What I’ll be up to in 2011

So, 2011 is already shaping up to be another busy and exciting year for yours truly. As I write, I am currently coming to the end of filming on Everything and Nothing, a beautiful 2 x 1 hour documentary about some of the deepest ideas in science. It can be encompassed by the following quote by Blaise Pascal : Man is equally incapable of seeing the nothingness from which he emerges and the infinity in which he is engulfed.
The image above is a publicity still from the programme symbolising the opposite nature of matter and antimatter that can be created out of the vacuum. In the first part of the series, The Story of Everything, I cover cosmology the infinite universe, the big bang (Olbers’ paradox is a central theme) then, in the second programme – yes, you guessed it: The Story of Nothing – I talk about the meaning of the void, and whether we can ever truly have completely empty space. So I discuss the history of work on the vacuum, the aether, quantum fluctuations and antimatter. It’s an opportunity to get stuck in to the Dirac equation again, and look out for the section about Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. The programme is being made by Furnace TV with Nic Stacey, one of the most talented young producer/directors in Britain today. I made The Secret Life of Chaos with him, and E&N is even better. I hope this is his big break. It should be transmitted on BBC4 sometime around Easter. Oh, and there is a good chance the order of transmission will be reversed, so The Story of Nothing may come first. The photo below is from our last shoot, taken on a rooftop in Piccadilly (just behind the giant Coca Cola sign). From left to right: Nic Stacey (director), me, James Sandy (sound) and Andy Jackson (cameraman extraordinaire).
But before Everything and Nothing is even ‘in the can’ I begin filming on a new 3 x 1 hour series about electricity. It is being made by the BBC’s in-house science unit. It is exciting for me because I am reunited with director and good friend, Tim Usborne, with whom I worked on Atom, Science and Islam and Genius of Britain. I am also looking forward with working with two other young directors, Jon Eastman and Alex Freeman – each of the three will make one episode. It’s going to take up a big chunk of my time and will keep me very busy until end of May. It will hopefully be aired later in the year.
I am also excited to be involved again on Channel 4’s sequel to Genius of Britain – working title: Wonders of the Modern World (hmm, familiar sounding working title). I hope to be co-presenting with a number of big names: Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, David Attenborough, James Dyson, Joy Reidenberg, Maggie Alderin Pocock, Michio Kaku, Robert Winston, Kathy Sykes, Kevin Fong, and Mark Evans. Not a bad line-up, eh?
On radio, I am making a series for the BBC World Service on Nuclear Power with Jo Wheeler, which I am really looking forward to. But the really big news for me in 2011 is that I will become the regular presenter of a brand new weekly half hour Radio 4 programme to be called “Latitude”. Think of it as a bit like Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time, but rather than being about the history ideas, mine will focus on the current ideas in science and the scientists who come up with them. The exact format has yet to be finalised but the plan is for it to start in October (on Tuesday mornings between 0900 and 0930) and to run for at least 30 weeks each year.
On the writing front, I don’t want to say too much just yet but suffice it to say I will be embarking on a new popular science book this year. Oh, and my Pathfinders book comes out in the US at the end of March, as well as in about a dozen other countries in the coming months. The paperback will come out possibly later this year in the UK, but no final decision has been made about exact dates.
With all this to fit in, I am inevitably cutting down on my public lecture commitments and am having to turn down many invitations that I would ordinarily love to have accepted. On the research front, there is plenty going on. We await the decision from STFC on my nuclear physics group’s rolling grant; my student, Spencer, is making impressive progress on his quantum biology project modelling genetic mutations through proton tunnelling and exploring the implications of the quantum Zeno effect; and our joint Surrey/UCL work on quantum computing has been chosen for this summer’s exhibition at the Royal Society (title: Schrodinger’s Cat in a Silicon Chip).

About Jim Al-Khalili

Professor of theoretical physics at the University of Surrey, author and broadcaster.
This entry was posted in Blog. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to What I’ll be up to in 2011

  1. I am really looking forward to “Everything & Nothing” and the untitled documentary series on electricity.

    Do you have any plans to do a documentary series on Symmetry in Physics (or in Science & Mathematics in general) ?

    I have listened to Feynman’s lecture “Symmetry in the Physical Laws” and I am always captivated by the work of Emmy Noether in determining relationships between symmetries and the conservation laws. I recognise that “Atom” may have covered some of this material but I would really welcome a 3 part series for example, dedicated to the topic of symmetry.

    In particular I would like to understand how change in quantum mechanical phase is analagous to the conservation of electric charge. If Mathematicians have the Euler Identity, then maybe this connection between symmetry and the conservation law could be the equivalent for the physicist.

    Prof Ian Stewart of Warwick Univeristy wrote a wondeful book on the suject of Symmetry (“Why Beauty is Truth) and I think some of the ideas discussed in the book would make an excellent tv series.

    I’m hoping this could be something to look forward to in 2012.

  2. zeinab says:

    This sounds really exciting! Can’t wait. And the studio design is amazing!

  3. Andy Ferguson says:

    Having thoroughly enjoyed your previous series, I was really looking forward to ‘Everything and Nothing’. I have just finished watching the first programme which, like all the others thus far, was going well until you perpetuated a common misconception and inflated Hubble’s reputation.

    I refer to your inference that it was Hubble, in 1923, who discovered the redshift/blueshift of distant objects. This is not true and the real credit is due to Vesto Slipher ( Flagstaff Observatory), who discovered spectral shifting in 1912. Furthermore, the significance of his discovery was understood by several other astronomers, including two at the Lick Observatory, before 1917.

    Hubble combined his own measurements with Slipher’s and, in collaboration with Milt Humason (also unfairly forgotten), correlated the redshift-distance data into what is now known as Hubble’s Law. Henrietta Leavitt also figured, but at least she still gets some credit.

    Marcus Du Sautoy made the same mistake in his last series. If you doubt the information, I suggest you double check with Chris Lintott, who is a bona fide astronomer and also a Vesto Slipher supporter 🙂

    I’m sure it was a one-off and the second programme will pass smoothly, as is the norm.

  4. Thomas Steinbacher says:


    I just watched the first part of your documentary series “The story about everything”. To me this is one of the “smoothest” popular science documentary I have ever seen: A very nice presentation (you mentioned Nic Stacey – I hope we will see more of him), a good structure (every bracket opened at the beginning is being closed) and a clear illustration of all the interesting facts you chose to present. I’ve seen a lot of documentaries of that kind but none has been that “smooth” (however I mostly saw German ones, as I am in GB only for a visit).

    So thanks for this creation and I can’t wait till next monday (“The story of nothing”).

  5. Dean C says:

    Just a quick note to say I really enjoyed Everything and Nothing, I’ve just finished watching the second part which I’ve been looking forward to all week.

    I don’t come from scientific background, nor did I spend much time studying maths and science at school, but physics has always intrigued me immensely and your ability to simplify a complicated theory is something I (as well as many others I’m sure) can appreciate.

    It seems the importance of being able to communicate science to the general public like myself is slowly being recognised, and although some may disagree I believe the BBC are doing a fairly decent job of that. I particularly enjoy the pace of your documentaries, while the information is accessible the pace is not tedious.

    I’m certain if the ball keeps moving in this direction science can become a far more popular, interesting, and appealing subject to people of all ages (they just haven’t realised it yet!)

    Keep up the good work and all the best!

  6. Andrew Kirby says:

    Jim, I thought Everything and Nothing was marvellous- one of the highlights of the year. Calm, sober, non-patronising but illuminating. Makes me wish I’d done physics so I could figure out where that spare antimatter went, and whether you can reach the edge of space-time. Or even understand the question!!! Watching your films feels like you are genuinely trying to distill difficult concepts down into something a non-physicist could cope with, rather than grandstanding.
    Well done and many thanks!

  7. Daniel Einon says:

    I thought I would leave a quick message to thank you for the Everything and Nothing programmes. I have watched them both twice now and find them absouletly fascinating and inspirational. I am currently emabarking on an undergraduate degree in computing. Following watching your programmes I am feeling pulled toward also studying physics as a later subject. Thanks again and well done.


  8. aart says:

    Dear Prof. Al-Khalili,

    is your expected target audience changing with your newer programs?


  9. Gavin Collins says:

    Everything and Nothing was an extraordinary pair of documentaries, and congratulations to Jim Al-Khalili and the team of programme makers who created such a mind expanding programme. Like the excellent documentary on biological theory, The Secret Life of Chaos , many well established scientific ideas that I had never heard of or thought about until now were explained in the programme that provided context necessary to understand ideas about “Life, the Universe and Everything”. I think the imagination that went into the production paid dividends, as the graphics, music and presentation made them a joy to watch.

    In particular, I liked the way the series mixed scientific ideas with the chronological order of their development (the history of ideas) with some really clever analogies and scientific experiments. This combination of complex and abstract ideas was brought to life by Everything and Nothing in an intuative and entertaining fashion.

    I have been following such programmes such as The Cool Universe about how astronomy and theorestical physics are being used to develop new ideas about how the planets and the solar system were formeed, and I hope that Kim Al-Khalili will be making many more high quality documentaries that illustrate how these branches of science are working together to paint a clearer understanding of how our existence came into being.

  10. Jim says:

    Please please do something on infinite, i have seen one docu so far from the bbc but it left me with more questions than answers. Your descriptions of science really help me to understand and after seeing “nothing” and “everything” infinite understanding of infinite would really help me understand where we really are today, if infinite is true, there i no question we are mirrored…it drives me insane 🙂

  11. Robert Williamson says:

    ‘Everything’ and ‘Nothing’ were simply two of the best science TV programmes broadcast this year. Keep up the great work!

  12. majamkinskiandarejjyklingklongklong says:

    Hi there, I just watched the Higgs Bosun programme on BBC2 and it was very interesting.
    What I cannot quite grasp is if the theory is proven what value will it provide to human existence?
    A great deal of scientific discovery is very dangerous to our existence.When humans analyze and study something, they usually do so with an agenda to learn to control/influence/manipulate it. Is there any danger in tampering with existential forces? Will it help resolve human suffering ? Can such funding and intense excitement about the discovery be separated from how such knowledge will be used ? (if it does indeed have any practical use) As a scientist you must have faith in those in control to be able to carry out your work but it is evident that this trust could be misplaced.

    Does this weigh on physicists minds?

    From a normal person with an odd name. (and no physics PHD’s)

  13. Muhammad Ahsan says:

    alkhalili is an expert he is a muslim scientist and we are proud of him may Allah Almighty live him long

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *