Jim Al-Khalili OBE

Prof_Jim_Al-Khalili_-_EdSciFest_2014_(10)Jim (Jameel) Al-Khalili OBE is a Physicist and broadcaster. He is Professor of Theoretical Physics and can be frequently heard or seen expounding the delights of Science in general and of Physics in particular.  He hosts “The Life Scientific” on Radio 4 and is the President of the British Humanist Association. He was born in Iraq and went to the University of Surrey (where he is now a professor) as an undergraduate. His website (www.jimal-khalili.com) contains links to a variety of interesting resources including a series of interviews he conducted with Dara O’Briain, Rowan Williams and others.

Have you always been a Physicist?
Not until I set my heart on it at the age of 16 or so. Until then I fancied myself as a potential professional footballer/pop star/brain surgeon.

What was it like growing up in Iraq?
Very happy actually. The Iraq of the 60s and 70s, for a middle class family and a very British household was very comfortable. We lived under a dictatorship, but you learned not to say anything against the government. Of course this was before Saddam Hussein came to power, when things really started to go downhill. That’s when we left.

What was the best thing about your time at school?
Being one of the ‘smart kids’ and regularly coming top of the class in tests, but still being popular with my classmates. The culture there was to celebrate success and I was never worried about being regarded as a swot.

What is the most important lesson you've learned since leaving school?
There are hundreds of important lessons one learns throughout life. And since I left school a third of a century ago, I would say I that the number of important lessons I have forgotten vastly exceeds the number I still remember. Sorry that doesn’t really answer the question.

What was the best thing about University?
Discovering that I loved learning and that I wanted to continue to learn for the rest of my life.

What was the most interesting topic you studied there?
Without doubt, quantum mechanics – the single most profound, powerful, wonderful and downright confusing scientific theory we have ever come up with. It tells us that the world of the very small (down at the scale of atoms) is a very strange place.

Is there something special that keeps bringing you back to the University of Surrey or is it just chance?
I’ve now spent more than half of my life at the University of Surrey – man and boy, as they say. I love the atmosphere there, I have good friendships with colleagues and as a place to work, I have been looked after and encouraged to pursue my passions in science, whether it is teaching, research or communicating it the wider world. So I have no complaints at all.

Which do you enjoy more: explaining science or doing science?
Great question, and there isn’t a clear answer. It depends on what I am doing. If I’ve been away filming for example, I long for being back doing my research. But I cannot imagine just doing research full time any more either.  

How does one get from a GCSE understanding of Physics to knowing what is meant by “An alternative non-relativistic optical potential parameterization for the proton-nucleus interaction”?
Glad to see my papers are still being read. That one goes back to the late 80s I believe! Well, it’s a pretty standard (but long) path one has to travel: GCSE science is followed by A-levels (in Maths and Physics and, erm, something else). I took 4 A-levels, maths, physics, chemistry and further maths – don’t ask me how I did in chemistry though. Then after A-levels it was a four year undergraduate degree, with a final year project with a very clever nuclear physicist who taught me advanced quantum mechanics and invited me to work with him for my PhD. After three years of dedicated research I had gained enough expertise and knowledge to start publishing my own research.

You have said that you will eat your boxer shorts if neutrinos turn out to move faster than the speed of light. Are there any other physical phenomena that would cause you to dine on your underwear?
Well, if any pseudoscientific ideas were proven then I’d gladly cook my socks too. Stuff like homeopathy, ESP, acupuncture, faith healing, astrology, paranormal phenomena. All nonsense and all phenomena without a shred of scientific evidence to support them, so there wouldn’t be any risk I’d lose!

Which is more important, Science or Humanism?
If you mean to me, then I’d say science. Humanism is a way of living that should come naturally to people who want to live decent, moral, ethical lives. Anyway, science is my first love.

Excellent communicators of Physics seem relatively rare (there is, at least, a deficiency of good Physics teachers) – why do you think that is?
Not sure I agree. If you look at who the science communicators out there are, whether popular science writers, broadcasters or educators, I think physics does very well. The issue is not that there are not enough good physics teachers, but rather that there are simply not enough physics teachers. But, thankfully, this is changing: more students are studying physics at university than ever before in the UK and more graduates are going into teaching, so I am confident the crisis will be over in a few years.

What do you think the key to getting the public to engage with science is?
I think it is to reassure them that it is nothing to be afraid of, and that it is OK for them not to understand all the details. You can listen to a concert without being able to read music or play and instrument, so you can appreciate the beauty of nature and the wonders of science without having to solve the equations of relativity.

What is the greatest Physics experiment that has ever been done and why is it so good?
For me it was an experiment carried out by two Americans in the early 1950s and regarded as one of the classic tests of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. Their names were Robert Pound and Glen Rebka and they proved that gravity really slows time down. Basically, they dropped atoms from the top of a tower and watched how they spat out gamma rays. I get a shiver down my spine when I talk about it to my students.

What area of Physics is going to be the most interesting over the next 30 years?
I would say the use of quantum physics in modern technologies like smart materials, nanotechnology and bio-engineering.

Do you have any ambitions left to achieve? If so, what would they be?
I want answers to some deep questions in physics, like ‘what is the true interpretation of quantum mechanics?’ and ‘what is dark matter made of?’ I doubt very much that I will find these answers myself, but I don’t mind – as long as someone does during my lifetime.