Jim Al-Khalili is a Professor of Physics and Chair in the Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey. In addition to that, he is a recipient of the Royal Society Michael Faraday medal, the Institute of Physics Kelvin Medal and honorary doctorates from several universities. Furthermore, he is an extremely popular science communicator, author and broadcaster. In this interview, we have touched on a wide range of subjects from his upbringing in Iraq to his favourite books, spoiler alert – one of them is The Feynman Lectures in Physics. It has been an absolute joy to interview Jim and we hope you enjoy reading about his adventures.
Q: What is your dinner party monologue for when someone says “and what do you do?”
A: It depends on how much information I think they need and what their background is. My stock answer is lots of things. My brief bio when introduced for example as a speaker is ‘physicist, author and broadcaster’, but the way I see myself is as an academic professor, or quantum physicist. The other stuff (the writing, TV and radio work) I see as more than just an aside of course, but it’s not what I would say is my ‘day job’ – that’s my role in the Department of Physics at the University of Surrey.
Q: Could you tell us about where you grew up; were you a rural or city dweller?
A: I was born in Baghdad in the early 60s to a British mother and Iraqi father. My father had studied engineering in the UK in the 50s, where he met my mum, then they both settled in Iraq where he became an officer in the air force. This meant that I moved around a bit during my childhood: Baghdad, then Kirkuk, then Mosul, then Baghdad again and finally a town an hour’s drive south of Baghdad called Saddat al-Hindiyyah. We finally left Iraq when Saddam came to power in 79 and settled in Portsmouth in the UK, where my mother originated from.
Q: What subject(s) did you excel at in school, and which did you find most challenging?
A: Maths and Science, obviously, were my favourites, but I also enjoyed art and music, and sport. I guess if there was a weak subject then it would be history – I didn’t like learning all those names and dates. Of course these days I absolutely love history, especially ancient history. Maybe my heritage on the Iraqi side has influenced that. After all, as a kid, I enjoyed day trips and picnics to the site of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
Q: Can you recall any reoccurring comments from your school reports?
A: Let’s just say I was a highflier and got the usual praise. Not that it made me bigheaded or anything of course.
Q: Did you ever have a eureka moment where you thought, “this is the subject I want to study”?
A: Yes. When I was about 13, I performed very well on a physics class test while many of my friends with whom I usual competed didn’t fare so well. I remember the teacher singling me out and hauling out in front of the whole class and patting my head while admonishing the rest for not doing as well as me. At that age, you might think I’d just want the ground to swallow me up with embarrassment. But instead, I realised at that moment that I was not just good at physics but really good. I found it easy. It was just common sense and problem-solving, and it addressed the most interesting questions I was starting to ask. Remember, this was in Iraq where I had no access to science books outside of school or TV documentaries, or indeed anyone I could ask about some of the deeper questions, like what is time, does the universe go on forever, and so on.
Q: Can you remember the point at which you fell in love with your subject?
A: Well, if not that moment as the boy in front of my physics class then probably when during my undergraduate years at university when reading books on the biographies of famous physicists like Einstein and Feynman, I realised that I wanted to devote my life to understanding what makes the universe tick.
Regarding your undergraduate studies:
Q: Which University did you study at, and was it your first choice?
A: I studied at the University of Surrey (in Guildford just south of London) and yes it was my first choice. I didn’t want to venture further afield as I wanted to be able to see my girlfriend (now wife of 30 years) Julie regularly, and she was back in Portsmouth. Surrey meant I could live at home and commute. Today I am a professor at the same university.
Q: What undergraduate degree did you study for at University, and in hindsight would you select the same subject again?
A: Physics and yes.
Q: Can you remember a University lecturer who really inspired you?
A: Professor Ron Johnson, who is now in his late 70s and an emeritus professor at Surrey, taught me quantum mechanics in my final year. I remember pieces falling into place as I struggled to get my head round this most counterintuitive of subjects. I decided to do a final year research project with Ron, on theoretical particle physics and from then on I was hooked. I accepted an offer from him to stay on for graduate studies in nuclear reaction theory and he became my PhD advisor.
Regarding your postgraduate studies:
Q: What motivated you to further pursue academia?
A: That research project in my final undergraduate year and the subsequent offer of a PhD that didn’t require me to apply, but to simply say yes. Until that point, I had planned to work for a government research lab (The National Physical Laboratory) where I had been offered a job. After all, I was planning on getting married to Julie and knew I needed to get a proper job. But when I was offered a PhD studentship Julie pointed out to me that this was clearly what I would really want to do and that she was happy to support me for a few years, something I have always been grateful to her for.
Q: What institution(s) did you study at in your pursuit of postgraduate education?
A: Yup, you’ve guessed it: the University of Surrey
Q: What was the title of your PhD thesis, and how would you explain your findings to a novice?
A: Intermediate energy deuteron elastic scattering from nuclei in a three-body model. It was a theoretical (maths and computer simulations) piece of work looking at what happens when certain atomic nuclei smash into each other in a particle accelerator. In nuclear physics, we try to understand the forces that hold the constituents of atomic nuclei (the protons and neutrons) together. This nuclear ‘glue’ is a complicated beast. So we consider the simplest composite nucleus: an object called the deuteron, which is made up of just a proton and neutron, and see what happens when we fire a beam of deuterons onto a nuclear target, by which I mean we count, in special particle detectors how many bounce off at different angles. This tells us a lot about how the proton and neutron that make up the deuteron are held together. I found that the way they spin plays a big role in determining the properties of this nuclear glue.
Q: If you had your time as a student again, what would you do, if anything, differently?
A: Work a bit harder? Maybe shop around to see what other questions are really interesting before choosing my PhD subject.
Q: Tell us about your current research focus?
A: I am currently working two different fields – although both are in theoretical physics and both involve quantum mechanics. The first is my main (traditional) area in nuclear physics. In fact, it is in what is called nuclear astrophysics as I am trying to understand how certain chemical elements are cooked inside stars by studying the way their atomic nuclei are formed. Technically, the area is called ‘transfer reactions’ as it involves firing deuterons onto a nucleus, whereby it transfers its neutron to the target, leaving just a proton flying off. It’s a way of building up heavier and heavier nuclei by adding particles to them. My other area is in an exciting new field called quantum biology in which I am looking at the role quantum mechanics plays inside living cells. More specifically, I am trying to understand whether quantum tunnelling (a phenomenon whereby subatomic particles can jump from one place to another without passing through the space in between) plays a role in genetic mutations in DNA.
Q: What do you believe is your single most important piece of research?
A: Back in the late 80s it was discovered that certain atomic nuclei that had more than their fair share of neutrons (usually nuclei like to have a balance between protons and neutrons) develop what is called a neutron halo – a cloud of neutron probability (if you’ll pardon the mystical use of words here) that surrounds the rest of the nucleus. In the mid-90s I wrote the first computer code that allowed me to model these halos accurately. I discovered that they were much larger than previously thought. I wrote a series of papers with my colleague Jeff Tostevin that have each since been cited hundreds of times. I remember the eureka moment when my computer code showed me something that no one else in the world knew.
Q: Within your area of study, what breakthroughs are on the horizon?
A: In quantum biology, I believe we are on the verge of understanding how delicate quantum effects that have no right persisting inside the complex environment of a living cell can nevertheless have an important effect. If we understand this we may even get a better idea of what it is that makes life so special, and so had to make artificially.
Q: Let your imagination take over for a minute and tell us what you hope your successors will be researching in 2116?
A: Quantum teleportation of course. Sorry, did you want me to expand on that? Surely, it is self-explanatory!
Q: What do you feel your professional legacy will be?
A: I hope… as someone who brought the joys and excitement of the world of science to millions of people. If I were to define myself I would say that I am an ‘explainer’.
Q: Are you working on any extra-curricular projects at the moment, such as: books, podcasts, websites, or speaking?
A: Too many. I have three books on the go, including my first novel (a sci-fi thriller), a TV documentary for the BBC on gravity that I have almost finished filming, and my regular radio show on BBC Radio4, The Life Scientific, is ongoing – I am typing this on my way to the studio to interview the astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Advice and Tips
Q: If you could give your 18-year-old self one piece of advice, what would it be?
A: Never think you’re not clever enough to study a subject you have a passion for.
Never think you’re not clever enough to study a subject you have a passion for.
Q: What advice would you give someone looking to start, or progress his or her career in your field?
A: Decide what it is that excites you most about your subject, like what you think of the last thing at night or first thing in the morning. Is it doing research in a lab or solving equations? Is it communicating the science to the public? Is it applying that science to help society? Is it teaching or developing science policy? Each and every career in science is equally worthy and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Q: Which book would you say has had the biggest impact on your life?
A: Tough one. Probably The Feynman Lectures in Physics that I read as an undergraduate.
Q: If you could recommend one book to a novice in your field, what would it be?
A: Any of my own of course! (Aliens: Science Asks: Is There Anyone Out There?, Paradox: The Nine Greatest Enigmas in Physics, Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology and Quantum: A Guide For The Perplexed).
Q: Why do you think being a freethinker is important?
A: I think that now more than ever, we’re bombarded with all manner of views and ideologies, through news outlets, some serious, some less so, social media, blogs and so on. And it is easy to fall into the trap of cognitive dissonance and reinforcing feedback mechanisms from those we tend to agree with or who hold views that do not require us to reassess or question our beliefs. So to be a freethinker for me is vital if we are to survive in our post-truth world. It’s easier for me because I have been guided all my life my scientific training to be sceptical and to question current dogma as well as to demand evidence when faced with a new picture of the world.
Q: And finally, we are back at the dinner party. Someone offers you a drink, what do you ask for?
A: A gin and tonic (cucumber not lime)…or a Merlot. Or a single malt scotch, or… oh dear.
If you’d like to find out more about Professor Jim Al-Khalili you can check out his academic profile, Twitter page, personal website and Wikipedia page.