants to test the science and make the knowledge accessible to all.

Singh is one of Britain’s outstanding science writers. Over the past two decades, through his journalism and best-selling books, Singh has shared his enthusiasm for demystifying science with a growing number of readers. Singh’s 1997 book, Fermat’s Last Theorem, was a dramatic account of the researchers who finally proved “mathematics’ hardest problem” in the 1990s, and it became the first book on maths to top the British best-seller list in 1997. In The Code Book, two years later, Singh chronicled the mysteries of cryptography, ciphers and code breaking—and explained how science helped the allies defeat the Nazis during World War II. For his third book, Big Bang, published in 2005, he turned his attention to the origins of the universe.

Singh’s trajectory into the world of science was an unusual one. Trade and business run in his family. His parents, Mehnga Singh and Swaran Kaur, migrated to the West Country, as southwestern England is known, from Phagwara in the Punjab in 1951. His father worked at first as a door-to-door trader, and later set up a clothing shop. Singh’s parents gave their children Western names (Simon’s brothers are Tom and George, his sister Christine) because, he says, “No one out there in those days could have pronounced an Indian name.” Tom built the family brand, New Look, which opened its first store in Taunton in 1969 and has now become a major retail chain with nearly 1,000 stores worldwide. (Last year, the Queen honoured Tom with the Order of the British Empire.)

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    Salil Tripathi lives in New York, is a contributing editor at The Caravan and writes for Mint.

    Keywords: The Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health Annabel Croft Simon Singh The Code Book Fermats last theorem Big Bang New Look Tom Singh Homeopathy Ayurveda Cherie blair Prince Charles Acupuncture England libel law British Chiropractors association Galileo Galilei BBC Punjab Guardian london