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Simon Lehna Singh, MBE (born 1964) is a British Indian author of Punjabi background, who has specialised in writing about mathematical and scientific topics in an accessible manner. He is the youngest of three brothers, his eldest brother being Tom Singh, the founder of the UK New Look chain of stores.

His written works include Fermat's Last Theorem (in the United Statesmarker titled Fermat's Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World's Greatest Mathematical Problem), The Code Book (about cryptography and its history), Big Bang (about the Big Bang theory and the origins of the universe) and Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial (about complementary and alternative medicine).

He has also produced documentaries and works for television to accompany his books, is a trustee of NESTAmarker, the National Museum of Science and Industry and co-founded the Undergraduate Ambassadors Scheme.

In 2008, Singh was sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association for criticising their activities in a column in The Guardian. A backlash to the ongoing lawsuit has resulted in the filing of formal complaints of false advertising against more than 500 individual chiropractors within one 24 hour period, one national chiropractic organization ordering its members to take down their websites, and Nature Medicine noting that the case has gathered wide support for Singh, as well as prompting calls for the reform of English libel laws.

Biography

Singh's parents emigrated from the Punjabmarker in Indiamarker to Britainmarker in 1950. He grew up in Wellington, Somersetmarker, attending Wellington Schoolmarker, and went on to Imperial College Londonmarker, where he studied Physics. He was active in the student union, becoming President of the Royal College of Science Union. Later he completed a PhD degree in particle physics at Emmanuel College, Cambridge Universitymarker and at CERNmarker, Geneva. In 1990 he joined the BBC's Science and Features Department, where he was a producer and director working on programmes such as Tomorrow's World and Horizon.

In 1996, he directed Fermat's Last Theorem, a BAFTA award-winning documentary about the world's most notorious mathematical problem. The film was memorable for its opening shot of a middle-aged mathematician, Andrew Wiles bursting into tears as he recalled the moment when he finally realised how to resolve the fundamental error in his proof of Fermat's Last Theorem. The documentary was originally transmitted in October 1997 as an edition of the BBC Horizon series. It was also aired in America as part of the NOVA series. The Proof, as it was re-titled, was nominated for an Emmy Award.

The story of this notorious mathematical problem was also the subject of Singh's first book, Fermat's last theorem. This was the first book about mathematics to become a No 1 bestseller in the UKmarker. In 1997, he began working on his second book, The Code Book, a history of codes and codebreaking. As well as explaining the science of codes and describing the impact of cryptography on history, the book also contends that cryptography is more important today than ever before. The Code Book has resulted in a return to television for him. He presented The Science of Secrecy, a five part series for Channel 4. The stories in the series range from the cipher that sealed the fate of Mary Queen of Scots to the coded Zimmermann Telegram that changed the course of the First World War. Other programmes discuss how two great 19th century geniuses raced to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs and how modern encryption can guarantee privacy on the Internet. In October 2004, Singh published a book entitled Big Bang, which tells the history of the universe. It is told in his trademark style, by following the remarkable stories of the people who put the pieces together.

In 2003, Singh was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for services to Science, Technology and Engineering in Education and Science Communication. In the same year he was made Doctor of Letters (honoris causa) by Loughborough Universitymarker, and in 2005 was given an honorary degree in Mathematics by Southampton Universitymarker.

Currently, he is involved more in television and radio programmes, including A Further Five Numbers (BBC Radio 4, 2005).

He made headlines in 2005 when he criticised the Katie Melua song "Nine Million Bicycles" for inaccurate lyrics referring to the size of the observable universe. Singh proposed corrected lyrics, though he used the also incorrect value of 13.7 billion light years; accounting for expansion of the universe, the comoving distance to the edge of the observable universe is 46.5 billion light years. BBC Radio 4's Today programme brought Melua and Singh together in a radio studio where Melua recorded a tongue-in-cheek version of the song that had been written by Singh.

In 2006, he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Design degree by the University of the West of Englandmarker "in recognition of Simon Singh’s outstanding contribution to the public understanding of science, in particular in the promotion of science, engineering and mathematics in schools and in the building of links between universities and schools". This was followed up by his receipt of the Kelvin Medal from the Institute of Physics in 2008, for his achievements in promoting Physics to the general public. In July 2008, he was also awarded a degree of Doctor of Science (Honoris Causa) by Royal Holloway, University of Londonmarker.

Chiropractic lawsuit



On 19 April 2008, Singh wrote an article in the The Guardian, which resulted in him being sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association. When the case was first brought against him, The Guardian supported him and funded his legal advice, as well as offering to pay the BCA's legal costs in an out-of-court settlement if Singh chose to settle. The suit is ongoing, with Singh stating that he will "contest the action vigorously... There is an important issue of freedom of speech at stake."

The article developed the theme of the recently published book by Singh and Edzard Ernst, Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial, and made various statements about the usefulness of chiropractic "for such problems as ear infections and infant colic":

"You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact they still possess some quite wacky ideas.
The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything.
And even the more moderate chiropractors have ideas above their station.
The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence.
This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments."


On Thursday 7 May 2009, a preliminary hearing took place at the Royal Courts of Justicemarker in front of Mr Justice Eady. The judge held that merely using the phrase "happily promotes bogus treatments" meant that he was stating, as a matter of fact, that the British Chiropractic Association was being consciously dishonest in promoting chiropractic for treating the children's ailments in question. Singh has denied he intended any such meaning and that such an interpretation makes it very difficult for him to fight his case in court as he had planned: "If we go to trial it's almost impossible for me to defend the article, because it's something I never meant in the first place."

Singh's campaign team announced via its Facebook group on 4 June 2009 that Singh had resolved to make an appeal against Mr Justice Eady's ruling. This decision raises substantially the potential financial liability that Singh may face personally if he loses the case.

On 14 October 2009 Singh was granted leave to appeal Mr Justice Eady's decision by Lord Justice Laws. Singh responded to the judgement that it was the "best possible result" but warned that he would try not to get his hopes up: "We have only won leave to appeal. Now we must convince the Court of Appeal on the issue of meaning. There is a long battle ahead."

Some commentators have suggested this ruling could set a precedent to restrict freedom of speech to criticise alternative medicine. An editorial in Nature commented on the case, and suggested that the BCA may be trying to suppress debate and that this use of British libel law is a burden on the right to freedom of expression, which is protected by the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Wall Street Journal Europe has cited the case as an example of how British libel law "chills free speech", commenting that:

"Mr. Singh is unlikely to be the last victim of Britain's libel laws. Settling scientific and political disputes through lawsuits, though, runs counter the very principles that have made Western progress possible. 'The aim of science is not to open the door to infinite wisdom, but to set a limit to infinite error,' Bertolt Brecht wrote in The Life of Galileo... It is time British politicians restrain the law so that wisdom prevails in the land, and not errors.'... the U.S. Congress is considering a bill that would make British libel judgments unenforceable in the U.S."


The charity Sense About Science has launched a campaign to draw attention to the case. They have issued a statement entitled "The English law of libel has no place in scientific disputes about evidence", which has been signed by myriad individuals representing science, journalism, publishing, arts, humanities, entertainment, skeptics, campaign groups and law. As of Nov. 29, 2009, over 20,000 have signed. Many press sources have covered the issue.

The publicity produced by the libel action has led to formal complaints of false advertising being made against more than 500 individual chiropractors within one 24 hour period, prompting the McTimoney Chiropractic Association to write to its members advising them to remove leaflets that make claims about whiplash and colic from their practice, to be wary of new patients and telephone inquiries, and telling their members: "If you have a website, take it down NOW." and "Finally, we strongly suggest you do NOT discuss this with others, especially patients[.]"

Bibliography



References

  1. Ph.D. thesis title: "Heavy flavour physics at the CERN p=p collider" Verified at [1] require subscription, eg. university subscription, to see it)
  2. Comment is Free, The Guardian
  3. Salil Tripathi. Britain Chills Free Speech. The Wall Street Journal Europe, June 4, 2009
  4. Sign up now to keep the libel laws out of science! Sense about Science
  5. The law has no place in scientific disputes. Sense about Science
  6. The campaign at a glance
  7. Press Coverage * The Independent: Silenced, the writer who dared to say chiropractice is bogus * The Times: Review of libel law called for by comedians * The Guardian online: Science writer Simon Singh to appeal against chiropractic libel judgement * Nature news: Science writer will appeal libel case ruling * Times Higher Education: Singh plans to appeal ruling in libel case * Wall Street Journal: Britain Chills Free Speech * The Daily Telegraph online: Stephen Fry and Ricky Gervais defend science writer sued for libel * The Daily Mail online: Celebrities back writer sued by chiropractors for saying unproven treatment is 'bogus'


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