Quantum leaps - getting to know Professor Jim Al-Khalili

Professor Jim Al-Khalili
Making science accessible to the general public is crucial in an enlightened and scientifically literate society
Professor Jim Al-Khalili
As a theoretical physicist, Professor Jim Al-Khalili is a leading expert in his field. Having presented a number of television and radio programmes over the years, his dedication to science was recognised in 2008 when he was appointed an OBE. His YouTube show, Jim meets....., moreover has included a number of high-profile scientists such as Lord Robert Winston and Sir David Attenborough, and utilises online media to bring science to a new audience. Here, Professor Al-Khalili discusses his inspirations, why communication is so important, and why science is becoming 'cool'

I fell in love with science, and physics in particular, when I was about 12 or 13. Until then I had hardly paid it any attention; it had been my younger brother who was obsessed with dinosaurs and space. For me, it had been football. Then I suddenly became aware that I wanted answers to the big questions (such as the nature of space and time, the extent of the universe, and the structure of atoms) and I could not seem to get satisfactory ones anywhere. I decided then, in my early teens, that I wanted to become a physicist – and have never looked back. My brother is now an accountant, but very happy nevertheless.

Professor Jim Al-Khalili and Bell AntennaWho or what inspires you?
Many people inspire me: my wife, Julie, has been the solid rock in my life. It was she who convinced me to follow my heart and stay on in academia to pursue a PhD when I felt I should get a 'proper job in the real world' before we married. I am also inspired by the many colleagues and scientists that I have worked with over the years, as well as some of the great names in physics, whose remarkable achievements motivate, inspire and drive my own research – those such as the great quantum physicists Niels Bohr, Richard Feynman and Paul Dirac.

What do you think is one of the biggest challenges in science at the moment?
There are many critical global issues I could list, such as energy, water supply, understanding the Earth's climate, and the many health issues and eradication of disease. However, I guess many of your readers would reel these off. So, one challenge in pure science that may not be so well known is the emerging field of quantum biology. Many of the processes in microbiology – such as photosynthesis or genetic mutations – seem to be explainable only by applying the mysterious rules of quantum physics. I find this tremendously exciting. In fact, it may well turn out that quantum physics can help to answer the ultimate question of all: 'How did life begin?'

Do you think it is important to push the barriers in science?
I cannot conceive of how anyone could justify answering 'no' to this question. It is like saying 'do you think democracy is important?' or 'do you think tolerance is important?'. So, the answer to the question is: 'Yes.'

Do you think it is important to make science more accessible to everyone, particularly younger people?
This is something that has become universally accepted in recent years, particularly in the UK, which is light-years ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to public engagement in science. Making science accessible to the general public is crucial in an enlightened and scientifically literate society in order to enable people to make informed decisions about issues that affect all our lives, from health to environmental choices and energy. Younger people are, of course, particularly crucial – if we cannot inspire them with the excitement of science, then we don't have the next generation of scientists and engineers.

Is the glamorisation of science – and indeed scientists – an important step in creating an interest in the subject, and do you think TV shows, such as the ones you have been involved in, help to make science more appealing?
The main thing that seems to have happened with the recent rise in popularity of science in the media is that subjects such as physics have suddenly become genuinely 'cool'. I hear time and again that physicists and physics students no longer feel embarrassed at parties to say what they do. Eyes no longer glaze over, and science has suddenly become fashionable. It is finally getting imbedded into popular culture, along with music and the arts. It is also becoming less acceptable for people to be ignorant of basic ideas in science.

Professor Jim Al-KhaliliWhat is the most interesting thing you have discovered in your research?
I would say it is my work on halo nuclei. During the 1990s the hot topic in nuclear physics research was the study of atomic nuclei that had very exotic structures. Rather than the traditional tiny core of matter made up of densely packed protons and neutrons, some nuclei were being created in accelerators that had so many neutrons that the last one or two were floating around the outside. This strange phenomenon became known as the 'neutron halo'. I was the first person in the world to accurately work out the size of this halo, and found that it extended out to a volume several times greater than the size of the nuclear core.

What has been your biggest challenge to date?
Scientifically, I would say it is one that I am currently embarking on. I am entering the new research field of quantum biology, applying some of the stranger features of the quantum world to understand phenomena in biology. I am beginning a research programme and will be writing a book on the subject in the coming years. It will require me to learn a heck of a lot of microbiology (I can already do the quantum physics).

What is your greatest achievement?
Raising two great kids with Julie, with whom I celebrate our silver wedding anniversary this year.

What are your plans for the future?
To ensure a more sensible work-life balance, and within that to still be able to do all the things I enjoy: teaching, research, writing and broadcasting. Is it greedy to want it all?


This article originally appeared on publicservice.co.uk: Getting to know...Professor Jim Al-Khalili

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I think the Germans did similar research during the period 1940-1945. Maybe you should look into the results. Also you should read the brilliant book Brave New World by A. Huxley.

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