Prof Jim Al-Khalili is a well known and popular face on our televisions these days. For example, Al-Khalili presented a BBC Four, three part series called Chemistry: A Volatile History, on the history of chemistry in 2010. He is a theoretical physicist, TV broadcaster and author.
He agreed to answer a few questions I had…
Paradox: The Nine Greatest Enigmas in Physics
What made you decide to write this book?
I had been discussing with my undergraduate students one or two aspects of Einstein’s theory of relativity and we were noting how fun it was to cast some of these often counterintuitive concepts in the form of paradoxes that needed to be resolved. It occurred to me that this was a really fun way of clarifying these ideas and the challenge was then to turn them into a popular science book that was fun as well as informative.
What were the major challenges in writing a popular science book discussing perplexing issues in physics?
Actually, I don’t find it as much of a challenge as many might think. After all, this is what I feel I do best: put myself in the shoes of the reader and see if an explanation or analogy makes sense from his or her perspective. Many scientists working in these complex fields still believe that one has to ‘dumb down’ the science in order for it to be appreciated by the layperson. This makes me very cross. Scientists are not more intelligent than non-scientists – it’s just that we have had the benefit of many years learning the jargon and thinking about these concepts. But there is always a way of getting the ideas across without maths or too high a level of abstraction. So, OK, it is a challenge, but it’s one I enjoy.
What problems, if any, did you encounter writing this book?
To be honest there was just one chapter that I struggled with, and that was the one on the paradox of Maxwell’s demon. This is a problem that requires quite careful and subtle arguments that link together two seemingly quite different ideas: the concept of energy and the concept of information. It turns out that resolving this particular paradox is an ongoing debate and has spawned whole new areas of scientific research. So, I had to do a lot of homework before it was clear enough in my head to write this chapter. Fun though.
Science and Popularisation
What first got you involved in science, and in particular physics?
I knew I wanted to study physics from the age of about 13. I think it was an inspirational teacher (isn’t it always?) who got me to fall in love with the subject. It seemed like it mixed puzzle solving, common sense and answers to some of the deepest mysteries I could think of, like does the Universe go on for ever? what is a black hole? what does time really mean? Physics gave me the opportunity to ask and find answers to questions about how and why the world worked the way it did.
How did you get involved in the popularisation of science?
Gradually, and by accident. I never set out to become a populariser. I followed the traditional academic path of gaining a PhD, become a postdoctoral researcher, publishing papers, getting research grants, attending conferences. Gradually, I got involved in university teaching, while still focussed on the academic career path of ending up ultimately as a full professor. I starting giving a few talks to local school kids, I wrote a few short articles for the local paper and gave interviews about my research in quantum physics to local radio. But one thing led to another. I found I was good at public speaking and good at demystifying difficult concepts in modern physics. Pretty soon I had published my first book (Black Holes, Wormholes and Time Machines – Taylor and Francis, 1999). Today I divide my time equally between academic life and science communication. I am on my 6th book, I have made countless radio and TV documentaries and present a weekly science show on the radio in the UK, called The Life Scientific, and listened to by 2.5 million people.
Which medium do you think is the most effective at popularising science?
In the short term, I think television is the medium that has the highest profile. Successful documentaries on UK TV, such as the BBC series Horizon, regularly attract 2-3 million viewers (The UK population is 60 million so this would be equivalent to 10-15 million viewers in the US). But in the longer term, a book has much longer lifetime, and one that goes through many editions, is translated to other languages etc, can reach an even bigger audience. However, there are so many good popular science books around these days that very few really make it to best-seller status. Not everyone can write like Brian Greene of course, but there is a big element of luck too. OI think social media is also becoming a great way to reach a wide audience. I personally only have a reasonable following on Twitter (28 thousand), but there are science communicators (in UK and US with over a million followers who they can reach on a regular basis.
What, in your opinion, should be the ultimate goal of science popularisation?
To inspire the next generation, to have a more scientifically literate and informed population, to dispel ignorance, superstition and pseudoscientific nonsense, and to fulfilll humankind’s thirst for answers about who we are and what is our place in the Universe. So, pretty important, right?
Can you say a few words about your research?
My back ground is in nuclear physics where I have spent many years, modelling the atomic nuclei to try to understand their strange properties and structure. Recently I have become more interested in a new field called quantum biology, where we are gathering evidence for biological phenomena at the cellular level that seem to work according to the strange rules of quantum mechanics. My interest (and I have a great grad student working with me on this at the moment) is in modelling mathematically genetic mutations in DNA that seem to take place because of a quantum mechanism called quantum tunnelling. In fact, this whole area is the subject of my next book that I am currently working on.
Which one of your papers are you most proud of, and why?
It’s a paper in the journal Physical Review Letters from 1996, in which I calculated the size of a the nucleus of a strange isotope of the element helium, called He-6. This nucleus has two neutrons floating around the outside in what has been called a neutron halo. I was the first person to work out the true size of this nucleus and found it to be 50 per cent larger than anyone else had thought. The paper has been cited hundreds of times.
What are the major questions faced today in you area of research?
There are many of course. In my immediate area it is whether quantum mechanics really does play a role in mutations of DNA as well as other phenomena like photosynthesis, how our sense of smell works, even how some birds can navigate using the earth’s magnetic field. All very exciting if still a little speculative.
More widely, we are excitedly waiting for further results from the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, the particle accelerator that discovered the Higgs Boson earlier this year. I am also keeping an eye on the big discoveries in astronomy and cosmology. We still do not know what dark matter and dark energy really are even though we are pretty confident both seem to really exist out in deep space.
About Jim Al-Khalili
Jim Al-Khalili OBE FInstP Hon.FBAASc is an Iraqi-born British theoretical physicist, author and science communicator. He is a professor of Physics at the University of Surrey where he also holds a chair in the Public Engagement in Science. He is a vice president and trustee of the British Science Association and holds an EPSRC Senior Media Fellowship.
I reviewed his latest book, Paradox: The Nine Greatest Enigmas in Physics here.