Author Archives: Simon Singh

Prince Monolulu

This is a rather odd post – nothing to do with mathematics or physics – about the amazing racing tipster Prince Monolulu, a man who has interested me for the last couple of years. Someone ought to write a book about Prince Monolulu, but in the meantime the sports journalist Dave Bromage has written this short piece on the anniversary of his death, Valentine’s Day.
(Prince Monolulu on Derby Day, 1954.)

IF you’ve been lucky enough to be given a box of chocolates for Valentine’s Day, spare a thought for Prince Monolulu, who died on this day in 1965.

Despite being a sport with many colourful characters, horse racing has never seen a character quite as colourful as famous tipster Monolulu.

He passed himself off as the son of a chieftain of a tribe in Abyssinia, now Ethiopia – his bright clothes, including an embroidered silk jacket, baggy pantaloons and plumed head-dress, making him stand out from the crowd at race meetings.

However, in reality, he was Peter McKay, son of a West Indies ship builder, and adopted his royal persona when shanghai’d on board a British ship heading for the African coast. He had hoped, wrongly, that being thought of as a tribal prince might afford him better treatment.

Arriving in England, via New York, aboard the Minnetonka in 1902, Monolulu joined forces with an Irish tipster at Epsom for the 1902 Derby. His trademark calls of “I’ve gotta horse” and “Black man for luck” attracted plenty of punters and he soon decided to go solo.

He travelled the UK and Europe, hawking quack remedies, performing in a ‘negro show’ and doing oddjobs around stables, building up important inside info, before he was held in Ruhleben internment camp for the duration of the First World War.

Returning to Blighty after hostilities ended, Monolulu rose to prominence at the 1920 Derby, tipping the 20-1 winner, Spion Kop – pocketing £8,000, a huge sum of money in those days.

He enjoyed a similar success in 1930 with Blenheim but was robbed on his way home and had to explain to his wife on his return to Camden that he had only threepence to his name.

His striking appearance and way with words saw him become a prominent figure on the racing circuit, although he was also regularly in court on charges as diverse as using bad language, disturbances at political rallies over Abyssinia and fortune telling.

However, he was always able to pay his fines and never went to jail.

His career was a rollercoaster. He met royalty and had cameos in films but was also robbed and beaten up several times.

His relationships, too, were eccentric. He claimed to have been married six times, though documentation exists only for three of those. His first wife, a Jewish girl, was allegedly taken away by Moscow police just after they had married in 1902.

Wife No2 was a German Catholic who left him and was killed in car crash soon after.

Then came another German, Elizabeth Arnold, who died in 1911, three years after their wedding.

His next two marriages dissolved, while he was also romantically linked to an Austrian governess in London in the 1950s.

Just before the 1964 Derby, Monolulu collapsed at Epsom and was taken to Middlesex Hospital, where he remained for several months.

Then, on February 14 the following year, he was visited by famous journalist – and even more famous drinker – Jeffrey Bernard.

Bernard had brought his interviewee a box of Black Magic chocolates – but the potential political incorrectness of the gift was the least of its problems. For Monolulu choked to death on a strawberry cream – an extraordinary way to go for an extraordinary racing personality.

So bear in mind the fate of this remarkable, self-styled Ethiopian prince today, and chew carefully.

To Anyone Who Speaks at Science Festivals

A blog by Simon Singh & Richard Wiseman

We have been discussing the finances of science festivals for several months, between ourselves and with others, and recently we met the CEO of Cheltenham Festivals to raise our concerns. Given Philip Pullman’s recent statement on the finances of literary festivals, we thought now was a good time to publish a blog about science festivals in general and the Cheltenham Science Festival in particular. While Philip Pullman has highlighted the lack of payment for authors, our main concern is high ticket prices, but the two problems are both clearly related.

In the past we have been very supportive of The Cheltenham Science Festival, and we have spoken at the festival several times.  However, we are now increasingly concerned about the financial model underpinning the Festival.

Tickets for many talks and events now cost in the region of £8-£10 (plus the £3 online booking fee). A quick look at last year’s weekend lectures show that only a small fraction of events were less than £8 per ticket.

Given that the biggest Festival venue has 650 seats and three others have about 300 seats, many events generate large sums of money. In addition, there is revenue from festival and event sponsorship, and some percentage from book sales (always sold at full price).  Moreover, the festival benefits from a large team of unpaid volunteers, and speakers who are paid just a nominal fee of £100.

We appreciate that there are costs associated with running a festival, but none of these justify such high ticket prices.  A festival that was started to promote science seems to have re-invented itself as big business, taking advantage of both speakers and audiences. By comparison, the Cambridge Festival offers dozens of high quality events, and the overwhelming majority are entirely free.

With 40 years’ experience between us of giving public science talks, it strikes us that the Cheltenham  Science Festival is being run in a hugely inefficient manner. Our feeling is that something needs to change. With a new director in place, there is a real opportunity for a new way forward. Our proposal is that no event should  that cost more than £7 (£5 concession), and that the majority of events should be £5 (£4 concession) or less.

It would also help if the Festival bookshop stopped exploiting people and offered discounts of at least 10% discount to ticket holders.

This would mean that events are more accessible and audiences are not over-charged. We met with the CEO of Cheltenham Festivals, Louise Emerson, in December, in order to raise our concerns and discuss our proposals. Her view seems to be that it is necessary to charge such high ticket prices in order to break even, but we are hoping that she will review the situation.

If the Cheltenham Science Festival retains its current model, then audiences might think twice about supporting expensive events and sponsors should consider backing out from events that take advantage of the goodwill of speakers and audiences.

If we are approached to speak next year, and if prices remain high and books are not discounted, then our approach will be as follows:

(1) we will negotiate our ticket prices down to £7, or we will not participate. One of us succeeded in 2014 in reducing our ticket price from £12 down to £7, and we know that in 2015 at least one speaker persuaded the Festival to reduce tickets from £10 to £7. There is absolutely no reason why the public should be charged more than £7 to watch a talk that they could attend elsewhere at half the price or for free.

(2) we will encourage the audience to buy books in advance and sign them at the end of the lecture.  In 2014, one of us offered to sign event tickets that could be pasted into books bought later at a discount online shop, such as (which supports local independent book shops).

If you speak at science festivals for free or for a nominal fee, then we would encourage you to follow our perfectly reasonable approach. If you allow the Cheltenham Science Festival (or, indeed, other festivals) to charge £8 or more for your event, then the public will be losing out, and so will you, as there will be more empty seats. On the other hand, if you stand your ground and ask for reduced ticket prices, then it is very likely that expensive science festivals will very rapidly realise that they have a responsibility to make their events more accessible. Our goal is that Cheltenham can evolve and lead by example, creating a new model that other science festivals will follow.

The message is simple. If speakers are being a paid a nominal fee of £100 and sponsors are subsidising events, then there is no reason why the public should be paying excessive prices for tickets.

(Update – the original article stated that only 4 out of 32 weekend events cost less than £8 per ticket. This figure has been hard to pin down, but it is clear that only a small fraction of lectures cost less than £8 per ticket.)

By Simon Singh & Richard Wiseman

Paradox: 1 – 1/2 + 1/3 – 1/4 + . . . = 0

SKY POLICE, The Simpsons, March 2015 - TM and copyright Twentieth Century Fox

SKY POLICE, The Simpsons, March 2015 – TM and copyright Twentieth Century Fox

The screen grab above was taken from “Sky Police”, which aired in America in March. It is a really great episode with lots of great lines, but from a mathematical point of view the screen grab above stands out. The last line appears to conclude that:

1 – 1/2 + 1/3 – 1/4 + … = 0

Before explaining how something can be equal to nothing, let me know explain how this bit of mathematics cropped up in the episode.

In order to raise funds to rebuild the church, Apu teaches the congregation to card count; a strategy that allows a player to beat the casino at blackjack. When there are concerns about gambling in the name of religion, Apu replies that card counting is “math”, not gambling.

It should be no surprise that Apu knows about the mathematics of card counting, because I explained in “The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets” that the episode “Much Apu About Nothing” reveals that Apu studied at CalTech. Of course, in this case, CalTech is not the California Institute of Technology, but rather the Calcutta Institute of Technology.

However, in “Sky Police” we learn that Apu attended MIT… the Mumbai Institute of Tantric Sex. That is where he learned to card count (something I have experimented with and written about in the past – “24 Hours in Vegas, or Debt in Venice”). Apu won enough money at blackjack to be able to attend the more famous MIT, the one in America. indeed, we see the blackboard during a brief MIT flashback. I have labelled the lines on the blackboard in order to help explain how an apparently logical series of steps can prove:

1 – 1/2 + 1/3 – 1/4 + … = 0.

Line A – You might be thrown by opening line, which suggests that summation A1 equals summation A2. However, if you write out the terms then you will see that they are equivalent:

A1 = 1/1 + 1/2 +  1/3 + 1/4 + …

A2 = (1/1 + 1/2) + (1/3 + 1/4) + …

And a bit of shuffling shows that A2 and A3 are equivalent.

Lines B & C & D are fairly straightforward.

If A1 equals the two terms in line D, then we can cancel the summations of 1/x from both sides, which implies that the second term in line D equals zero.

Line E rearranges that second term, which still equals zero.

Line F shows the terms in the summation in line E, which still equals zero. And that is why:

1 – 1/2 + 1/3 – 1/4 + … = 0.

Obviously, there is a flaw in the mathematics. Can you spot it?


J. Stewart Burns, who suggested this paradox for the show, explained: “The issue of course is that the initial series is divergent.  Effectively, the stuff before the word “So” boils down to infinity = infinity + something.  From which I incorrectly deduce that something equals nothing.”

The sum of 1/n for n running from 1 to infinity is known as the sum of the harmonic series. As the terms diminish as n tends to infinity, it is not unreasonable to think that the sum might be finite, but there is a neat proof that shows that the sum is infinite. in fact, the proof is super neat and well worth a look.

The proof can be found at PLUS, or there is a video explanation at the Khan Academy, or another video at TANTON mathematics (but I should warn you that this last video leaves you with another paradox).


Another example of Euler’s Identity

Euler’s Identity appeared in the episodes “MoneyBART” and “Treehouse of Horror VI”, and I included both of them in my book. However, here is one more example of Euler’s Identity in The Simpsons, this time from the episode “Pranks and Greens” (2009).

When Bart learns about the ultimate school prankster, Millhouse imagines the ultimate prankster’s best buddy, who wears the equation on his T-shirt.

Pranks and Greens - Eulers Identity 1

LHC and the Big Bang

LHC and the Big Bang

Having just returning to civilisation after watching the eclipse on the Faroe Islands I was suddenly reminded that the revamped LHC is about to be fired up. I tweeted the first LHC story that crossed my twitter feed, without even reading it. The article was ” Big Bang theory could be debunked by Large Hadron Collider“, by Sarah Knapton, the science editor at the Telegraph. I don’t know Sarah and don’t know anything about her science background. The headline was sensationalist, but when you work in journalism you soon learn that the headline writers are paid to cherry pick and then add a bit of hyperbole on top.

So, why I am blogging about this article and my tweet. Well, it is all because the reaction on twitter to this story was rather hostile. When I RTed a comment about Fred Hoyle being amused by the article, there were a couple more negative tweets. Some suggested that I should not be spreading such nonsense.

My opinion is that I don’t feel very strongly about this article, and I am surprised others are so outraged. This article is not going to win any prizes, but neither is it particularly terrible. As a positive, it might encourage a few non-physicists to become interested in the LHC restart. (N.B. That does not mean that I encourage exaggeration in order to generate interest in science.)

I did not respond on twitter as these issues are not simple and I did not want to get drawn into a long discussion limited to just a few words. Instead, I contacted someone who is actively researching this area and asked his opinion on the article. I have quoted him below, but he also made two additional comments. (1) The scientists in the article may have credited colleagues in the interview, but these credits might not have been included in the article. (2) He did not want be named as he was not impressed by the tone of the twitter discussion.

Anyway, here is the view of a researcher close to this topic:

You can read about rainbow gravity in Scientific American. As you can see, it is really an idea which might remove any singularity from the big bang, but of course everyone believes that some form of quantum gravity must intervene to prevent that in any case. Inflation is the conventional way of starting a big bang these days and that does not require a singularity either. Removing the singularity in no way debunks the big bang. You will also note that Smolin says in as many words that the authors have not really got to grips with the idea. (In fact, rainbow gravity has never been mentioned by theorists as a serious idea in my presence.)

When Dr Faizal says “we predict” he really means, “this was all predicted by smart people 15 years ago or more”. So all the stuff in the article below the picture is correct, but nothing to do with him. His new idea is to use rainbow gravity (speculative and not his idea) to make a prediction of the energy scale relevant to extra dimensions (also speculative). He then goes off into wilder shores of speculation by extrapolating to the early universe. In particular his quote “If we do detect mini black holes at this energy, then we will know that both gravity’s rainbow and extra dimensions are correct” is absolute rubbish.

As far as the LHC goes, none of this is novel. We started looking at mini-black-hole scenarios more than a decade ago when the ADD model brought extra space dimensions up to date and suggested that they could be observed via strong gravity effects. Observing a black hole at the LHC would prove that gravity is stronger at small scales, but nothing more than that. It could be that we just don’t understand gravity, or it could be that we are seeing extra space dimensions – you would need to make the measurements to try to find out. Even if we established the presence of extra dimensions, they would be relatively large ones (about the inverse TeV) and so nothing to do with string theory dimensions.

So I think you can conclude that the Big Bang theory is safe and well….

Me – yes, me – a hero for Science Week

Last week, Liz H. sent me this email, which made me smile.

“My 7 year old chose you as his science hero for Science Week. Here he is dressed as you, complete with his own homemade model of an Enigma machine!”

Thanks to Felix for making my day, and kudos to his sister Phoebe, who is dressed as Ada Lovelace.

Felix as Simon Singh Phoebe as Ada Lovelace (medium)

Read the homeopathy article that the Hindustan Times would not publish

Six months ago, the Hindustan Times (one of India’s biggest selling newspapers) asked me to write an article about homeopathy. I was busy and suggested delaying it to coincide with my trip to the Jaipur Literary Festival, which took place last week.

When I finally submitted the article to the Hindustan Times in early January, I was surprised that the person who commissioned article was unhappy with my use of the words bunkum, quackery and pseudoscience in relation to homeopathy. She went on to write: “While we agree that it is important to debunk myths about alternative medicine, we would also like to avoid lawsuits!

I tried to point out that there was nothing wrong with the article, but she replied: “This may spiral out of control, considering the wide reach of the magazine. We would much rather be cautious, that’s all.” In the next email, she wrote: “We do not want to indulge in name-calling in the magazine. Using pejorative words doesn’t help in building up an argument – and removing the aforementioned words will not change the nature of the article at all! And if we carry the piece, I’m afraid, I must insist on certain words to be removed.

It is not my finest piece of writing, and it does not say anything that has not been said before, but I find it shocking that the Hindustan Times is so reluctant to offend anyone. Or maybe I am being unreasonable?

You can decide for yourself, as the article that I submitted is pasted below. If the HIndustan Times would like to shed any further light on their decision then I would be happy to include its response in full and uncensored.


Whenever I return to India, I am always unpleasantly surprised at the popularity of homeopathy. I hear of senior political figures endorsing this quackery. I read that PM Narendra Modi has appointed a minister whose portfolio includes homeopathy. And I see that Bollywood stars endorse this pseudoscience.

Perhaps I should not be so surprised, after all the situation is very similar in London, where I currently live. We have several senior politicians in the House of Commons who believe in the power homeopathy, we have a National Health Service that wastes money on these pointless pills and we also have celebrities who endorse the biggest joke in medicine.

So, how did this peculiar form of medicine (which believes in the ridiculous notion of diluting ingredients to the point of non-existence) become so popular in both Europe and India?

Homeopathy was invented in Germany in the late 1700s, and soon became popular among the gentry in Paris and London. In 1829, Dr Martin Honigberger, a Transylvanian physician, brought it to India when he joined the court of Maharajah Ranjit Singh. The idea then spread rapidly, prospering largely because it was perceived as being in opposition to the imperialist medicine practised by the British. Attitudes towards British medicine were so negative that vaccination programmes failed dismally in the mid-nineteenth century.

Moreover, Indians who wanted to pursue a career in conventional medicine often encountered prejudice when they attempted to join the Indian Medical Service, so a more realistic career option was to train to be a homeopathic practitioner. It was also felt that homeopathy and the Ayurvedic system of medicine could work together in harmony.

As the decades passed, tens of millions of Indians came to rely on homeopathy for their healthcare, and this European invention is now firmly embedded in the Indian culture of healthcare. And, back in Europe, homeopathy still remains popular in Britain, France and Germany.

Given its long history and global popularity, what makes me so sure that homeopathy is bunkum?

Homeopaths will tell you that they have plenty of happy patients. Even more impressively, a study of 6,500 patients at the Bristol Homeopathic Hospital over six years concluded that 70% of them showed clinical improvements following homeopathic treatment. However, there are many reasons beyond homeopathy that might explain why these patients reported that they felt better, including the body’s own healing abilities, conventional medicine and the placebo effect.

In order to set aside the issue of the placebo effect, homeopaths will often cite how pets and babies seem to get better after taking homeopathic remedies. They argue that pets and babies have no expectations and so cannot exhibit placebo responses. However, both pets and babies may react positively to the loving care of their owners or parents, and we should not underestimate the temporary effect of a shot of sugar, particularly on a baby who is teething. On top of this, those who report apparent improvements are not unbiased observers, but presumably believers in homeopathy who want their loved ones to get better.

Homeopaths will often state that some conventional doctors prescribe homeopathy. Some do, but many do not. In fact, the overwhelming majority of real doctors think homeopathy is pseudoscience. After all, homeopaths typically dilute their remedies until they contain no actual ingredients. Even though zero was invented in India, I suspect that most Indians would spurn the ridiculous notion of pills containing zero.

Of course, the ultimate factor in deciding whether or not homeopathy works is putting it to the scientific test. The bad news is that after 200 years and after more than 200 clinical trials, there is no good evidence that homeopathy works for any condition whatsoever.

Last year, Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council reviewed the evidence for homeopathy in relation to 61 health conditions and concluded that “…the evidence from research in humans does not show that homeopathy is effective for treating the range of health conditions considered.” It was the latest in a long line of such damning assessments.

Without doubt, conventional medicine is far from perfect, and I could write an entire article pointing out its many flaws. However, compared to the quackery of homeopathy, conventional medicine is positively miraculous. Indeed, many readers of this article would not be alive if it were not for vaccinations and antibiotics alone. When we are ill, we need to turn to treatments that have been shown to work. This does not just mean pharmaceuticals, but also nutrition, exercise and counseling and other so-called evidence-based medicines.

Those politicians and celebrities who have more money than sense will no doubt continue to rely on homeopathic pills, but the rest of us should be smarter and spurn it.

Visiting the Chattri in Sussex

At the start of the year, me, Mrs Singh and Hari Singh visited the Chattri, “a memorial built to honour the Indian dead of the First World War. It stands on the Downs near Patcham at the place where Hindu and Sikh soldiers who died in Brighton war hospitals during 1914-1915 were cremated. It was unveiled by the Prince of Wales on 21st February 1921.”

Mrs Singh’s (AKA Anita Anand) book SOPHIA is about Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, who served as a nurse at one of the hospitals in Brighton, where Indian soldiers returning from the Western Front were being treated – Hindus and Sikhs who died in Brighton were cremated at the Chattri, about 5 miles north of Brighton.

There is an annual memorial service, but visitors can access the Chattri any time – it is less than a thirty minute walk across the South Downs. There is a “how to get there” page on the Chattri website, but it is not particularly clear so below is a map that shows the route across a couple of fields. From the starting point (the lower red circle), just head NNW across an open field. Once you reach the gate/style, you should soon be able to see the Chattri in the distance.

N.B. Via twitter, @jonathanhearsey pointed out: “Just keep away from the cows… they are truly vicious blighters. Pumped up on steroids, I reckon. Worse if you have a dog.”

Image of Chattri from,ditchlingbeacon/Interesting

Image of Chattri from,ditchlingbeacon/Interesting

Zorn’s Lemma

The new season of “The Simpsons” is going beyond the call of duty in terms of delivering mathematical references. The episode “Simpsorama” hid five equations inside Bender’s head, and last week’s “Bart’s New Friend” included a reference to Zorn’s lemma.

Pointed out by Ezequiel Genender @egenender – The Simpsons / Gracie Films / FOX

Pointed out by Ezequiel Genender @egenender – The Simpsons / Gracie Films / FOX

The episode (written by Judd Apatow) has not yet aired in the UK, but my understanding is that a visiting hypnotist (Sven Golly) puts Cletus into a trance and we hear him confidently stating: “Thereby proving Zorn’s lemma.”

Sven Golly snaps his fingers, breaks the trance and Cletus responds: “Dang, look at all them hobo signs.  My head bone hurts.”

Zorn’s lemma already appears in “The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets“, mentioned in a couple of jokes in Examination IV:

Joke 4
Q: What’s brown, furry, runs to the sea, and is equivalent to the axiom of choice?
A: Zorn’s lemming.

Joke 5
Q: What’s yellow and equivalent to the axiom of choice?
A: Zorn’s lemon.

Zorn’s lemma is not trivial. One of clearest explanations appears on REDDIT provided by Hydreigon92: “Formally, Zorn’s lemma states that if we have a partially ordered set P such that all completely ordered subsets have an upper bound in P, then P contains a maximal element. He proved it around 80 years ago. For an example, let P = {1,2,3,4,5} (this set is totally ordered, so it satisfies the partially ordered criterion), and we use the standard order on the natural numbers where 1 < 2 < 3 < 4 < 5. Take any arbitrary subset of these five numbers, X = {1, 3, 5}. Is there an element (a) in P such that for all x in X, x <= a? The answer is yes, where a* = 5. This a* works for all subsets X, and a* exists in P, so a* is an upper bound in P. Zorn’s Lemma tells us that this set P = {1,2,3,4,5} has a maximal element, which we know to be 5.

The episode ends with Maggie holding a flag that reads: Je Suis Charlie.”

The Simpsons / Gracie Films / FOX

The Simpsons / Gracie Films / FOX