Theoretical physicist Jim Al-Khalili is professor of public engagement in science at the University of Surrey and an author and broadcaster. He currently presents The Life Scientific on Radio 4 and is president of the British Humanist Association. Last month he was named one of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s 10 RISE (Recognising Inspirational Scientists and Engineers) Leaders for 2014.
Where and when were you born?
How has this shaped you?
Hard to tell. I grew up in an English-speaking household, with the BBC World Service a constant in the background. I spoke Arabic outside the home (friends and school). It was a very happy childhood in what was then a quite secular Iraq, albeit living under a dictatorship. This was before Saddam – we moved to the UK permanently in 1979, two weeks after he came to power. We got out just in time; a few months later and I would have been conscripted for the Iraq-Iran war and unlikely to be alive today.
What were your immediate thoughts when you were named one of the 10 RISE Leaders?
Pleasantly surprised. I appreciate that I have a high public profile, but that is from my writing and media work – essentially as a “public scientist”, rather than for my research. I am still research-active, but the main body of my work was when I was in my early to mid-career during the 1990s. That was when I held an EPSRC Advanced Research Fellowship and was publishing half a dozen papers a year and making a real splash in my area of nuclear physics.
Why should Joe Public care about engineering and science leaders?
Science and engineering is on the up. Wider society (certainly in the UK) now acknowledges, by and large, the importance they play in shaping how we live.
David Willetts (and the government) has banged the drum for STEM for a while. Are policymakers neglecting other academic fields as a consequence?
I am sure that many in the arts and humanities will argue this. But I’m not convinced. The fact is that getting sufficient numbers of students to study STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] subjects is vitally important if we are to have enough trained scientists and engineers to maintain the UK’s position as a world leader in the knowledge economy of the 21st century.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Follow your instincts and stay true to yourself. If an opportunity comes up, seize it. You will look back later in life and be glad you did.
What has changed most in higher education in the past 10 years?
It has become vastly more expensive for students of course. This means that as academic teachers we are having to get our house in order. Our students now rightly demand that we provide the highest-quality education. We have to put the effort in; otherwise we are selling them short. It is not the sort of phrase we are comfortable with in academic circles, but the students deserve value for their money.
What’s an undergraduate degree worth?
It depends on the subject. Medicine, law, science and engineering are the same as they’ve always been. They provide the necessary training that cannot be obtained elsewhere. But I find it sad that many university graduates in other subjects end up working in jobs that a generation ago they could have walked into with just A levels, or even without A levels – only now they are also saddled with a huge debt.
Do you think that the increasing presence of academics in the wider media is dispelling the dusty, reclusive, ivory-towered professor image?
I should jolly well hope so. We’ve come a long way since the days of the quaint Open University professors with their kipper ties, beards and sandals. I have nothing against beards of course, but sandals with socks were never a good look. What is also nice is that we are no longer obliged to wear the obligatory white lab coat to identify ourselves as the “science boffin”. The public are beginning, I hope, to acknowledge that scientists are also members of society, with the same concerns, interests and views as everyone else, and so we look and behave pretty much like everyone else too.
Who would win in a fight between you and that other well-known physicist, Brian Cox?
Until recently, I would have said definitely me, but I know he has recently become something of a fitness fanatic and does a lot of boxing. So I’m not so sure any more.
What do you do for fun?
Watch television: movies, high-quality dramas and lots of sport. I enjoy regular walks with my wife, Julie, along the seafront at Southsea where I live.
What’s your biggest regret?
Falling in love with Leeds United Football Club in the early 1970s.