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Jim Al-Khalili Interview

Young Scientists Journal was fortunate to interview Jim Al-Khalili, a prominent science communicator and Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Surrey. Laura Patterson, from the King’s School YSJournal hub, went down to Surrey to talk to him about his work in physics and science communication. Jim has presented several science documentaries and radio shows for the BBC, such as The Life Scientific and Horizon.

Jim, it’s lovely to be here. My first question is, how did you originally get into physics?

Well, I got into physics because I had to do physics at school! I guess that’s the technically correct answer. Round about the age of 13 I think I sort of fell in love with the subject. So, I grew up in Iraq and during the summer there we would sleep on the roof and i remember laying on the roof looking through the mosquito net at the stars, shooting stars and just thinking, do the stars go on forever? Or, is the universe infinite? Just the usual sorts of things that people think about! Then around about the age of 13 I did a physics test at school and I did really well in it, better than all my other friends who were also smart and top of the class, and I thought ‘oh, I’m quite good at this stuff.” It turns out physics is just common sense and a bit of puzzle-solving, which I enjoyed – the maths – and it addresses the really big questions that I wanted to answer. So at that point, that was it – I wanted to be a physicist. I wanted to be a professional footballer, of course, and a rockstar, and a brain surgeon but I sort of knew deep down in my heart I was going to go on and be a physicist.

 

Throughout your experience as a presenter and communicator in science what have you found that gets people interested in science?

Well I think a lot of people are interested in science and they’ll just realise it. They’ll say “if only that bit of chemistry or biology or physics had been explained to that way at school, I would have stayed interested in science!” So people are genuinely and naturally curious about the world and about the universe. Yes, there are certain things, whether it be time travel or black holes or the Higgs-Boson or stuff in astronomy or genetics, that get people excited. But actually, most people, I think are genuinely curious about the world. You just have to find the right language, to put it in the right way, for someone to say “Oh, I see! I understand it now!” Science is difficult, but just giving people the idea that some of this stuff is really interesting – I think people are naturally already interested.

 

So when you were younger was there anyone who really saw as an inspiration, or who was your favourite physicist?

I didn’t have that! Even in the UK there weren’t those who really inspired. There were scientists in my generation who wrote popular science books or were on TV, like Carl Sagan, the american astrophysicist, James Burke, who presented science documentaries in the UK, then other people like Patrick Moore who was the astronomer who presented Sky at Night which is obviously still going. But remember I grew up in Iraq, the only english programs I watched on TV were re-runs of Top of the Pops, Match of the Day and a few soaps. I watched Star Trek and I have to say, as a kid in the late 60s early 70s, I loved the original Stark Trek, so if anything was going to inspire me about science, physics and the universe, it would have been fiction.

 

As you’ve become more involved in science communication do you find that you have less time to spend on research? Is that something that concerns you?

Inevitably yes, but the way I look at is, once you get to my stage in career and you’ve reached middle-age and you’re a senior professor, even if I wasn’t doing TV and radio and writing books, I’d be tied up with more and more administrative and managerial responsibilities in the university anyway. Being head of department is luckily something that I’ve managed to avoid! Other colleagues my age also find it difficult to get involved in research, so I think it is inevitable that the stuff I used to spend a lot of time doing, my PhD students are doing now and they go away and solve equations or write computer codes. So I do my research through my research assistants and PhD students. But yes it is a worry. I’m constantly trying to keep this balance between my life as an academic physicist and life as a public scientist.

 

Following up on that, could you tell me a bit about the research you’re doing at the moment?

My research on the whole has been concerned with theoretical physics and using quantum mechanics, so its a lot of maths and writing computer programs to calculate various things and plotting graphs to compare them with experiments. Nuclear physics has been my specialism, so almost all the papers that I’ve published in my career have been on my research nuclear physics trying to understand the structure of atomic nuclei by studying how they collide in accelerators, and trying to figure out how the protons and neutrons arrange themselves in the nucleus according to rules of quantum mechanics. Recently, I’ve got more involved with how quantum mechanics applies to biology, which is a new departure for me as it is for everyone because its a new area of research. I find it incredibly exciting that quantum mechanics might play a role inside living cells! It’s meant that I have had to learn new areas of science. I now realise that biochemistry is the hardest topic in the whole of science. Quantum mechanics is easy by comparison.

 

What do you prefer more, researching science or communicating it?

Ah, good question! It depends on what I’m doing. If I’ve spent weeks teaching, writing exam questions, meeting my students to discuss research, I tend to think ‘it would be great to get out and do a shoot, record a documentary for BBC Radio 4, travel a bit, have a bit of a laugh.’ The people I work with are directors and cameramen who I get on with really well, and its fun. But then when I’m on a shoot and it’s long days (13 or 14 hours), lots of standing around, saying my lines and doing those things, I start thinking ‘I want to be back at the university, I want to be doing my research, I want to find out if my student solved that equation!’ So, the grass is always greener…! But it’s nice because it means I have a nice variety. I guess what I really enjoy doing most is writing, because I’m then in charge, completely. Shutting myself away and finding a way of explaining something as simply as possible, it’s nice. I don’t have to worry about marking papers or saying the right words into a camera – it’s just getting my thoughts down.

 

Do you find the time to be able to write books?

Yes, I organise my time very well – I’m very good at time at organising and management! This week I will have had 3 days of filming, making a new documentary. I have met all my students, I’ve moderated a couple of exam papers for colleagues (which have been set for undergraduate students) and I’ve been editing a ladybird book on quantum mechanics. I’ve also got feedback on another book that comes out in a couple of weeks on aliens and I’m also waiting to hear back from my publishers for the first draft of my science fiction novel that I’ve just finished, which I finished over the summer. So I’ve got lots of balls in the air, it’s just a case of juggling them! I don’t waste time, put it that way!

 

Could you tell us a little bit more about what you’re working on at the moment?

I’ll tell you a bit about the science documentary because I’ve been filming it this week. The working title is ‘Gravity’ – not the movie with Sandra Bullock but it’s all about starting from Galileo and Newton, all the way to Einstein and asking ‘what is gravity?.’ Is it a force, is it curvature of space-time? What’s nice is, this is a ninety minute feature documentary, so not just half an hour or an hour. So, this week we were filming us attempting to repeat Galileo’s experiments, like rolling balls down inclined slopes. It sounds quite simple but back then he was trying to show that falling objects accelerate, they don’t just fall at a constant speed. To do this we had a mock-up of his experiment, which was fun. The really exciting thing about the program, which I’m really excited about because it was my suggestion, is that we’ve developed a phone app that measures your time slows down according to relativity theory. It compares your clock with you location (using your phone’s GPS) to a hypothetical clock out in space away from Earth’s gravity – how much slower is your time running? Because it will be running slower due to us sitting in Earth’s gravity (according to Einstein’s theory of relativity, gravity time slows down) and its running slower due to your motion. So even though we’re just sitting, the Earth is spinning. The app will tell you how much your time has slowed down, by milliseconds. We’re almost at the stage of releasing this on Android and on iPhone and having everyone check their times – and then we’re going to check everyone’s times and create a gravity map of Great Britain!

 

Is there a prejudice against people involved in science communication within the academic community? If so, why?

There certainly was, especially when I first started science communication over 20 years ago. I was very active in my research, going to lectures and publishing papers. I was doing everything a young academic would do to build up their reputation to become professor. I then started to get involved in science communication. A lot of my colleagues said, “Jim don’t waste time going to give school talks or writing that newspaper article or writing to that journalist or that TV Interview.” I was active, building a reputation in this field and that’s what they thought i should concentrate on. I just sort of ignored that! I said, ‘well, why can’t I do both!?’ Why can’t I carry on being a research scientists and a communicator. At the time that wasn’t really the thing that was done. People who have done that sort of thing have stopped being researchers. So Richard Dawkins, for example, was an incredibly smart geneticist at Oxford and he decided to write popular science books. He wrote so brilliantly on those books that he stopped doing research. He’s not really a scientist anymore, he’s almost more of a journalist, which is an awful thing to say about someone who promotes what they do! So, it just wasn’t done! But when I started, the other people like me such as Brian Cox, Martin de Scilletoy and others – we said we wanted to do both, serious science and do the science communication. Now, it’s completely different. There are hardly any people within science, professional scientists, research scientists who don’t think what we do is important. They may not want to do it, but it’s acknowledged that telling the world what you do is as important as the research itself!

 

So yourself and Brian Cox and others who have been involved in science communication, have been really important in encouraging kids to look more closely at science, maybe study it at university – what advice would you have for those of us who want to study science at university?

Do it! Well, I can talk about science from the perspective of physics, because that’s my area. One of my jobs here at the university is that I’m the admissions Tutor for the physics department. So on open days and UCAS application days I stand up and talk to the students about why they should do physics. The thing is, in the 21st Century, studying STEM subjects is more important than ever and you hear that all the time. The government encourages people because we need more engineers, we need more scientists. So, in terms of a career option, if you want to be guaranteed an interesting career, where you’re not wondering what to do with your life – choose science at university. Many people just study science at university because it’s interesting! Most other dsicplinses, you’ll study it at university because you’re interested it even though it might not lead to a job or you choose something like medicine or law because you want a good career. But doing something like science and engineering ticks both boxes. It leads to a fulfilling, useful and valuable career but its also fun! You get to learn about black holes and about quantum mechanics or relatively. You then end up doing something that has nothing to do with black holes but is useful to society.

 

My penultimate question is: what do you think can be done to encourage more women to get into science?

Well, I think, first of all I should say that if this were an easy problem to solve we would have done it by now! We sort of know where the problems are. There are certainly still issues about gender inequality in science as in all walks of life. Physics and engineering are more of a problem than the life sciences. In biology it’s pretty much 50:50. The problem there is that once they become professional scientists and move up the ladder into academia, there are far fewer women who are professors in biology than men. In physics only 20% of our students are female and probably on 20% of physics student at A-level are female. So it’s not that we’re discriminating against them once they get to university; that imbalance has been there already and its due to with culture, with society perceiving physics, computer science or electronic engineering as boys’ subjects. That’s what has to change! There are other countries in the world where that’s a ridiculous notion! Whatever, physiological there are in the brains of girls and boys it has nothing to do with maths ability or ability to understand quantum mechanics – that’s something that society has to address. What’s sad is that I talk to other women who have become senior professors of physics and very successful ones at that, and they were at all girls schools! So all subjects were equal, so there was no stigma. I’m not advocating single-sex education but whatever it is we have to address that notion that some subjects are more suitable for boys than girls. Like I said, we know that the problem is, but to try and turn that around is easier said than done.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Well, I suppose times are changing and it’s fantastic that young scientists have access now to whatever it is that feeds your curiosity. I would have loved to have been growing up as a teenager at this time where I can be exposed to so much exciting science. So, at the risk of upsetting everyone involved in humanities, arts and social sciences, I think it’s an exiting time for teenagers to be thinking about doing science. There’s so much opportunity there and there’s so much available to inspire them! So well done you as well!

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