Category Archives: Interviews

An interview with Prof. Christopher Lintott

Prof. Christopher Lintott of Oxford University, winner of this years Kelvin Medal and Prize from the Institute of Physics and regular on the BBC’s Sky at Night agreed to answer a few questions.

Science and Popularisation

1. What first got you involved in science, and in particular astronomy?

I was a small kid who loved looking through telescopes – first of all a neighbour’s small reflector, then a larger telescope at school. I loved the idea that we could understand what’s happening in space despite being stuck on the surface of a small insignificant planet – and that there was lots left for us still to find out.

2. What was your first telescope?

The same one I have now, a 6” reflector. It’s nothing fancy – it doesn’t even have a motor – but it allows me to explore the sky. I’m a great fan of astrophotography, but I spend too much time looking at my computer as it is. When I’m observing I want the photons to be hitting my eyeballs!

3. How did you get involved in the BBC’s Sky at Night?

I’d been doing some science writing and got invited to be a guest on the show. From there, I was lucky enough to be part of the team and I gradually did more and more. I think Sky at Night’s a wonderful show, with the chance to explore so many fascinating aspects of our relationship with the Universe.

4. What is ‘Citizen Science’?

It’s a modern term for an old idea, which is that anyone can participate in the scientific process. These days, we use the term to cover the kind of projects we build on – projects which allows professional astronomers and volunteers together to comb through the vast stores of data which modern surveys produce.

5. Which medium do you think is the most effective at popularising science?

It depends what you’re trying to do, but one of the things that I think we need to remember is that we can’t rely on people choosing to seek out scientific content. A large proportion of the public have been put off science through experiences at school, or through a lack of confidence, and we need to find ways to reach them. In the old days, that meant big budget TV shows, but now that audience is fragmenting we need to find new ways for people to stumble across science. As an example, the Adler Planetarium in Chicago runs a Telescopes in the City program in which they take scopes (and astronomers) to random locations, surprising people with the sky. I think that kind of experience can be life-changing.

6. What, in your opinion, should be the ultimate goal of science popularisation?

I’m not sure it’s an ultimate goal, but there are lots of people who I believe would enjoy following science as it happens, and maybe even participating. I want that crowd to feel like they’re part of the journey, rather than just consumers of pre-packaged scientific results. We just reported on the New Horizons encounter with Pluto, which threw up all sorts of wonderful surprises. Someone said to me that they hadn’t realised that scientists smile when they say they don’t know something – I’d like more people to participate in the joy of not knowing.


1. Can you say a few words about your research?

These days I’m interested in galaxies – in particular, we’re trying to find out why some galaxies form stars and why some appear to have shut down. Most of this work is done with the wonderful data provided by Galaxy Zoo volunteers.

2. Which one of your papers are you most proud of, and why?

The discovery paper for the Voorwerp – I had to learn a lot to write it, and we had the most tremendous battles with the referee, but it came out well in the end. Plus it’s about a wonderful object, and consisted of what I thought astronomers did when I was a kid. Find an interesting object, and point telescopes at it until you know what it is…

Chris Lintott’s homepage at Oxford
BBC Sky at Night

Quantum Life: How Physics Can Revolutionise Biology.

Prof. Jim Al-Khalili, an expert on nuclear physics, spoke at the Royal Institution about the role of quantum physics in biology. The video is embedded below.


I know that Prof. Al-Khalili is working on the interface of quantum mechanics and biology.

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 tunneling. In fact, this whole area is the subject of my next book that I am currently working on.

From An interview with Jim Al-Khalili

An interview with Dr Paul G. Abel


Dr Paul G. Abel is a British astronomer, mathematician and writer. He is now a regular face on the BBC’s The Sky at Night.

Paul has written for many popular astronomy magazines promoting amateur astronomy and the science that amateurs can contribute to the field.

He agreed to answer a few question I had.

Science and Popularisation

What first got you involved in science, and in particular astronomy?

It was a combination of things actually. In 1989 Voyager 2 got to Neptune and sent back some wonderful pictures of this blue planet. This was also the first time I encountered Patrick Moore. He was obviously different from the toher scientists who spoke- his words conveyed such a passion for astronomy, and even with the results of the great Voyager 2 spacecraft, he emphasized the good work amateurs could do. So, I started reading his books and watching The Sky at Night. I got a small telescope and I remember the first thing I saw was Saturn. The sight of this magnificent alien world, with its surreal looking ring system and family of moons hooked me. From that moment onwards, I knew I would never do anything else but astronomy.

What was your first telescope?

My first ‘proper’ telescope was a wonderful Russian thing- a Tal-1 Mizar 4.5 inch Newtonian reflector on equatorial mount. Looking back on it now, it was like being given the keys to your first low powered spaceship. I observed all of the planets I could, and sought out many of the objects on the Messier catalogue. I also made my own star charts and became reasonably familiar with the constellations which populate the UK night skies.

How did you get involved in the BBC’s Sky at Night?

Quite by chance- indeed I had no plans to do tv at all! It was all Patrick’s idea. He had asked if I had wanted to do one (I had been in correspondence with him since the age of 12). But I had declined. So he organized one without me I was going to be in it- until I arrived on the day!!! It was the event a few years ago now when four of Saturn’s moons passed in front of the planet. Both Patrick and our producer Jane fletcher thought I was OK and I joined the team as a co-presenter.

What is your favorite astronomical object, and why?

It’s what ever I’m looking at- yes I am that fickle! To be honest, it is only the Moon and planets which interest me as an amateur astronomer. I am a visual observer so I don’t image, I make coloured drawings of what I have observed. Indeed, it was the art of visual observing, and keeping good astronomical log books which Patrick taught me to do, and he himself was taught this by the wonderful astronomer W. S Franks. I do wonder how many hours I have spent at the eyepiece of a telescope, and I have quite a few log books now with drawings and observations of the Moon and planets.

Which medium do you think is the most effective at popularising science?

I don’t think it is the medium, I think it is the person doing the communicating. If you have a passion for astronomy and science, you can convey it anyway open to you!

What, in your opinion, should be the ultimate goal of science popularisation?

I think it should be two-fold. First it should re-familiarise people with why science is a wonderful thing, why objective rational thought and the scientific method has improved all of our lives. Not only do we have it to thank for giving us the technology of our civilization but it has allowed to tame the dark, we no longer burn witches for example! As Carl Sagan once rightly pointed out, science is the candle in the darkness. The second thing it can do is encourage people who want to make a contribution in their own way. Amateur astronomy is a thriving subject in this country, and I would hope that people feel compelled to do more than just point there telescope at some of the wonderful objects in the Universe, they might start to make their own systematic observations and contribute to the wonderful scientific work amateur organizations like the British Astronomical Association have been doing for over a 100 years. In short: get involved!!!!


Can you say a few words about your research? (GR, Hawking radiation and semi-classical gravity?)

Indeed. My research is concerned with using a quantum Langevin approach to Hawking radiation. I am also interested in the Unruh effect. The Davies-Fulling-Unruh effect (to give it its fall name!) is the idea that constantly accelerating observers in Minkowski (flat) spacetime see a thermal spectrum of particle in an area of spacetime called the Rindler wedge. I think it is clear that recent work has showed that although energy from say a harmonic oscillator on such a trajectory would radiate, that energy would be absorbed by the field so overall there is no energy flux. This has applications to Hawking radiation.

Which one of your papers are you most proud of, and why?

I believe I have yet to write this paper! Who wants their greatest work to be behind them?!

In your opinion, what is the biggest stumbling block to finding a quantum theory of gravity?

Well perhaps the greatest stumbling block is ourselves. At present there are two approaches, one is the approach adopted by String theory which is, in essence to describe the basic particles of matter in terms of 1D energy filaments- strings. A big part of String theory is super-symmetry the evidence for which is in-direct. In order for a theory to have physical significance it must be testable. Alas many of the predictions for string theory require energies far greater than human being can produce here at this time.

The other candidate is Loop Quantum Gravity which seeks to use general relativity and quantum mechanics but again this approach has many problems and at the time of writing, LQG is not testable either.

For me personally, I don’t think either String Theory or Loop Quantum Gravity is radical enough. They doesn’t feel like they are presenting a radical shift in fundamental philosophy what we got when Newtonian gravity moved over for General Relativity. Of course it may be that the answer to the problem of a quantum description of gravity does not need such a profound rethink, but until either of these theories can provide experimental evidence to support their claims, I would regard them as nice excursions into mathematics. Physics, should be testable. It may be the case that it takes another ‘Einstein’ to shake up our views of space, time and matter and point us in a new direction

About Paul

Paul is based in the Centre for Interdisciplinary Science in the department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Leicester where he teaches Mathematics. His research is focused on black hole thermodynamics with Prof. Derek Raine.

You can find out more about Paul on his website and The Sky at Night website.


An interview with Dr Helen Czerski

Dr Helen Czerski, Physicist and oceanographer, is a well-known BBC science presenter. Her work includes the major BBC2 series ‘Orbit: Earth’s Extraordinary Journey’, broadcast in March 2012. Recently she filmed Operation Iceburg for BBC2 and is a contributor to Dara O’Briain’s Science Club.


She agreed to answer a few questions I had…

Science and Popularisation

What first got you involved in science, and in particular physics?

I don’t really feel that I ever “got involved” – it was just something I did and was interested in. I’m lucky that my parents encouraged us to experiment with the world in a non-pushy way – if I said “what happens when you do that?”, they’d just say “well, let’s try it and see”. I must have shown some specific interest in physics early on because my mum bought me a copy of “A brief history of time” when I was 10 or 11. But I was interested in all sorts of things, like dinosaurs and making stuff from clay, building treehouses, environmental issues, baking and languages. My parents just encouraged us in whatever we were interested in, and the strongest and most important message I ever got from them was “do your best”. That’s crucial – they weren’t bothered about whether we succeeded or not, but they valued trying things out. And they wanted us to be happy far more than they wanted “success”.

As time went on, I think that I chose to read a lot of popular physics books, and I knew from fairly early on that my interested tended towards the sciences. But I very consciously took every opportunity to study other things, because I felt that I’d do enough science later on.

How did you get involved in the popularisation of science? 

Well, going right back, I remember giving a talk on atomic physics to the local women’s group (which my mother was part of) when I was 17. So I suppose that counts as the first time I did anything like that. My Dad has always said that I’m a natural teacher, and when I was younger that mostly came out in the sports coaching that I did. During my PhD, I got involved in doing demonstrations during National Science and Engineering Week, and that led to other public lectures and talks. I was always happy to share my enthusiasm for science, and if that meant fun demos, so much the better!

Which medium  do you think is the most effective at popularising science?

There is no one medium, because what you say is not anywhere near as important as what your audience hears. If you say something in a format that your audience doesn’t see, it’s pointless. So the most effective medium is whatever your audience finds most convenient, and that’s different for every individual. Obviously, tv has a huge reach, but the ways that people get information are changing over time. I think that the one thing that will always be popular is seeing an enthusiastic and charismatic individual in person, and being brought into the world of the human being who is standing right in front of you. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have “science popularization” because everyone who works or uses science and technology would naturally share their knowledge of it with the people around them, and that would be the most effective way of encouraging enthusiasm for science.

What, in your opinion, should be the ultimate goal of science popularisation?

To dispense with the need for conscious science popularization. It’s not a phrase I like. I think that we need science to be part of our culture just like music, literature, art, politics and economics, and we can all have some level of natural curiosity about it. I would love everyone to appreciate science as an important and fascinating part of their world, and to be able to find out as much about it as they liked. In an ideal world, it would be valued appropriately, and it wouldn’t be necessary to “popularize” it.

What were the challenges for you  during the filming of Operation Iceberg?

Being in between two worlds. Usually, in that environment, I’m there either because I’m doing my own experiment or I’m there because I’m filming a tv programme. This time, I was halfway – slightly more on the tv side of things, and without an experiment that I was responsible for by myself. I found that very odd – it was like being the only person in the room who spoke two languages when everyone else only spoke one or the other.

We really enjoyed science club, did you enjoy making it?

The studio days for science club have been some of my favourite days this year. It really is like an inclusive club of fun people, and everyone has something interesting to contribute.

Are we going to see a lot more of you on the BBC?

I’m working on a couple of other programmes at the moment. The one I’m spending most of my time on at the moment is a BBC4 programme all about bubbles.


Can you say a few words about your research?

I study the bubbles underneath breaking waves, and how they break apart and join together in different conditions. This is important because these bubbles act as a transport mechanism between the atmosphere and the ocean, and we need to understand the small-scale mechanisms contributing to global-sized transport effects. I like it because it’s physics that happens on a scale that you can see. My lab experiment is the size of a bench, and you can really see what’s happening. I’m much more interested in phenomena that I can see directly, rather than quantum mechanical things that I can’t experience directly, or cosmological things that are far too far away ever to touch. What gets me going is “the physics in the middle”.

Which one of your papers are you most proud of, and why?

I was the first person to measure the thickness of the coating surrounding an ocean bubble in situ. All ocean bubbles are coated with a thin layer of organic material (effectively natural bubble bath), and it controls a lot of their behaviour but it’s hard to measure. You can’t take the bubble out of the water to look at it directly. I used a combination of acoustical and optical techniques to estimate the coating thickness while the bubble was still in the ocean, from a data I collected in the Pacific. I like it because it was a novel use of experimental data, and I hadn’t thought that I could make that measurement before I collected the data. It was a minor eureka moment when I realized that I could.

What are the major questions faced today in you area of research?

The biggest question is how to integrate all the many effects that work together to influence how our planet works. There are too many for any one person to be able to hold them in their head. How do we manage the data so that we can still get insights into what it means? How do we integrate all the biological, chemical, physical and geological data to test our models accurately? When data sets are too big for a human to hold them in their mind, we lose the human’s amazing ability to recognize patterns. How do we compensate for that?

Anything else?

I think that the world around us is full of physical toys – everyday things that we are completely used to, but which are each an amazing demonstration of some scientific principle. You don’t need to go to far away places or use special microscopes to see fascinating things. They’re all around you. The world would be a richer place if everyone got a bit better at looking at everyday phenomena and asking a few more questions than normal.

About Helen


Helen is a Physicist, oceanographer and broadcaster with a passion for science, sport, books, creativity, hot chocolate and investigating the interesting things in life. She currently works at the Institute for Sound and Vibration Research in Southampton, and is a science presenter for the BBC.

You can find out lots more about Helen via her website.

An interview with Jim Al-Khalili

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.


University of Surrey profile

Jim Al-Khalili’s official website