Understanding the unknown

Jim Al-Khalili

Jim Al-Khalili - Credit: Archant

Katie Jarvis plays the role of clueless journalist to perfection as she meets Professor Jim Al-Khali ahead of this year’s Cheltenham Science Festival!

“For me, the greatest achievement of science is to allow humanity to realise that our world is comprehensible. Through science – rational thinking – we can understand how the universe works.”

–Jim Al-Khalili


“Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.”

– Niels Bohr


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There’s a great anecdote – apocryphal or not – about the Danish physicist Niels Bohr, one of the founders of quantum mechanics back in the 1920s. A visitor to Bohr’s country-cottage was astonished to see a horseshoe nailed over the front door. “Do you really believe that horseshoe brings luck, Professor Bohr?” his guest asked. “No,” the great man replied, “but I’m told it works, even if you don’t believe in it.”

And that pretty much sums up the strange world of quantum mechanics, too. When scientists such as Bohr, Albert Einstein, Max Planck and Erwin Schrödinger first began to piece together quantum theory – the study of the tiniest particles that make up the universe – they didn’t quite believe what they were finding. According to their experiments, each particle (the same that make up everything we see around us) could be in two places at the same time. Odd? Well, it gets odder.

Because when you separate two connected particles, they seem to be able to swap information faster than the speed of light. In other words, no matter how far apart they are, if one changes its state, the other instantly complements it – something Einstein said was impossible.

For the mad-haired professor, this was all too much. Preferring the predictability of the ‘normal-sized’ world he could see around him, Einstein famously declared, “God does not play dice with the universe.”

“Look,” I confess to Jim Al-Khalili, professor of physics at Surrey University (where he also holds a chair in Public Engagement in Science), “I am utterly lost when it comes to 21st century science.”

I mean, had I lived 100 years ago, I’d have understood how I got my clothes clean; how my stew cooked over an open fire; how the horse I harnessed pulled the cart. But now? From smart phone to the computer I use, I haven’t got a photon how some of the basics of my everyday life work...

I’m not sure what I expect his reaction to be. A heavenward glance? A flurry of diagrams?

In fact, he sympathises. “I know!” he says. “The best example for me is that, when I got my first car back in the early 80s, I knew how to change the carburettor; I knew how to change the filters; I knew how to meddle around under the bonnet – and I’m not particularly mechanically–minded, which is why I chose theoretical physics.”

OK. That’s surprisingly reassuring… But doesn’t it matter that we’re all baffled by much of what’s going on in today’s techno-marvellous world? Especially for a scientist charged with public engagement.

“No, I don’t think it’s a problem at all; it’s just inevitable,” he says. “Science has advanced so far and so quickly that it’s impossible for us to see under the bonnet of everything. And, in terms of discussing these new ideas, people are more engaged than before.”

Well, what about those new ideas? Such as string theory, which makes do with no fewer than 11 space-time dimensions... (11!)

“I wouldn’t worry about that,” he says. “I don’t know about string theory.”

Ha! Now here’s a scientist I can relate to. But if you do want to know more about physics, then Jim’s book, Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed is a superb place to start. It explains – in incredibly clear and simple ways – how scientists discovered quantum weirdness: particles that seem to be in two places at once; that ‘signal’ to each other instantly over vast distances. What it doesn’t explain – because nobody knows – is what this actually means. If a tiny ‘something’ can be in more than one place at the same time, what significance does that have when it comes to big things – trees, houses, people, planets? Will we ever understand? Is there any point even trying?

“Certainly, the early quantum pioneers argued that it’s futile trying to find a logical explanation for objective reality – that [the behaviour of atoms] is so far removed from our everyday experiences, why should we ever feel that we can understand it?

“I don’t agree. In all other realms of thought and the scientific method in general, we have been able to make sense of it.”

Does he favour one of the many explanations over another?

“I don’t, no. Every interpretation has some weirdness built in somewhere. All I’m confident of is that nature has just one way of doing things. So either there are parallel universes or there aren’t. Either there’s faster-than-light signalling or there isn’t. Hopefully, one day, we’ll either design the experiment that will discriminate between these views or we’ll have a new insight into which one works.”

Never mind photons being in more than one place at a time: I’m amazed I’ve tracked Jim Al-Khalili down to a definite position. This internationally-renowned scientist spends his working life dashing around teaching, researching, writing and broadcasting about the subject he loves so passionately. Next week, he’s disappearing off to film a Discovery series – Brave New World – with the legendary Stephen Hawking. And over the summer, there’s a new two-parter on BBC4, called Light and Dark.

But today, he’s in a small room on the third floor of Surrey’s physics block (named, of course, after Alan Turing). It’s a typical lecturer’s lair (though neater than most), with a computer dominating one desk, the screensaver showing what looks to be a fascinating physics phenomenon. The inside of an electron, maybe?

“No, I’m afraid the screensaver is a generic one that comes with my Apple Mac.”


And the fearsome-looking equations scribbled over the whiteboard?

“Quantum biology.”


For those who, like me, have a limited repertoire of responses to the finer details of science, thank goodness for Cheltenham Science Festival. Jim Al-Khalili has been involved with it, one way or another, since it started back in 2002. Each year, just when you think it can’t get any better, it surprises you with the breadth, impressiveness and sheer fun of the events it hosts in its mission to bring science to a wider audience. There’s Jenifer Glynn talking about her older sister, Rosalind Franklin’s contribution to discovering the structure of DNA. Maurice Saatchi, whose wife – the novelist Josephine Hart– died from ovarian cancer, will discuss the changes he’d like to see in experimental drug laws. There’s the ‘Science of Tea’ with Professor Mark Miodownik; and ‘Science in the time of Austen’, asking how scientific thinking influenced sex, childbirth and attitudes to women in 1813.

Plus, of course, the A-list celebrities – Brian Cox, Peter Higgs, James Watson, Jocelyn Bell-Burnell, Alice Roberts… and Jim Al-Khalili himself: not only a ‘performer’ but a member of the advisory group that helps put the programme together.

“Whereas some festivals start by saying, ‘OK, it’s 2013, so that’s the centenary of such-and-such’, we’ll just knock ideas around. There are about 20 of us – scientists, broadcasters, journalists – who’ll ask: what’s been in the news? Who have I bumped into? What have I heard about? Ours might seem a chaotic and random way of doing things but it produces a richness of ideas.”

Jim is presenting two events himself: ‘The Basics of Energy’ and quantum biology. Erm… surely, we all know what energy is? We use it every second of every day in thousands of different ways.

“That’s part of the problem – the fact that we mean lots of different things when we use that word. ‘I don’t have the energy to run down the road’, simply means my muscles are aching. It doesn’t necessary mean I can’t convert potential energy into kinetic energy, the way a physicist will think about it.

“And while you can talk about examples, actually to say what energy is, is quite difficult. It’s going to be a challenge for me to think about how to tackle this talk.”

And then there’s quantum biology, which takes the established theories of the sub-atomic world and asks whether the weirdness of the quantum plays a role in living things; indeed, in life itself.

“There’s the mundane, which is to say: of course, biology is ultimately chemistry and chemistry is ultimately quantum mechanics. That’s not interesting; we know that. Then, at the other extreme, there’s woo-woo quantum mechanics by which people ‘explain’ the origins of human consciousness or telepathy.”

Instead, Jim is working with biologists and chemists on the theory that some of the stranger quantum aspects also play a role in biology: “Concepts like quantum tunnelling, where a particle can jump spontaneously from one place to another, even though it doesn’t have the energy to punch through a force field: that’s the equivalent of me running through a brick wall. Atoms and electrons and photons do that all the time in the quantum world. It looks like enzymes use electron and proton tunnelling to transfer energy very quickly. And plants may use it in photosynthesis.”

So now we know about the science, what’s the man like? In Jim Al-Khalili’s case, that’s not difficult to answer: kind, courteous and eminently patient.

It shows when he’s explaining things to clueless journalists like me; it particularly shows in another area of his life. For as President of the British Humanist Association, he could be as scathing about believers as other forceful atheists. He isn’t.

Writing in a recent issue of New Statesman, his piece on rational approaches to understanding the universe is headlined, “Believing in a god is fine by me.”

Is he, as some have described, an accommodationist?

“That somehow smacks of someone who’s selling out. As if you don’t have the strength of conviction to stand up and say: no, there is no such thing as god. I’d call myself a humanist, because a humanist is someone who has empathy and compassion and feels that everyone should be treated equally.”

Of course, you cannot be reductionist when it comes to someone’s beliefs and principles; but it’s tempting to relate his tolerance – to some extent at least – to his background. Jim’s father, to whom he dedicated Quantum, is an Iraqi, born in the holy city of Najaf, while his mother was a Portsmouth girl. Although they met in the UK, the young couple began married life in Baghdad, where Jim was born in 1962.

Neither religious nor political, the family enjoyed a free and happy existence, moving cities with his father’s job as an air-force engineer. It was the horror of Saddam Hussein coming to power in 1979 that forced them back to Portsmouth.

Jim speaks of his younger years in Iraq with fondness: watching Match of the Day with his friends; enjoying pop music (Santana’s She’s Not There was one of his Desert Island Discs, representing that time), and enjoying an excellent education.

But he also speaks of friends he lost as a result of the brutality of Saddam’s regime.

Perhaps, therefore, it is natural to link his tolerance and acceptance of others’ peaceful beliefs to his own experiences.

He tells me, “I remember my son asked me: ‘Are people who go to church being stupid?’ And my answer to him was that people of religious faith aren’t stupid. They have very strong, logical reasons as to why they believe what they do. I happen to believe they’re wrong but I also think it’s important, if we’re going to make headway and progress in a secular society, that we engage in dialogue and we respect other views. That only goes so far, of course. There are injustices and evils committed in the name of religion.”

As there are in the name of so many other things.

“Yes – so it’s not a belief in a supernatural being that is evil; it’s how it’s used. It’s human societies constructing man-made structures and cultures for controlling people. If they want to believe in Father Christmas or the tooth fairy, that’s fine.”

Did his children?

He laughs. “I thought my daughter did. I crept in one night to put a 50p under her pillow, when she wasn’t quite asleep, and she said, ‘Daddy, I forgot to put the tooth under the pillow but you can leave the money there anyway’.”

So, I ask him finally - in a magic-wand moment – if there were one thing he could know, what would it be?

“Funnily enough,” he says, “it’s not the secret of everlasting life, or is there an after-life or life elsewhere in the universe. It would be: How does the atom do what it does?”

Is that because he could then use it in practical applications?

He shakes his head. “Wonderful though those applications might be, I just want to know – because I’ve spent the last 30 years of my life struggling to understand.”


• www.cheltenhamfestivals.com/science

• Quantum: a Guide for the Perplexed is published by Phoenix, £10.99; www.jimal-khalili.com