Professor Jim Al-Khalili

Making sense of science

18 July 2012

As a frequent presenter on radio and television, the theoretical physicist Professor Jim Al-Khalili OBE is no stranger to communicating complicated concepts to a diverse audience. Here he tells Barometer why he got hooked on physics, how chaos theory has its roots in weather forecasting — and why he's still awaiting a call from Leeds United.

When Jim Al-Khalili was a child he didn't just dream about growing up to pursue one profession - but three. "As a 10 or 11 year-old I was mad on football, but also wanted to do something brainy. So I decided I'd be a brain surgeon in the week, play for Leeds United on the weekend, and be a rock star in the evenings. It wasn't until I was about 14 that I got hooked on physics having done well in a school test - and started pondering questions like 'do the stars go on forever?'", recalls Jim.

Al-Khalili was right about being multi-talented. Today he combines the posts of Professor of Theoretical Physics and Chair in the Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey. He also regularly hosts 'The Life Scientific' on BBC Radio 4, and has presented other BBC programmes including the BAFTA-nominated 'Chemistry: A Volatile History', 'The Secret Life of Chaos' and a recent BBC 2 Horizon special on the Higgs boson particle.

Forecasting the unpredictable

"Interestingly, chaos theory came about through study of the weather," says Jim, "when it was discovered how tiny changes in one place can have a much bigger future effect elsewhere.

"That's why weather forecasting is so difficult. The Earth and its atmosphere are so complex that you can never possibly know exactly how every molecule of air moves or where it is. It's an idea now applied in many other areas of science. And it began with scientists realising that although the weather may be completely predictable in principle, it can never be so in practice."

As a nuclear physicist, much of Jim's work involves considering the nuclear power issue and he's come to believe that any worries about nuclear waste are overridden by greater concerns about climate change.

"I have the greatest respect for climatologists because of the sophisticated and complex field in which they work. And yet they're producing ever more reliable predictions. Climate means a lot to me. I have kids and want them to have a future - so I am very interested in potential solutions!"

Jim now sees huge potential for furthering climate science through collaboration between different scientific disciplines.

"There's increasing cross-over, especially in climate. You need chemists to talk about the molecules and elements in the atmosphere. You need geologists to talk about weather systems around the Earth. You need biologists too - because we're learning that our atmosphere is part of the biosphere and that species change climate too, through carbon dioxide emissions and other gases. We can no longer have all these people in silos - they're going to have to work together on the big issues."

Getting the message across

Alongside 'broadcaster' and 'theoretical physicist', Al-Khalili's bio also lists 'science communicator'. As he explains, "Science communication means taking the science out of the lab and the university classroom and bringing it to the general public - just like the Met Office does."

For Jim, the key is empathy. "You need to be able to put yourself in the audience's shoes and ask 'what do they already know?' They're not any less clever. They just haven't spent their whole career immersed in the subject. The term 'dumbing down' is unhelpful in suggesting that the only way to explain science is by getting it wrong."

Despite enjoying success as a television and radio presenter, Al-Khalili still teaches, carries out research and handles academic admin - like managing undergraduate admissions for his University of Surrey department. "I've got a nice balance that keeps me very busy."

Next projects include further episodes of his Tuesday morning Radio 4 show 'The Life Scientific', and a two-part documentary for BBC Four.

Even with a hectic schedule, there's a part of Jim that's still waiting for that phone call. "I still harbour hopes that Leeds United will call me up!", he jokes.

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