I must confess I have been feeling a little guilty recently as the day of the Government’s Annual Spending Review and impending cuts looms ever closer. We all know there will be the inevitable job loses, tightening of belts and financial hardships across the whole of society. Universities in particular, for that is the sector I work in, face an uncertain future with huge cuts to teaching and research budgets and proposed hikes to student fees to supposedly counteract them.
Yet at the same time, my own career is going rather well thank you very much. I am writing this blog while travelling down from Leeds to London Kings Cross, returning from the Ilkley literature Festival where I gave a talk on my new book, Pathfinders. I had a sell-out audience of about a hundred and fifty people, in a charming venue called The Playhouse, who were on the whole very appreciative (I did have to crank up the charisma dial to its syrupy max to placate a young Muslim woman over my comments that the veil and hijab were in my view relatively recent cultural rather than religious requirements in the Muslim world).
Apart from this far from onerous speaking engagement, my wife Julie and I spent the weekend walking the Moors, eating excellent food (we strongly recommend, if you’re ever in Ilkley, the Wheatley Arms’ Sunday roast) and attending the odd event elsewhere at the Festival. Aleksei Sayle was in excellent form on Sunday evening, and since he was staying in the same hotel as us, we considered hanging around in the bar after his talk to meet him when he got back. Our paths had crossed just once before when, earlier this year we had both been invited to say a few words at the launch of Simon Singh’s libel reform campaign where there had been a mixture of scientists and comedians in attendance, with the likes of me, Richard Wiseman and A.C. Grayling sharing the floor with Aleksei, Dara O’Briain, Dave Gorman and Robin Ince. Anyway, I didn’t end up meeting him again in Ilkley as our hike across the Moors that morning meant we were pretty much done in and so we went up to bed after the one drink.
So yes, my career is in pretty good shape at the moment, with a new book out, half-way through filming a two-part series on modern physics (working title: “Everything and Nothing”) for BBC4, another three-parter commissioned (The Story of Electricity) also for BBC4, due to start production in a couple of months, a radio series for the World Service on nuclear power for early next year, and a whole range of interesting public events, as well as my teaching duties (two undergraduate courses) and research programmes in nuclear theory and quantum biology, on the whole I’d say that my cup runneth over.
Within the space of one week I’ll be sharing the stage with two of the most famous names in science: Stephen Hawking and David Attenborough. Next week, on the evening of the 20th October, I am introducing Stephen at the Royal Albert Hall, where he will be giving a rare lecture on his new book, The Grand Design. There will be a sell-out crowd of five and a half thousand people who have paid handsome prices for tickets (although they do get a copy of his book on arrival). Although my role is mainly to welcome everyone and introduce Stephen, he has asked me to lay to rest the recent furore in the media over his ‘we have no need for God’ comments. I am more than happy to do this as I am familiar with his views and quite understand that he would rather concentrate in his lecture on his thoughts about the nature of the Universe and how close he believes we are to a ‘theory of everything’.
Then, on the following Wednesday evening, I am interviewing the great Sir David Attenborough at the University of Surrey in front of a live audience of around 600 staff, students and members of the pubic. This is part of a regular series of such events called “Jim meets…” during which I chat to major figures in public life about their careers and lives. With Lord Robert Winston and the Archbishop of Canterbury safely ‘met’, I am hugely excited about chatting to David, who is a big hero of mine. Next year, I have Brian Cox and Dara O’Briain lined up.
The only complaint I have, if indeed I am in any position to gripe, is that my schedule in the run-up to Christmas is rather hectic. In the space of six weeks or so I have lined up trips to Qatar, Dresden, Hong Kong, Beijing and New York. Fitting these in during term time has been tough as I do not want to be rearranging too many of my lectures or leave my PhD students stranded for more than week or two at a time. Luckily, neglecting the family is not such a problem any more. Julie is able to travel with me when possible now, David is already settled into university life at Southampton, and Kate, having started her A-levels, seems to have matured into an independent young lady (who has in any case long since got used to my not being around for chunks of time).
I guess what most excites me at the moment is my book coming out last week. Positive reviews in the Times, Telegraph and Observer and Scotsman have appeared and I hope more will follow. The subject of my book, medieval Arabic science, has been a passion for past few years and I am immensely proud of the final product. It’s not up there yet in any best-sellers list but, hey, early days, and one can dream, surely? Actually, all the signs are good: it is already being translated into eight languages – deals that were secured before I had even finished writing. And if the audience at Ilkley is anything to go by, I’d like to think people will find it as fascinating a subject as I do.
Coming up though is next Wednesday. Let’s hope the announcement of the spending cuts doesn’t put too big a dampener on the Royal Albert Hall event with Hawking that evening – interesting times indeed.
 When I first typed this out I had mistakenly written ‘odorous’. On reading it out to Julie before hitting the button that would make it go ‘live’ she pointed out that she couldn’t recall any particularly unpleasant smell at the lecture venue. Doh!