Richard Wiseman and Simon Singh: How we met

'He sawed me in half at my wedding reception, which was great fun'

Adam Jacques
Monday 29 September 2014 14:41 BST
Richard Wiseman and Simon Singh
Richard Wiseman and Simon Singh

Richard Wiseman, 48

With a PhD in psychology, Wiseman (left in picture) became Britain's first professor in the Public Understanding of Psychology, at the University of Hertfordshire. He has written several books on popular psychology, and is also known for his critical examination of paranormal and unusual phenomena. He lives in Edinburgh with his partner

When I first started working at the University of Herts, in 1992, the BBC was going to do a big experiment for National Science Week through Tomorrow's World, and it was looking for ideas. I suggested doing something on lying, and running a segment across TV, radio and print, featuring a politician making a statement, and letting the public vote on whether they thought this figure was telling the truth in each medium. Simon was director of that item, and we worked on it together.

We got on well and we stayed in contact. Not long after, he had an idea of taking our academic lectures – his maths and probability, mine psychology – and putting them in an entertainment space similar to stand-up. I thought it a terrible idea – making it our job to entertain first and putting science second – but Simon was convinced. The only way to prove him wrong was to try it. He was right.

The most memorable and dangerous stunt we did was standing in a cage between two Tesla coils, which produce a million volts between them. Each night, the audience would vote for which of us would go in the cage. If the physics was correct, the lightning would strike the cage and take the charge; if it went wrong, you'd be dead in a few seconds. It made me realise there weren't many in the world I'd trust with that.

I think his book, Fermat's Last Theorem [charting Cambridge mathematician Andrew Wiles's attempt to crack the problem], kicked off the idea of accessible science books being everywhere in bookshops: it was a huge bestseller as it had a sense of narrative, a story with adventures. He said to me, "You should do the same with psychology." He introduced me to his agent and I wrote my book, The Luck Factor. I'm in his debt for that.

Science is pretty much all we talk about. Simon and his wife Anita came up to Edinburgh recently to stay with us. When we start talking about ideas or projects, both our partners leave the room.

He's more introverted than I am, and much more serious; I'm a performer and I like to mess around a bit more. People are complicated and psychology is about looking at people through different filters, with no single answer. Physics and maths, though, are different; they're more concrete. There is an answer and it's right or wrong: I think I'm happier with ambiguity than Simon.

Simon Singh, 50

After completing a PhD in particle physics at Cambridge, Singh became a TV producer and director working on programmes including 'Tomorrow's World' and 'Horizon' before winning a Bafta for his award-winning documentary 'Fermat's Last Theorem', which was followed by his book on the same subject. He has since written on scientific matters including alternative medicine. He lives in London with his wife and son

It was in 1994 and I was working on Tomorrow's World. We were looking for a mass test we could do on air that had meaningful science. We took suggestions from scientists around the country, but Richard's was the best; he knew how to engage the public.

We stayed in touch and I went to some of his lectures. One was about illusion and how the brain misinterprets information; though it was classic psychology, he delivered it in such a funny, engaging way that I said to him after, "Instead of doing science lectures in a lecture room, why not deliver it to normal people?" So we did this show called Theatre of Science.

He used to be a street magician, so I learnt a lot of stagecraft from him: he explained how, when you need volunteers, people who put their hands up first are the worst helpers: they want to show off or upstage you.

There's a major crisis in this country over a lack of people getting into science, yet so much money is wasted on communication that fails to engage with the audience – which is why we share a deep hostility towards the science-communication industry. Once, one of the research councils funded a photographer to take pictures of eminent mathematicians; it was utterly dull and now gathers dust in a warehouse. Yet Richard sits in his lounge, makes some YouTube videos on how to fool your friends– which are genuinely scientifically interesting – and gets 200 million hits.

Magic is closely associated with scepticism; if you're going to debunk a hustler exploiting someone, understanding trickery and illusion is important, and he's been at the heart of scepticism for a long time. My writing initially was about pure science but a lot of my research now has been inspired by his desire to debunk things such as the paranormal – we both hate psychics, mediums, pseudoscience in general.

I love magic and I get a big kick out of seeing him performing tricks for my son: making rabbits appear and disappear, and seeing items levitate. He sawed me in half at my wedding reception, too, which was great fun.

I was sued for libel a few years ago [by the British Chiropractic Association] and during the first hearing I was fairly optimistic. So when the judge gave the worst ruling, it was almost a knock-out blow. But as I left court, there was Richard. We went for coffee – neither of us drink – and him being there was critical; he talked me through the disaster for an hour and by the end I felt resolved to continue. [Singh finally won his case, on appeal, last year.] It was an important moment.

'The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets', by Simon Singh, is out now in paperback (£6.99, Bloomsbury)

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