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Jim Alkhalili

‘We owe our lives to innovations in technology’: Jim Al-Khalili

Image credit: Nick Smith

Jim Al-Khalili - theoretical physicist, author, broadcaster and judge on this year’s Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering - discusses why innovation in technology is more important today than ever.

 

As the only physicist on the panel of judges on this year’s Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, Jim Al-Khalili says that initially a feeling of ‘impostor syndrome’ fleetingly entered his mind, “but I think as a scientist I’m there to offer a different perspective.” After all, he ventures, “if science is about increasing our knowledge of the world, then engineering is about how we then use that knowledge, turning it into technologies that help us”.

Al-Khalili is echoing the words of Her Majesty the Queen, who at the presentation of the inaugural award in her name in 2013 said: “At its heart, engineering is about using science to find creative, practical solutions.” He also makes the point that since there is no Nobel Prize in engineering, the QEPrize is an important and welcome addition for the profession.

He says: “As a physicist, I enjoy coming at this from a different angle. From a direction of having developed that knowledge, I’m often surprised by how it has been put to use in ways that most people simply aren’t aware of.” Today, more than ever, “we should be grateful for the clever ideas that have gone into making our lives easier and safer”.

Perhaps best known to the public as the presenter of the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘The Life Scientific’, the 58-year-old British theoretical physicist was born in Baghdad to an English mother and Iraqi father. He grew up in both Iraq and later the UK, where he settled at the age of 16, completed his school education and progressed to the University of Surrey, “where I still am now. I was a student here in the 1980s, did my PhD in nuclear physics and have been an academic all my career”. This last point needs expanding in that, while he takes great pride in his 29-year unbroken record of teaching undergraduates without taking a sabbatical (and currently supervises five PhD students), he has over the past quarter of a century, “gradually become more involved in science communication public engagement. I now spend half of my time as an academic and the other half in ‘public science’: broadcasting, television, radio, writing, public lectures and so on.”

He is slightly bashful over the grandeur of his job title at the University of Surrey – Distinguished Professor of Physics – “which is a pat on the back and sounds nice, but I also hold a chair in the public engagement in science, which the university created for me back in 2005,” not because it came with any additional responsibility; rather as an acknowledgement that Al-Khalili spends so much of his time communicating science to a non-specialist public.

With so much of the UK’s education programme affected by restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic, Al-Khalili thinks he might be the wrong person to talk to on the subject, because when it comes to his department’s ability to continue teaching, “I’ve been more fortunate than most”. This he accepts is a result of the subjects he teaches. One of his undergraduate courses is on Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. It’s a mathematical course, he explains, which means it is more suited to online teaching than, say, “engineering or medical courses, where a lot of what you are doing involves practical work in laboratories with equipment, designing experiments”.

He goes on to say that despite persevering via video platforms, “a lot of the students I teach have been dramatically affected” by the shift to remote learning. For much of the past academic year, Al-Khalili has taught his students from a computer terminal in his study in Portsmouth – the university is an hour away on the train – “and I don’t go up to campus unless I need to... only a handful of times since the first lockdown last spring, in fact. It has affected the way I deliver.” These days lectures and tutorials are via Zoom, “but because of my subject matter, it’s not been that critical. It’s not influenced the way that I get my subject matter across as much as it has my colleagues. I’ve been lucky, but I do have undergraduate students who I mentor and provide pastoral care for who have struggled and felt isolated.”

Al-Khalili is impressed by how much resourcefulness has been shown in harnessing communications technology, particularly in the STEM learning environment. “Thank goodness for all the innovations and technologies we have in place. If this had happened when I was a student in the 1980s, we wouldn’t have at our fingertips the internet and broadband access that has enabled the high-quality video conferencing and distance learning today.

“In fact, previous awards of the Queen Elizabeth Prize were for exactly this sort of development. What we are rewarding,” he says, referring to his experience as a judge on the 2021 awards, “is innovation that has made life less difficult.”

Al-Khalili makes the observation that for this year’s cycle of the QEPrize he’s the only non-engineer on the panel. I’m surrounded by engineers, he says, drawing my attention to his own engineering heritage: “My father was an electrical engineer. My brother studied chemical engineering. My son studied electronic engineering. So, I’m surrounded by them.” He then goes on to tell what appears to be a sentimentally tangential anecdote about his son’s decision to study engineering at university. “I thought he would follow in my footsteps by going into physics, but he said: ‘No, Dad. You can do the deep thinking. I want to do something useful.’ That was his distinction between theoretical physics and engineering.”

Yet, says Al-Khalili, this distinction pulls into focus what the QEPrize is “all about”. If you look at the Nobel Prizes in physics and chemistry, he explains, “they are about specific breakthroughs, discoveries that can potentially lead on to something great”. Similarly, with the QEPrize, “if you look at the nominations, the world would be a different place without all this. We’re looking at innovations in technology that have changed the lives of billions of people. That’s what’s so hard about being a judge: how the heck do you decide? Well, that one’s changed the life of two billion people, but this one’s affected three billion.” The point being that the innovations under review, “have really changed the world. And the prize acknowledges that. As my son says: ‘people who’ve done something useful’.”

Al-Khalili thinks one of the positive outcomes of the gear shift in the way we’ve lived our lives in the past year is that “by and large the public is becoming more aware of the debt we owe to these technologies. Prize nominations can seem quite obscure to the non-technical person, especially when we’re dealing with a piece of technology that underpins another technology. Yet when you unpack all this, you start to realise just how pervasive – GPS for instance – some of these technologies really are.” This way of looking at innovation is particularly relevant today, he says, “not just because we’re all on Zoom and Teams. I’m talking about what’s going on in biomedical engineering that goes into creating vaccines. There are engineers working on fluid dynamics – which is boring to the average person – but what they are doing is understanding how the virus is transmitted by the air inside buildings. Because we are living in a time when we owe our lives to innovations in technology, people are more prepared to acknowledge the work that goes into these developments.”

When it comes to his media career, Al-Khalili is keen to make the distinction between radio journalist and broadcaster. One of the reasons that he thinks ‘The Life Scientific’ works so well is that he’s not an investigator with an agenda to challenge or expose his guests. “I make the point to my producers that I’m a fellow scientist first and foremost. I see journalists as commenting on other people’s work, but in fact I’m one of those ‘other people’,” allowing him to discuss a ‘shared passion’ in kinship rather than confrontation. Al-Khalili says that elsewhere in the medias, he has found himself frustrated by stories that appear to be contaminated by bias, or present opinion as fact.

At the time of speaking, he’s putting the final flourishes on a new book provisionally entitled ‘Towards Rational Life’ in which he examines, “how we can benefit from some of the ideas from the scientific method: the existence of uncertainty, being prepared to admit your mistakes, reproducibility of results, valuing evidence over opinion”. These are the concepts, he explains, that “we as scientists and engineers apply in our daily work”.

Tackling problems such as fake news and misinformation at a time when the public relies so heavily on the quality of news distributed by the media, “is one of those areas where society could benefit from the scientific method. But it’s not just about each person having to combat their own cognitive dissonance and bias: I think science and technology is going to have to be brought into play to tackle things like fake news, developing monitoring systems, safeguarding against cyber crime, developing AI to sift through the deluge of data, to help us to decide what is fake and what is true: what is misinformation and what is reliable evidence.” There needs to be a joint effort, he says, “of society adopting the critical thinking and rational approach that a scientist uses, along with the technical innovations that engineers develop”.

You can’t talk with Al-Khalili for long without the emphasis swinging back to physics, without realising that it’s not just his job, but his passion. Having put in the hard yards over three decades he feels he has reached a stage in his career where he’s no longer under pressure to “churn out the publications” – ‘publish or perish’ – and “can now explore what I find fascinating and interesting”. This has led him along the path of becoming more involved in the foundational questions in physics, such as the meaning of quantum mechanics or the nature of the direction of time. It’s all quite deep and abstract, he says, conceding that none of this will exactly help us get past coronavirus or develop new technologies.

However, it is indicative of where physics may be heading in the 21st century. “The real questions aren’t necessarily about what is the next particle to be found after the Higgs boson, or whether string theory is correct or if parallel universes exist.” What will become important, says Al-Khalili, is how physics feeds into and gets folded up with other disciplines. I remind him of the old cliché that trots out the idea of biology being to the 21st century what physics was to the 20th. It’s not an idea that impresses him and he is glad that we are moving past it: “When we talk about biology in the 21st century we’re are talking about areas like bioengineering and genetics that will transform our lives. But those subjects don’t just rely on biology. It’s going to be the century of interdisciplinary science and engineering – not the century of just one subject. Interdisciplinarity is what we are seeing happening.”

To press home his point, he ventures that possibly one of the reasons he was invited on to the QEPrize board of judges, is because you don’t just want engineers judging engineering. I put it to him that he’s there to provide the checks and balances that will stop the engineers promoting the practical over the abstract. But he doesn’t much like that idea either, preferring to think of his role as bringing a further perspective on an already integrated set of disciplines. “Sure, physics and engineering are different. We may use the same mathematics, computer programs, techniques and methodologies, but they are different. We’re seeing them mixing up with medicine, biology, genetics and AI.”

So where will physics go in the future? “It’s going to become embedded within new areas. In 50 years’ time, we won’t be teaching kids physics, chemistry and biology. We will be teaching them biomedical engineering. We’ll be teaching them science ethics in genetics, or environment and climate studies. These are all areas that include physics. Yet those boundaries, those silos will fade away and disappear.” In fact, physics, says one of the UK’s most prominent public faces of the discipline, “will almost become lost in all these interdisciplinary ways of working. And that’s exciting.”

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