Words by Kate Thompson
Suddenly science is the new rock ‘n’ roll and no longer just the preserve of boffins in white coats huddled around a Bunsen burner, prodding a petri dish.
The subject is officially cool – and scientist, BBC presenter and author Jim Al-Khalili can take a great deal of the credit for helping to make it more accessible to everyone.
His popular BBC Radio 4 programme The Life Scientific, television programmes and books have helped break down barriers by showcasing scientists and sharing the stories behind their theories and discoveries.
A long-time Southsea resident, Jim is a Professor of Physics at the University of Surrey, where he also holds a chair in the Public Engagement in Science.
“I got involved in science communication just as it became respectable in the UK. At one time you were either a serious academic scientist whose life revolved around writing papers and going to conferences, or you were slightly looked down upon as a popularist.
“Now we’ve got scientists like myself and my good friend Brian Cox and there are even Hollywood movies and TV sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory.
“Scientists are no longer just seen as nerdy types – it’s now a badge of honour,” said Jim.
Having graduated from the University of Surrey, he went on to do his PhD studies there, and following a couple of years post-doctorate work at University College London, he returned to Surrey to continue his research into nuclear physics.
These days he divides his time equally between the academic duties of research, teaching, and broadcasting – and admits he now has the perfect balance in his professional life.
“I had no ambition to be a broadcaster, but I do enjoy it. I seem to have a knack for explaining that doesn’t rely on jargon. It all started by being asked to appear on a local radio station and it has grown from there.
“I put myself in people’s shoes and really think about the language I can use to explain the latest concepts in physics,” he explained.
On March 8 at The Rifle near Fratton train station, Portsmouth Skeptics will host their monthly meeting and you can find out more about the latest mind-bending theories over a pint. Jim, who is Honorary President, will deliver a talk drawing on the content from his latest book What’s Next?
“The book pulls together leading experts on everything from the future of medicine to genetic engineering. There’s also some speculative science like looking at the possibility of teleporting and time travel. We might not be going to build a Star Trek teleporter any time soon but it is fun to look at what could be possible,” he said.
Jim’s association with Southsea goes back decades. His mum Jean grew up in Portsmouth, and her father worked in the dockyard. She met the man she was to marry when she was working as a librarian at the Central Library, and Sadik Al-Khalili borrowed books to support his engineering studies at the city’s polytechnic.
“I did my A-levels at Priory School 6th form and I was one of only three boys – my mother and my wife both went to the school and it is where Julie and I met.
“I’ve been commuting to Guildford and London for years, but have never felt the urge to move away. The main attraction for Julie and I is being by the sea and Southsea Common.
“I can walk to the train station and the shops are close by – we love the cinema and regularly go to Cinema No 6 in the dockyard, and Rosie’s Wine Bar is another favourite haunt altogether it’s a great place to live”.
For more details about Portsmouth Skeptics go to http://portsmouth.skepticsinthepub.org