Simon Singh, a British popular science writer, was born in Somerset, England. I first came across his books when browsing through the mathematics section of my local bookshop, where I spotted ‘Fermat’s Last Theorem’.
Fermat’s Last Theorem
Written almost like a detective novel, I fell in love with Simon Singh’s way of writing and effortless ability to explain complex mathematics in a clear and simple way, understandable even to those with little mathematical background. Needless to say, I quickly devoured this book, gaining a deep interest and love in the art of mathematical proof and the rigour and intellect involved to turn a conjecture into a theorem.
“I have discovered a truly marvellous proof, which this margin is too narrow to contain…”
It was with these words that 17th century French mathematician Pierre de Fermat started the quest to seek out a proof to the seemingly simple theorem:
There are no three positive integers x, y and z
for which for any integer n > 2.
To me, the true beauty of this theorem is how easily understandable it is, but how intensely difficult it was to prove it, baffling the finest mathematicians for centuries, until finally it was proved by Andrew Wiles in 1994.
I highly recommend this book for those who are fascinated by mathematical proof, like me, as I feel it truly depicts the full historical journey of how such a problem was solved in a clear and engaging way. Whilst reading the book, I learnt about the work of an array of brilliant and important mathematicians which all contributed to the final proof, which Singh managed to deliver in a lighthearted and interesting manner.
The Code Book
I had been searching for a book about Cryptology for a while, so you can imagine that I was extremely excited to find that Singh had written a book on this called ‘The Code Book’, as I had greatly enjoyed reading ‘Fermat’s Last Theorem’. In this book, Singh scrolls through history, touching upon topics such as the story of Mary, Queen of Scots, Arabic cryptography, Charles Babbage, the Enigma machine, and the decryption of Linear B and other ancient writing systems. He also highlights more recent issues, such public-key cryptography and the significance of the development of quantum computers. However, to me the most fascinating part of the book was the detailed description of the Navajo Code Talkers who helped the Allies win World War II, as this was something that I had truly no idea about, but yet was so crucial towards the American cryptography during the war, especially against the Japanese. It was through this story, and others such as James Ellis, Clifford Cocks, Malcolm Williamson (supposedly were the first to develop public-key cryptography, although this did not become public knowledge until the research was declassified by the British government in 1997) and Alan Turing’s, that I was made fully aware of the secrecy surrounding achievements in cryptography and the injustice it may bring towards these individuals.
What was truly special about this book was the ingenious mixture of clear technical and mathematical explanations of a variety of different codes with the description of historical events, peppered with intriguing anecdotes of the code makers and breakers. I must say that, after reading this book, I consider cryptography one of my favourite areas in mathematics and really want to learn more about it. Once again, Singh demonstrated his unique ability to make a rather complex topic understandable as well as entertaining, making this book another ‘must read’ for any budding mathematician.
(Side Note: On a trip to the University of Southampton, I was surprised, but delighted to see this book displayed in the mathematics admissions tutor’s bookshelf!)
I have only read two of his five books, but having absolutely loved them I am keen to read his others.
Do you have any special recommendations on which I should purchase next? M x