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Interview - Jim Al-Khalili

Acclaimed physicist and presenter of Radio 4's 'The Life Scientific', Jim Al-Khalili is a passionate advocate for the public understanding of the engineering sciences.

We are sitting in Professor Jim Al-Khalili's modest rabbit hutch-style office in the Alan Turing building at the University of Surrey in Guildford. At first glance, it would seem appropriate to be interviewing one of Britain's foremost scientific broadcasters in a building named after that great pioneer of the Information Age. But it is also slightly amusing for Al-Khalili, because the organisation where he has spent most of his academic career, which was once known as the Battersea College of Technology, has only the flimsiest of associations with Turing.

"We have a statue of him at the centre of our plaza on campus. The connection is that Turing's parents lived in Guildford while he was away at boarding school. Presumably he came back here for Christmas and summer breaks. But to say that Guildford is his home town would be stretching it slightly." Al-Khalili cheerfully admits that Maida Vale and Bletchley Park can press stronger claims for an affiliation with the father of the modern computer. "But we all play that game." The 'game' is finding innovative ways of raising awareness of science and technology. Al-Khalili is very good at it.

Perhaps surprisingly, despite being best known as a radio and TV presenter, the 52-year-old has been in academia for virtually his entire career and currently has two job titles on his Surrey University calling card, where he is professor of physics and holds a chair in the public engagement in science. From his eyrie on campus he has witnessed our transition from living in an analogue world to the digital world almost in its entirety. He recalls that while writing his PhD in the mid-1980s he needed to get hold of some data from a Japanese researcher. "I was told that you could do this electronically via the Janet network [Joint Academic Network], before we had the name email." With nostalgic amusement he remembers sending his electronic message with a long string of commands involving percentage symbols and ampersands. "The message bounced via Rutherford Appleton labs. But within half an hour I got a response with the data I needed. I sent my first email in 1986." Al-Khalili is proud to have been an early adopter.

He also remembers sitting in the staff room in the early 1990s explaining to colleagues that there was "this new thing called the World Wide Web. They thought it was a bit of a gimmick, but I thought that this might have the potential to change things." Before long, Al-Khalili had his own website and, while cheerfully admitting to not being much of a computer geek, he enthusiastically describes how in the early days of the digital revolution he was kitted out with top-of-the-range spec computers, while his supervisors were still using punch-cards.

Today, not so inundated by research and more committed to public engagements, he's quite happy with his MacBook. "It does everything I need to do, and if I have to run big codes I get my students to do that for me."

As we sit on the cusp of the next phase of the connectivity revolution – the Internet of Things – Al-Khalili thinks that our digital future was inevitable. But could this technological evolution have been drawn down another path? "I can just about see an alternative where we might have had the same sort of network, but one where everything was run on analogue. The important thing is that the Information Age had to happen. Now it's important to understand that we are right at the very beginning of it."

The voice of science

Although he is regularly to be seen on our TV screens and we can pick up his bestsellers on popular science at airport bookshops, Al-Khalili is undoubtedly best known as the presenter of BBC Radio 4's 'The Life Scientific' programme. For millions of listeners Al-Khalili is the voice of science, whose interviews are a permanent Monday morning fixture.

"We tend to have a pool of potential guests," he says, referring to the selection criteria for the scientists he interviews on his radio broadcast. "This gets added to by me and the team of producers I work with. Because we work in the field of science communication we know a lot of people. We maintain a 50-50 gender balance and we try to have good coverage across different disciplines."

What this means in practice is that one week there will be, say, a neuroscientist, followed by a chemist or an engineer. But for him, the real variety lies in that "there is also a spread in terms of the great and the good, the up-and-coming, and the fascinating stories of the people that you really should have heard of, but haven't." He says that if his production team can bag a Nobel Prize winner to kick off a series "that's great. But it's the unexpected people who have done important work and have an interesting story to tell that make the biggest impact with the listeners. When it comes to the audience, it is the people with most interesting stories that carry the day. We really are the 'Desert Island Discs' of science."

Career opportunities

"I was born in Baghdad, but I am British," says Al-Khalili, whose father was an Iraqi electrical engineer who ended up lecturing at Portsmouth Polytechnic, where he met the physicist's mother. His schooldays were spent in Iraq, but by the time he was 17, Saddam Hussein had risen to power and the family beat a hasty retreat to Britain. "We got out while we could. By that time I was quite convinced that I wanted to do physics, but I didn't quite know what. After graduating I even had a job lined up at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington. But I was persuaded to stay on to do a PhD. Once I had decided to do that, it was the academic life for me."

Al-Khalili says that he never imagined a career in broadcasting or writing "or becoming any other form of public scientist. I just wanted to follow the traditional post-doc route of a lectureship, published papers and research grants. And that's what I did during the first part of my career. It wasn't until about 20 years ago I started to do outreach, schools talks and local radio journalism."

If there was a science story breaking in the news, Al-Khalili recalls, journalists would get pointed in his direction "because I was the only guy who was happy to talk to them." He recalls how his colleagues had various reasons for not wanting to talk to journalists. Some thought it a waste of time, beneath their dignity or potentially somehow harmful to their reputation, as they lived in fear of being misquoted. "But all these journalists really wanted was somebody to speak clearly and enthusiastically about science. Journalists don't want to destroy your reputation. What they want is a story, and if you give them a story they are happy." Give it to them clearly, says Al-Khalili, and they're even happier. "But if you talk to them in highly specific technical jargon and the article comes out with errors in it, then you only have yourself to blame."

Finding himself at the threshold of a parallel career, Al-Khalili started to consider more deeply his role in assisting with the public understanding of science. For him it wasn't simply a case of brainiacs in their labs doing stuff we couldn't understand, "and I derive a lot of pleasure from telling non-scientific people about the areas of physics that fascinate me." As much, he claims, as doing the initial research, which is perfectly believable as he explains how "I find myself in the pub having to explain in plain English what I do for a living. But there are a lot of scientists who cannot comprehend life outside the bubble, who do not know what sort of language to use, who can't empathise with an audience."

His big break came in 1997 when he was asked by the Institute of Physics to become their schools and colleges lecturer. This was a role that involved travelling around the country giving talks to teenagers. But talking with young students about physics is a long way from writing bestselling books about paradoxes and interviewing iconic scientists on national radio. "Looking back, had I not done the outreach work that I did early in my career, recent developments would certainly never have happened. There is a chain that is serendipitous all the way back. Although it's not really my area of research, I had been giving talks about black holes and the possibility of time travel, and so it seemed to me that the next step might be to write a book about it. Then once you've got the book published, publishers know that you can write and so it becomes much easier to get the second one moving."

On his bookshelves, in amongst weighty tomes on theoretical physics, there are copies of his own books of popular science, including the highly accessible 'Paradox: The Nine Greatest Enigmas in Science' and his most recent 'Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology'.

Minority voices

Al-Khalili is sympathetic to the notion that the greater proportion of social media is being used for purposes too trivial to waste time on discussing in any detail. "Probably 90 per cent of our media is clogged up with meaningless junk about celebrities," he comments, which makes him proud that radio programmes such as 'The Life Scientific' raise the voice of the minority and play a part in spearheading the public understanding of science, technology and engineering. "The public is remarkably receptive to what we're trying to do."

Al-Khalili remembers how, when the show was first commissioned, BBC mandarins "took the view that once we'd interviewed Richard Dawkins and Robert Winston we'd run out of people to talk to." He says that were he to be interviewing novelists, musicians or architects, he would never have encountered that level of scepticism, as the assumption would be that the list of interviewees would be endless. "But I think we've proved our point. And I think that science is firmly embedding itself in popular culture, more so in this country than many others."

Today, Al-Khalili claims that the public interest in science is rivalling that of the heady days of the 19th century when it was de rigueur for the intelligentsia to flock to the Royal Institution to listen to the likes of Darwin or Faraday. "Back then it was part of the culture that the social elite would go to a science lecture, just as you might go to the theatre. But now science is part of the public dialogue in a way that it has never been."

Despite the marked upswing in the fortunes of science and technology in the media, Al-Khalili feels that there are sections of the public that are being left out. "These are the people who use their smartphones to tweet, or use tablets to watch YouTube, without really caring much about what's going on under the bonnet." Such passive users, he feels, could be employing this technology to become better informed about technology itself. "But on another level it is allowing ideas about science and engineering to become accessible to the wider public."

Al-Khalili says that he is constantly surprised by the number of people who watch TED talks on their mobile devices. "In the past, if you wanted to be informed about what was going on, you watched 'Tomorrow's World' or stayed up until two o'clock in the morning to watch some guy with a beard giving an Open University lecture."

If Al-Khalili is upbeat regarding how technology is penetrating the British public's collective psyche, he is also aware that we are failing to produce home-grown science and engineering graduates in sufficient quantity to meet the short-term demands of industry. "It's crazy for us to rely on countries like China and India to generate our workforce for us. Numbers of people applying to study physics are going up, but that might just be a local blip in the figures – the Brian Cox effect, you could call that – and it may not be sustainable."

A safer bet, says the physicist, is the continued media coverage of stories such as the switching on of the Large Hadron Collider, the Philae Probe comet landing and the SSC Bloodhound land speed record attempt. "Richard Noble is convinced that Bloodhound will encourage a million kids to go into engineering. He is an optimistic man. But the point is that we need stories like this. Many in the arts and humanities might complain that STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths] subjects are getting all the attention, while subjects such as history and languages are not as popular as they were. But we are living in a technological age."

Al-Khalili concludes by reaching up to his bookshelf and taking down a resin cast of Einstein's brain, a prop from one of his TV shows. Clearly inspired, he ponders that the day might come when the public's understanding of science has reached such a high point that his successors on Radio 4 will be spearheading a move to promote a wider appreciation of the liberal arts.

Image credits: Nick Smith, Bloodhound SSC

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