Professor Jim Al-Khalili

Best know for presenting the shows Atom, Science and Islam and Shock and Awe: The History of Electricity, Professor Jim Al-Khalili, OBE, has been awarded the Royal Society Michael Faraday Prize for science communication and is an Honorary Fellow of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. On Thursday 12th April he was kind enough to spend some time with us after the Edinburgh International Science Festival event Paradox: The Nine Greatest Enigmas in Science where he was launching his book of the same name.

Geek Chocolate – We only see a small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, we hear from around 20 to 20,000Hz, we relate the power or importance of objects in relation to whether they are larger or smaller than us. Are humans inherently biased in their experience of the world, and how can science expand that perspective?

Professor Jim Al-Khalili – I think humans, without any help from instruments or devices that we have concocted are very biased and limited in our sensory perception of the world, yes, that’s true, but we have overcome that because we have brains, and we’ve figured out ways to help our limited senses. So, to help our eyes, we’ve invented telescopes to see very far into space, microscopes to look into the depths of matter, all sorts of electronic equipment that goes way beyond what we could do, so I think we may have been biased in our view of our universe and our place in it, but I think we’ve overcome that with modern science.

GC – A high profile project that may be approaching results is the Large Hadron Collider’s search for the theoretical particle called the Higgs Boson. While it will certainly be a affirmation for all those who have worked on the project, from a practical point of view, other than confirming the mathematical models are right, what will that give us, and over what timescale?

JAK – The simple answer is that nobody knows. It may simply be to satisfy our curiosity about how the world works, the fundamental building blocks. Why do you climb Mount Everest? Because it’s there. It’s inherently what makes us human, to be curious about the world, and this is one of the ultimate questions that we’re asking.

But on the other hand, it may lead to something totally unexpected. Over and over again in science, we’ve made discoveries about the world that we thought would have no use whatsoever and then you realise it changes our lives, from Faraday messing around with magnets and coils and wires, to the invention of the laser. The World Wide Web was invented by CERN physicists and look how that has transformed our lives. They invented it simply as a means transferring data amongst particle physicists, and yet it’s found a practical application, so who knows.

GC – Although not an exact quote, Socrates is remembered for his words “The only true wisdom consists in knowing that you know nothing.” On the scale of wisdom, where do we sit, or does that piece of 2,500 thousand year old insight still apply to our species?

JAK – To some extent it still applies. The whole problem is that we don’t know what fraction of how much there is to know we do know. How close are we to the ultimate reality of the universe? Is it like peeling layer after layer of the onion, you discover something and it leads to another question? So far, we’re still going, we haven’t got to the bottom of it yet, we don’t know how far down we have yet to go.

GC – It’s like the Donald Rumsfeld answer?

JAK – Yeah, yeah, the Donald Rumsfeld answer, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns, yes.

GC – Is there sufficient emphasis and investment in science in this country to maintain the level of scientific and technological progress we have seen over the last half century, or is it irrelevant, if we’re already approaching a natural asymptote beyond which genuine discovery and innovation will tail off, and we can only look to improve what we already have?

JAK – Well, in terms of investment I think, so far, given the current economic climate, hasn’t suffered as much as it could have done. We are still investing in science, and scientists must maintain the pressure on politicians never to forget how important investment in science is. But in terms of running out of things to apply science to, no, that’s only going to accelerate, we may be coming to the end of our understanding of how many different elementary particles there are at the Large Hadron Collider, but in terms of inventions and innovations and technology, we’ve got a Hell of long way to go. Which is great!

GC – Science has learned how to market itself very differently from the image that I grew up with, the Open University on BBC2 in kipper ties; you’ve got high production values, expensive locations and graphics, and there have been a lot of collaborations with comedians, Dara Ó Briain on Stargazing Live or Robin Ince with Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People. When did the change start, and is this a good thing?

JAK – It is a fantastic thing. The change started, probably about ten years ago, and I’m one of the science communicators, the practicing scientists who are lucky enough to have hit it at the right time. It gradually changed from what’s called “public understanding of science,” where you’re basically “I’m the expert, I’m the boffin, I know my stuff, you just sit there and listen to me and forget my bad social skills, forget my kipper tie, I’ll just talk at you,” and it changed into “public engagement in science,” and understanding that there are different audiences, that the public want different from science, and scientists are becoming more aware that it is their responsibility to explain what they do.

There’s been a trend now, particularly in this country, towards embedding science much more into wider popular culture than it’s ever been before, so C P Snow’s famous “two cultures” lecture, the science and the arts that will never meet, we’re now seeing science becoming part of popular culture, and more and more radio and television programmes about science, and as you say, the high production values, because there is a thirst for that among the general public, and it’s is a loop that sort of feeds back into itself; they want more, we present more, and we do it better, they like to know more about it. We now lead the way in this country in science communication.

GC – Does science fiction sell discovery too easily, promising us the stars and clean limitless energy and robot servants, and if so, how do we realign expectation? Or with smartphones and global communication, are we already living in the future?

JAK – I think to some extent, yes, technology is moving so fast now, that science fiction is losing the fight to predict what the future will be like in ten years, because it’s going to be beyond even the wild expectations of science fiction writers. I don’t have an issue with science fiction, it always has an important role in helping us become futurologists, and helping us imagine what the world might be like, but at the same time, technology is changing so fast, I don’t see any dangers.

GC – Following on from that, what were your favourite science fiction stories that inspired you to take a career in physics, and do you think that sense of wonder still exists in modern books and films?

JAK – Well for me, I think what I really loved as a kid was watching the old Star Trek, the original series, so late sixties, early seventies. There was very little popular science around at that time, and so really, having decided to go into science, I really discovered, the people I was inspired by, my science heroes, I really only encountered once I had already started studying science seriously myself. Popular science writers like Carl Sagan, science fiction writers like Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, and then popular science writers in this country, people like Paul Davies, John Gribbin and, Richard Dawkins who in the early to mid eighties were an inspiration to me as a young scientist myself.

GC – As a scientist, is it sometimes difficult to watch a film or a television show without going “but you can’t do that?” Are there any violations you find particularly irksome, or are you more forgiving if you’re being entertained?

JAK – I think the latter. I think if you’re going to watch science fiction, even if it’s as silly as Doctor Who, there’s no point watching it if you’re going to try and pick holes in it, it’s too easy, so I suspend my disbelief, tongue firmly in cheek, and sit back and enjoy it for what it is. I don’t expect it to be accurate scientifically, and it doesn’t bother me as much as it does many other scientists, when it does get things wrong.

GC – Last question, and it’s the big one. In your mind, what is the next frontier of science that you would want us to reach, and what would it mean to us?

JAK – Gosh, yes, that is a big one. Of course, the important things in science will be outside of my field, things like finding a cure for cancer. Or certainly in my field, finding a solution to resolve the issue of what’s going to happen when our climate changes so dramatically. I guess mainly for me, finding a working fusion energy reactor would be something, delivering clean energy for everyone would be a holy grail, and then more theoretically, closer to home for, how the Hell does that atom exist in two places at once? Finding the resolution, a single definitive explanation for the weirdness of quantum mechanics, that would suit me.

GC – Professor Jim Al-Khalili, thank you so much.

JAK – You’re welcome.

The Edinburgh International Science Festival has recently concluded, but will return in 2013

Professor Jim Al-Khalilis’ book, Paradox: The Nine Greatest Enigmas in Science, is now available from Bantam

Special thanks to Frances Sutton on the Science Festival media team for their kind assistance in arranging the interview.



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