Professor Jim Al-Khalili: ‘Physics tackled the really big questions’

Dr Jim Al-Khalili
Dr Jim Al-Khalili
Bert, a Sooty Shearwater, ended up on Brittany Ferries' Cap Finist�re as it headed from Spain to Portsmouth after being battered by Storm Aileen. Picture: Brittany Ferries

Seabird battered by storm takes refuge on Portsmouth ferry

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Professor Jim Al-Khalili is one of Britain’s most eminent scientists with numerous awards, titles and fellowships to his name.

He is also well-known for his popular science shows on Radio 4 and BBCs 2 and 4, such as episodes of Horizon as well as the documentaries Atom and The Story of Electricity.

I think people have realised that saying you’re rubbish at science or maths, is like saying I’m rubbish at reading and writing

Dr Jim Al-Khalili

And tying in neatly with the electrical theme of this year’s Portsmouth Festivities, it is one of the pioneers of the electrical world that he returns to with a talk next week – Michael Faraday And The Birth Of The Electric Machines.

Prof Al-Khalili is a professor of physics at the University of Surrey in Guildford, but he lives here in Southsea. The organisers of the festivities approached him to ask if he could do something for this year’s event. When searching for a subject, one person sprang to mind.

‘Last year,’ he explains, ‘The Royal Society in London, the oldest society in the world, celebrated the 350th anniversary of its journal, and they asked several scientists to write papers on the most important discoveries in physics.

‘They commissioned me to write a paper on Michael Faraday, and in particular a paper he published in 1832, when he gave the blueprint for the first electric motor.

‘He showed electricity and magnets can turn into each other and he did these beautiful experiments which he wrote up.

‘It’s one of the key research papers in the history of science, it’s so important.’

However, it seems that the significance of Faraday’s work is not as well known to the wider public.

‘Michael Faraday just published his work and then others took it up and thought: “Ooh we can make some money out of this”, and before you know it we’re in the age of electricity – electric motors were born.

‘I think his name his known – people will know if they know anything that he messed around with coils and magnets, but perhaps not quite appreciate just how our world has been changed because of what he did.’

And Faraday practised at a time when scientists could dabble in several different fields – chemists also claim Faraday as one of their own.

‘Well that depends who you talk to,’ laughs the professor. ‘A physicist will claim him, a chemist will claim him, but back then lines were blurred and he did so much, he was such a genius.

‘He was certainly doing a lot of chemical experiments, but I think he was,’ he pauses, ‘a scientist.

‘He was a natural philosopher, he did both.’

And although increasing specialisation has become commonplace in science down the decades, Prof Al-Khalili sees that current developments are blurring the lines once more.

‘The more we learn about the world, the more we have to dig deeper and you can’t be a jack of all trades any more, but that’s what’s interesting, things are coming full circle.

‘Some of the more exciting advances in science are bringing together lots of different disciplines, like genetics, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, those sort of areas are very multidisciplinary, with engineers, mathematicians, physicists and engineers, so we’re starting to see people with expertise across a lot of different fields.’

He’s also noticed a change in the general public perception of the sciences – with less people happy to plead ignorance.

‘Maybe 10-20 years ago people would be unapologetic about saying: “I was no good at science”, or “I was no good at maths at school”, but I think that is changing quite quickly.

‘I think people have realised that saying you’re rubbish at science or maths, is like saying I’m rubbish at reading and writing.

‘Of course, some people are happy to admit that, but by and large, it’s taboo. People are realising we do need to have some understanding of science – it’s such a technological world we live in, you can’t just say: “Oh, leave that to the boffins”.

‘And science is getting more incorporated within popular culture, there’s more science on TV, on the internet, in magazines and popular science writing, so people are exposed to more scientific ideas a lot more than they were in the past.

‘They’re realising that it’s not as scary as they thought – they don’t have to do all the heavy maths. The interest is there. Take something like Stargazing Live, on TV, how much interest that generates and the number of telescope sales that has led to – the appetite is there as long as you reassure people, and that’s the kind of thing I try to do, that you can have an interest in science without having a degree in it.’

There’s also been a change in presentation from the days of the likes of the Open University on the Beeb.

‘I think there’s a certain cache about it being a bit cooler these days then it used to be, much as we all love Magnus Pyke and Patrick Moore, they wouldn’t be going around in jeans and sunglasses.’

So, you’re the cool guys now? ‘Exactly,’ he deadpans. ‘That’s how we like to think of ourselves.’

His own interest in science came in his teens: ‘About the age of 13 I fell in love with physics, and realised that was the subject that addressed the deep questions, like how big is the universe? and so on, and because I was good at maths, I found it easy, so it followed that physics was easy.

‘I found it easier than biology and chemistry because I didn’t have to remember things like names and formulae – it was problem solving and commonsense as far as I was concerned.

‘In that sense it seemed the most fundamental of the sciences in that it tackled the really big questions, the ones that everyone is interested in, but most people don’t have the tools – they can think about it, but how can they decide if their ideas are worth anything? Studying physics to the level that I have allows me to address these things more seriously.’

It also helped shape his beliefs – he identifies as an atheist and was president of the British Humanist Association from 2013 to earlier this year.

‘Inevitably most scientists I know want to appeal to rational scientific arguments to explain the world rather than having a faith in something supernatural, something beyond what we can understand.

‘Naturally a scientist doesn’t want to say: “That can never be understood so that’s the work of a supernatural being and that’s God’s plan”. A scientist says: “I want to understand how and why this happens,” so a majority of scientists tend not to be religious.

‘There are certain areas of science which will butt up against firm religious beliefs, something like evolution theory or cosmology and the big bang, there are frictions and something always have to give, and I would say because science is always verifiable and can be tested, then your belief system has to take that into account and adjusted in light of that new evidence.’

He now splits his time between the university – researching, teaching undergrads and PHD students, and the other half, doing everything else.

And is inspiring the next generation important to him?

‘It is, and that’s another aspect of my work of that I wouldn’t want to lose. I like to keep all those balls juggling in there because I enjoy all of them.’

n The talk takes place on Wednesday, June 22 from 7.30pm at the David Russell Theatre, Portsmouth Grammar School. Adult tickets are £11. Go to portsmouthfestivities.co.uk or call (023) 9282 8282.