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Jim Al-Khalili - Four Way Interview

Photo by Nick Smith
Jim Al-Khalili hosts The Life Scientific on BBC Radio 4 and has presented numerous BBC television documentaries. He is Professor of Theoretical Physics and Chair in the Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey, a New York Times bestselling author, and a fellow of the Royal Society. He is the author of numerous books, including Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed; The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance; and Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology. The paperback of his novel Sunfall is published in March 2020 by Transworld. His latest book is The World According to Physics.

Why physics?

I fell in love with physics when I was 13 or 14, when I realised not only that I was pretty good at it at school – basically common sense and puzzle solving – but because it was the subject that answered the big questions I had started contemplating, like whether the stars in the night sky went on for ever, what they were made of, how and why did the universe start, was there ultimate stuff everything was made of and even what was the nature of time. Now over four decades later, I have a lot of answers to these questions, others I am still grappling with. But my love and obsession with physics has never wained. I simply cannot understand why everyone isn’t as in love with the subject as me and so as well as trying to understand the world of physics myself I have been on a mission to try and infect everyone with my enthusiasm.

Why this book?

I think there are very many quite excellent popular science books around now, which that cover some of the most deepest and most profound topics in physics, from cosmology to string theory to the nature of reality. But I wanted to se if I could get across the essence of what we know about the physical universe in a compact, pocket-sized book, which explores the limits of what we currently understand, how we know what we know and what there is left to discover. This is a state-of-the-nation of modern physics. It is also my own personal ode to physics. 

What’s next?

Goodness, give me a chance! But well, OK, my next project is to expand on some of the ideas in this book in another even more compact format – but it won’t be the physics itself, but rather how we come to do physics: what does the scientific method actually mean? And whether some of the features of the way we do science, such as valuing doubt over certainty, not being afraid to admit mistakes of our theory is falsified by new observations of experimental results, and whether some of these habits might be exported to wider public discourse in an increasingly polarised and opinionated world.

What’s exciting you at the moment?

I would say my research into the foundations of quantum mechanics. Together with my colleagues at the University of Surrey, such as Andrea Rocco, and a group of very smart and enthusiastic grad students, I am look at whether we can advance our understanding of the quantum world, by folding ideas from a different area of physics: thermodynamics. Along with a number of researchers around the world, we are coming round to the idea that we are not going to reach a theory of quantum gravity by only combining quantum field theory and Einstein’s relativity, but we will increasing be talking about the connection between concepts such as quantum entanglement, decoherence and entropy. 


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