Wot I dun in 2010

So, I’m sitting on a train back from Waterloo to Portsmouth on a Saturday morning having just been interviewed on Radio 4’s travelogue programme, Excess Baggage. I really should now be reading that PhD thesis in my bag that I am still only a quarter of the way through. I mean it’s not as though it isn’t on a riveting topic in theoretical physics (“Antisymmetrisation of few-body models for light nuclei”) – and if the author sees this blog before the Tuesday viva, rest assured I will have read and digested it before then and promise to ask only ‘nice’ questions during your examination.

Anyway, I will get back to reading the thesis shortly, but this may well be a slightly longer journey than usual due to the snow, so enough time to finish this blog. After all, I have not updated my website since October and feel a little guilty knowing how many millions of people around the planet hang on my every word. You see, that’s the problem; in my blogs I feel I should only be writing about deep and profound subjects from my corner of science, rather than the self-indulgent, self-promoting ‘wot I’ve got up to recently’ stream of consciousness that is the preserve of ‘proper’ celebrities as well as the delusional egos for whom Facbook Status Updates are just not enough. But then, methinks, who am I to judge whether what I have to say is of any interest to anyone. For instance, is there some threshold number of Twitter followers, for instance, above which one qualifies for such indulgences (a sort of Fortran: “if (TFN.gt.N) write ‘self-indulgent crap'”, whatever N may be). Of course, I am utterly disinterested in the number of Twitter followers I may have (3377 at the time of writing)…

Oh, for heaven’s sake, here is a brief update on ‘wot I have been up to recently’.

Relaxing with my sketchpad while filming in Egypt

On Excess baggage this morning I talked about my journey and adventures around the Middle East making my not so recent Science and Islam series for BBC4, and which I found so valuable as part of my research for my very recent book, Pathfinders: The Golden Age of Arabic Science (‘plug’). I regretnownot telling my amusingly appropriate excess baggage anecdote. So here it is instead. After we finished filming in Iran, my film crew and I (OK, just me, my director, Tim, and cameraman, Andy) had paid the few hundred dollars for our excess baggage, consisting of box upon box of film kit, and were boarding at the gate for the flight out of Tehran, when we were stopped and informed that we had underpaid; we had thought it suspiciously cheap at the check-in desk. Now, we were told we could not board until we had settled up the extra twelve hundred dollars! Unfortunately, we were unable to pay by card and, between us, could only cobble together about seven hundred dollars.

So, here is where each of us reverted to type and tried a different approach. I whipped out my wallet, winked at the Iranian Airways agent at the gate and asked in my most reasonable ‘let’s sort this out quickly young man’ voice how much he would accept as a bribe to let us through. Tim, the director, tried appealing to his better nature by wringing his hands together, pleading and beseeching in his best ‘think about the children’ whiny voice; a voice, I might add, that he had been deploying with considerable success throughout our travels on airport security guards to ensure our film rushes avoided going through the security machines (not that they’d have been damaged, I am sure). Neither of our two approaches proved in the least bit effective on the chap at the departure gate now though. So, it fell to Andy the cameraman to offer a pragmatic solution. ‘Look’, he reasoned, ‘this is how much cash we have. Surely you can calculate what excess weight would have incurred exactly this amount. All you have to do is cross out the true weight and replace it with this reduced one and we can then pay you the correct amount’. Incredibly, this was deemed to be an excellent compromise and once a pocket calculator had been located and deployed, we were let through. Cameramen are so wise.

What have I been up to recently? Well, I am mostly through filming my new two-part series for BBC4 called “Everything and Nothing” (a sort of poor man’s version of Brian Cox’s forthcoming Wonders of the Universe). I am making it with the brilliant young director, Nic Stacey, who made my Secret Life of Chaos doc that came out earlier this year and which won an international science film prize in Athens a few months ago. Our new series is about cosmology, Einstein’s theories of relativity and quantum physics – everything from the Michelson and Morley experiment on the ether to the meaning of dark energy. So, while Brian gets to travel the world on a big budget production, I at least get the chance to explain the Lamb shift. How cool is that! I mean, for fuck’s sake, I describe quantum electrodynamics on TV, the sort of stuff I wouldn’t even cover in an undergraduate physics degree. Thank you BBC4. I am also hoping to be able to at last explain the meaning of the Dirac equation beyond just its aesthetic mathematical beauty.

As soon as I finish filming on E&N, I pretty much jump straight into my next TV project, another BBC4 series (this time, a three-parter) called The Story of Electricity, which I am really looking forward to. That will happen throughout Feb-May and has to be fitted around my university duties, mainly teaching my final year course on complex variable theory. I am also pretty excited about being one of the judges on the 2011 Art Fund Prize, the UK’s biggest arts award (£100,000 to the best museum or art gallery). I am the token scientist on a judging panel chaired by Michael Portillo and I follow in the footsteps of Marcus du Sautoy and Steve Jones.

Interviewing Dr Rowan Williams at the University of Surrey in March

Looking back over 2010 though I think I can feel pretty pleased. After an incredibly difficult 2009 for personal reasons, I don’t think I could have crammed much more into this year: Desert Island Discs, a Bafta nomination for my Chemistry series, the five part C4 series, Genius of Britain, getting to introduce Stephen Hawking at the Royal Albert Hall, interviewing David Attenborough and the Archbishop of Canterbury (not at the same time), filmed cameo appearances (for 2011 transmission) on Horizon with Ben Miller and in the finals of Masterchef, and last but by no means least, the publication of my new book, Pathfinders.

With Sir David Attenborough in October at Surrey University.

Three years in the writing, I have to say I am immensely proud of it. It has received some very nice reviews, particularly from academic historians, which is very gratifying considering I have tried to aim it at as broad a readership as possible by make it entertaining as well as both historically and scientifically accurate. It is already being translated into eight languages and the US edition comes out in March, then the paperback in the UK later in 2011.

With Julie at the Great Wall of China while on a recent visit to Beijing.

As the year draws to a close, I am looking forward now to a couple of weeks off with the faaaamly (Eastenders voice please). I’ll be making my traditional coffee fudge again (having almost perfected it last Christmas after 24 years of failed attempts), playing my guitar, eating, watching lots of telly, eating, drinking, eating, thinking about an outline for my new book (still a secret for now), eating, possibly visiting friends in Macclesfield, drinking and eating with them, then back down to Portsmouth for a New Year’s Eve murder mystery party, no doubt with more eating and drinking.

Right, back to that thesis. Very best wishes to you all for 2011.

About Jim Al-Khalili

Professor of theoretical physics at the University of Surrey, author and broadcaster.
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4 Responses to Wot I dun in 2010

  1. Gurbir Singh says:


    Off the many other things you could have included was the 3 talks and a podcast recording on 3rd November in Liverpool. In the light of this hectic year, may be this was .. just routine?
    There were two, equally thought provoking comments to your recording on episode 37 for http://www.astrotalkuk.org.

    Perhaps because you (like me) are an atheist, I enjoy even more wishing you a very merry Christmas.

    Here’s to an equally productive and fun filled 2011.


  2. Bob Slydell says:

    Where did you find your director and cameraman? http://www.iCrewz.com possibly?

  3. Well, you certainly did have a busy 2010 Jim! But, there’s no excuses after a festive indulgence to get lax in 2011. Come on Jim, you have set the bar high and we expect nothing less than very high standards!
    Sounds like your festive plans and New Year activities are a proper way to enjoy life. I hope they went well.
    Happy New Year Jim. Keep up the fantastic inspirational awe inspiring work and, thank you for all you bring us now and the coming year.
    Best wishes.
    Tony Martin

  4. Edward Woodward says:

    Desert Island discs isn’t a programme I listen to. Did you choose a religious book at the end or did you abstain? I’d have chosen the thickest religious book I had never read, just to give me as much as possible to read 🙂

    I think though that atheists should be able to choose a non religious (nearly wrote “non fiction”) book as a last choice though – fair is fair.

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