Jim's Blog

Let There Be Life

This is my second blog of the night. Go me. (But only my third blog of 2014!)

Currently airing on UK TV is my 2-part doc, The Secrets of Quantum Physics. It’s on BBC4, which means I can basically get stuck into some pretty heavy physics. What is so great about BBC4 viewers is that they want to be stretched. They know that many of the concepts are not going to make complete sense or sink in immediately – for that they would need to do a degree in physics, and possibly a PhD too. But they want to be made to feel clever, to be blown away by some of the deep issues in fundamental science. So well done BBC4 – and anyone at the Beeb think of cutting back on the its science coverage, particularly on my home channel of Four, better watch out.

Anyway, part 1, which can still be viewed on the BBC iPlayer in the UK here, ended with me conducting an experiment first carried out in the late 70s and early 80s to test who was right over the meaning of quantum mechanics, Einstein or Bohr. I won’t go into it any further as I covered it my last blog posting.

But I am guessing many people think that part 2 will pick up where 1 ended. Not the case. The two films – while both covering the weirdest and most mind-blowing ideas emerging from the theory of quantum mechanics and what it tells us about the world – couldn’t be more different.

Ep 1 was made by director and producer, Tim Usborne, a man I have worked with for many years and made such series as Atom (2007), Science and Islam (2008) and Shock and Awe (2011). Ep 2 was made by Kenny Scott, a director I had not worked with before but who has a real eye for film making and story telling. Oh, and both Tim and Kenny have physics degrees which, as you can imagine, helps a lot.

So, Ep 2 is called Let There Be Life and is all about the role quantum mechanics plays in biology. Now, you may be aware that I have just recently published a book on this subject: Life on the Edge (Bantam Press, 2014), written with my colleague at Surrey, molecular geneticist Johnjoe McFadden. But I should clarify here that while the TV doc and the book cover the same subject, they are not connected, by which I mean the book is an independent entity and not a ‘tie-in’ to the TV series.

In Let There Be Life, I don’t even wear my trademark smart purple shirt and black trousers (Gasp!!) Instead I trade it for a red kagool (kagoule? cagoule?) combat trousers and hiking boots and head out into the world of nature. Oh and I chase and am chased by a giant red ball in the style of the cult 60s tv series, The Prisoner (“I am not a number”.) – So it’s a bit surreal.

Ultimately, ep 1 was more historical, ep 2 is about a whole new field of science. It’s speculative, but very exciting.

Part 2 of The Secrets of Quantum Physics is on BBC4 on Tuesday 16 Dec at 21.00.

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Einstein’s Nightmare

I hope people enjoyed the first part of my BBC series, The Secrets of Quantum Physics. Since part two doesn’t really follow on from where I left off (more on that in my next blog coming shortly) I thought I would try and clarify my views here.

In the first film, called ‘Einstein’s Nightmare’, I think I went as far as anyone has on a TV programme for the general viewer, arriving at some pretty advanced ideas in quantum mechanics: the EPR paradox and Bell’s inequality, which provides a mathematical test of whether the world of the very small exists when we are not observing it or whether it just has a fuzzy potential for existence until we look, conjuring it into solidity.

The equation I had on the white board towards the end of the programme was, I said, due to John Bell and it would prove whether Einstein or Bohr was right about the nature of quantum reality. The sharp eyed among you may have noticed a CGI equation appearing on the screen a little earlier with the right hand side of the ‘inequality’ being ≤ 1. Now, it had suddenly become ≤2. Also, there are four rather than three terms on the left hand side.

The difference is that the whiteboard formula is actually called the Clauser-Horne-Shimony-Holt inequality, not the Bell inequality, and it is a slightly more sophisticated version, concocted by the four physicists it is named after, five years after Bell’s original work.

Anyway, these are subtleties. What bothered many people (well the handful who tweeted me about it anyway) was the third quantity, which was negative. Why did I then proceed to add it rather than subtract it?

To recap, I had four numbers to add together. If the total came to under 2, then Einstein’s version of quantum reality was correct and the world is deterministic, rather than probabilistic, with quantum entities existing prior to being observed. But if the total came to over 2, then Niels Bohr was right and there is no objective reality out there in the absence of measurement and the subatomic world is ruled by chance and probability.

The first two numbers were 0.56 and 0.82. The third was –0.59, so it seems I would have to take this way from the running total. The fourth number, another 0.56, should then have left me with a total of 1.35 and victory for Einstein.

That’s not what I showed.

In fact, the subtlety is that the third term, the one that had a negative value, was already negative. The inequality read:

P(a,b) + P(a,b’) – P(a’,b’) + P(a’,b) ≤ 2,

So, plugging all the numbers, this looks like:

0.56 + 0.82 – (–0.59) + 0.56
= 0.56 + 0.82 + 0.59 + 0.56 = 2.53

So, sorry Einstein, victory goes to Bohr instead.

But this seems a little ‘convenient’ you might argue. Why subtract just that third term. Well, you’re welcome to go through the derivation of the maths. It’s not easy for the uninitiated, and it can be even found on Wikipedia. But I certainly didn’t have the time to go into the details. I mean, I can get into considerable depth on BBC4 programmes (and I am very grateful to them for that). But at the end of the day, this is a one-hour TV film for non-scientists, NOT a physics lecture course, so I am not bound by the same constraints of thoroughness like I am when I teach my students at university. Those who think I am should maybe take a course on quantum mechanics.

Before I end, I should say one thing. I did give the impression in the film that I sided with Bohr on this issue. After all, that was the whole point of that experiment, right? Well, actually, if push comes to shove, I am closer to Einstein than Bohr when it comes to the interpretation of quantum mechanics.

You see Einstein was arguing for a deterministic explanation of quantum theory, suggesting that what we see as indeterministic, probabilistic quantum laws are simply because quantum mechanics is incomplete and that there are what are referred to as ‘hidden variables’ that, once revealed, would give a more common-sense picture of the quantum world – one based on objective reality, a reality that exists even when we aren’t looking. The truth is that Bell’s theorem, and his inequality that is broken, doesn’t mean Einstein was wrong about all of this, only that the most basic version is ruled out: what is called ‘local hidden variables’.

As it happens, there is another way of explaining all the weirdness of quantum mechanics, developed first by Louis de Broglie in the mid-20s, called pilot wave theory, and later made more sophisticated in 1952 by David Bohm (yes another quantum physicist with a four-letter name starting with B, along with Bohr, Born, Bell and Bose). This interpretation, called Bohmian Mechanics never really picked up many followers, mainly because of the hegemony of the Copenhagen view.

Bohmian mechanics says the electron does indeed only go through one or other slit, but it is carried along by a wave or field (called the quantum potential) and it is this wave that goes through both slits, interferes and guides the electron to the points on the screen that build up the usual interference pattern. You can learn a little more about how this idea is being explored at the moment here.

Basically, while the mathematical construct that is quantum mechanics is not much in doubt these days, what it MEANS (the interpretation of the theory) is still up for grabs. There’s the Copenhagen view, Bohmian mechanics, the Multiverse interpretation, the Transactional theory, spontaneous wave function collapse theory…) We don’t know which of these is right. Many physicists don’t care, as long as the theory works and is useful. But that is not how physics should be. Quantum mechanics is the only theory in the whole of science that gets away with having multiple interpretations of what the mathematics means. So many quantum physicists decide early on in their research careers that if they want to make progress then they simply label such issues as metaphysics and leave the debate to the philosophers.

But to my mind, what it comes down to is more than just philosophical taste as to what is going on in the quantum world. And I happen to be convinced that there is an objective reality out there. Our scientific theories are not epistemological. Here I would say Bohr was wrong, as are all his Copenhagenist desciples. Nature does thing a certain way and it is our job as physicists to figure out how it does it. We may not like it, it may be counterintuitive, but tough luck. And we may fail to ever find the ‘right’ interpretation.

What we shouldn’t do is ‘shut up and calculate’.

Right, off my chest. Now stand by for a quick preview of this Tuesday’s second part of my BBC series.

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Brian Cox on the Life Scientific

After three years and, incredibly, 78 episodes, with guests including five Nobel Prize winners and some of the most famous and illustrious names in science, as well as picking up a VLV award earlier this year for best radio programme, the Life Scientific returns for a new run. And I kick off with some Mancunian ex-pop star type bloke who likes gazing up at the sky.

On arrival at reception at the BBC’s New Broadcasting House in London a few weeks ago to record the interview, Brian Cox was due to be collected by our production coordinator, Maria, and taken up to the radio studio on the 6th floor. But before the front desk could call her to announce his arrival, Brian called me on my mobile to ask for someone to come and collect him quickly. Now, Brian knows his way around NBH very well of course, but he wasn’t sure which studio we were recording in. And the reality of life for an A-list celebrity is that he can’t stand still for very long – not because of his well publicised yet genuine energetic enthusiasm for the workings of nature, but for the simple reason that wherever he is, unless he keeps on the move, crowds gather around him demanding autographs, selfies, and answers to questions about the nature of reality. Anyway, Maria went down to quickly rescue him from the crowd quickly gathering around him.

This is the world that this professor of physics and science communicator and enthuser now inhabits. In fact, some might find it strange that I have not had Brian as a guest on the Life Scientific before now, given his prominence as one of the highest profile scientists in the UK today. Well, it was partly for that very reason: that he was just too big, that we’ve waited so long. And that doesn’t mean that by finally inviting him onto the programme we now think that his light is waning, but rather that The Life Scientific is, after three incredibly successful years, now mature, relaxed and self-confident enough in its format that it does not have to be straightjacketed into only inviting on the more traditional academic scientist.

Anyway, I was keen for the real Brian Cox to come across in the interview. I mean, yes, his ‘misspent’ youth as a member of rock band (I tease him in the interview by calling his group, Dare, a ‘boy band’) ticks the celebrity box more readily than your common-or-garden high profile academic professor, but the fact is that Coxy is a highly competent physicist and a remarkably inspirational and passionate advocate for science in general – in fact, he’s the perfect guest for the programme.

So, as a taster, I have collected here a few snippets from the programme which airs on 23 September on BBC Radio 4. I hope you enjoy them and then go on to listen to the programme, either when it airs or as a download, where it will be permanently available.

Clip 1: Apparently Brian left the band Dare to pursue his love of physics after he got into a fight with the rest of the band and they split up.

Clip 2: Quantum mechanics in under a minute

Clip 3: Why many universes idea is simpler than just one.

Clip 4: Why science matters

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Peter Higgs’ Life Scientific

Note that this blog also appears on the BBC website where it has a few video clips (yes, we filmed the radio recording!)

They can also be viewed on the IOP website.

tlsI love name dropping about some of the science superstars I’ve interviewed on The Life Scientific. ‘Richard Dawkins was quite charming on the programme, you know’, or ‘James Lovelock is as sharp as ever’, and so on. So imagine my excitement when I heard we had secured the ultimate science celebrity, Peter Higgs.
Continue reading

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Light and Dark, BBC4

LightandDarlpic Last night, my new two-part documentary, Light and Dark, aired on BBC4. The man who deserves almost all the praise is director/producer, Stephen Cooter. He wrote most of the script and put the 120 minutes together into something special. It was produced in partnership with The Open University, and essentially explores how we have uncovered the secrets of our universe by using and manipulating light. It is therefore another one of those science docs I enjoy making that mix stories from the history of science with mind-blowing big ideas and concepts that BBC4 audiences enjoy. You can watch it on BBC iPlayer here.

The central premise of this series is that what the human eye can see is only a fraction of the vast amount of matter and energy that exists out in the Universe: our best estimate is that more than 99% of all the stuff that’s out there is hidden in the dark. So how do we know it’s there?

What the commissioners, execs and controllers at the BBC have come to appreciate over the past few years is that science programmes can be delivered across different platforms and at different levels to different audiences. And the stuff I enjoy doing is at a level isn’t aimed at the lowest common denominator. My audiences tell me they don’t mind if they don’t follow all the concepts, they want to be made to feel clever while watching and to have their minds expanded to the point of exploding – in a good way. I was recently told that certain top-level execs at the BBC referred to Light and Dark as ‘mindfuck TV’. I take that as a compliment.

So last night, both during and after the programme, I received a constant stream of comments on Twitter from viewers – so many in fact that I simply could not respond to all. To be fair, most were lovely short tweets saying how much they were enjoying the programme. I have selected a few below that I thought it would be nice to share. Obviously I have removed the Tweeters’ names.

Firstly, let me say something about the cinematographic technique we used to give that wonderful lighting effect. It was achieved using what is called a ‘day for night’ filter on the camera (BTW, cameraman Tom Hayward is quite excellent). The method is also known as nuit américaine (“American night”) and is used to simulate a night scene while filming in daylight. The point being that we wanted to mix up day and night and play with the concept of light and dark. Historically, infrared movie film was used to achieve an equivalent look even with black-and-white film. So it is not new. But it does give a different feel to the films and the vast majority of viewers (going by the statistically reasonable twitter comments) thought it worked brilliantly:

“Light is the key subject of painting, ‘Light & Dark’ is certainly the best program on #art I’ve seen for a long time!”


“the cinematography is beautiful. Unique, relevant and original approach.”

But to balance this, of the very many in favour, there were a tiny number who didn’t like it:

“I think it’s spoiling the programme – to the extent that my wife and I have more or less stopped watching it.”

Well, you can’t please everyone. And at least I didn’t get what Brian Cox seems to have to put up with: complaints that the background music is too distracting.

I was also pleased that a number of viewers picked up the bits where we had some fun, such as the lift sequence going up the medieval bell tower in Venice:

“Loved Light & Dark, especially the ‘Girl from Ipanema’ nod to the Blues Brothers”

Obviously, I appreciate that although I see myself as an incredibly handsome young man, I might not appeal (in a boffiny, eye candy sort of way) to all the young ladies out there, but do I take the following as a compliment?

“My 86 year old mum enjoyed it too. She says you are very handsome. I at least agree with her taste in programmes……”

And these sort of comments don’t bother me at all, honest:

“Another great show, you are just as good as that Cox fella! ….. If only you had some hair!!!”

And as for BBC4 rather than BBC2:

“Superb TV, shouldn’t be hidden away on BBC4. How’d the ratings battle with #imacelebrity go?”

Well, I sort of assume that the overlap of audiences is rather small. And, yes it would be nice if these programmes aired on BBC2 as well. Of course, there are no DVDs to be made of the series as far as I know. So if people don’t record it or catch it on iPlayer, please don’t email or tweet me asking me how you can get hold of it.

LightandDarkpic5Finally, a lot of comments on my use of a blackboard to write down algebraic equations, not just for aesthetic reasons (in a ‘look how beautiful this maths is and how clever I am for being able to understand it’ sort of way) but for a valid reason that is part of the story. In this case it was James Clark Maxwell’s derivation of what is called the ‘wave equation’ that has imbedded in it a very special number: the speed of light (300,000,000 metres per second) starting from a very technical set of squiggles and symbols better known as Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism. Now, every physics student will learn about this stuff, but you do need to have studied advanced calculus to even begin to understand what the symbols mean, let alone follow my fast and tightly edited blackboard work.

But this is what I mean when I say the BBC have changed the way science is presented. Ten years ago it was unheard of (apart from on an Open University lecture programme) for a physics professor to write equations on a blackboard on prime time TV. I believe I am right in thinking that I started the ball rolling on my 2007 documentary, Atom. It is part of the same trend I mentioned earlier whereby audiences want to be involved in the excitement of someone appreciating high level maths used to uncover profound ideas about the Universe without necessarily needing to follow all the steps.

I should say that Brian Cox, in his Science of Doctor Who lecture at the Royal Institution that was aired on BBC2 last week, also wrote down Maxwell’s equations and derived the speed of light, just as I did. And that was on BBC2!!!!

Here are some comments about this:

“Fantastic show. Well produced, lovely cutaways complete and informative as usual. Well done! Wave equation simply stunning”

“Masterfully done, sir. (plus Maxwell’s equations on prime-time telly!) #LightAndDark”

“Yay! Shame they cut some of the algebra, but good to see this paid for by my license fee. Great show.”

“Great to see a grown up scientific programme which shows us the mathematics.”

OK, I acknowledge that many viewers would even have understood the maths. After all, I made sure all my own students were watching it.

And then there were those felt there wasn’t enough science. Yes, I know, you can’t please everyone. They asked: where was discussion of light as photons? Where was Einstein’s relativity? Where was Herschel’s discovery of infrared radiation? etc etc.
Come on guys, I only had an hour!

Anyway, I was left with a warm feeling after many tweets like these:

“Thanks for the best science TV I’ve ever seen. Brilliant! Reflections from your gleaming cranium in nearly every frame! ;)”

“Beautiful, in places almost poetic, stuff tonight. Can’t wait for part two”

Yes, part 2 is even more ‘mindfuck TV’. I will be delving into the mysteries of the Dark and reveal just how little we still know about our universe. I explain the strange discovery of dark matter and dark energy, a mysterious force that is thought to make up 73% of our universe, and is pushing it apart at an ever-more rapid rate.

LightandDrkpic2And I get to go on another fairground ride to demonstrate physics!

Enjoy. Continue reading

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Do we have free will – a physicist’s perspective?

This blog was prompted by an online article I was alerted to by Roger Highfield on Twitter, which discussed how neuroscientists were conducting experiments suggesting that free will is indeed just an illusion. It was rather dismissive of the years (no, make that centuries) of philosophical debate that has seemingly not brought us any closer to an answer. Now, as a physicist I am usually at the front of the hard-nosed scientist queue when it comes to philosophy bashing. But on this issue, I am not so sure. Continue reading

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Higgs, shmiggs.. who cares?

So, how do I feel about the Higgs discovery? Am I excited, indifferent or even just a little disappointed? Before CERN’s announcement on the 4 July 2012, I had asked myself on many occasions whether I hoped the Higgs would be discovered or not. After all, if there were no such thing as the Higgs field, or Higgs mechanisms that supposedly gave particles their mass, and hence no Higgs Boson (the particle that is no more than a brief condensation of Higgs field energy) then we would need to revise our theories of the subatomic world… and that would be pretty exciting. Well, it seems like that won’t be necessary (for now) because experiments have confirmed what theory predicted all along. Continue reading

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Faster than the speed of light?

I have been prompted to write this blog, instead of chilling with a glass of wine after a busy week and watching a movie on TV, because of the flurry of comments via email and Twitter that I have received today regarding the latest news from the Opera neutrino experiment.

It’s entirely my own fault. After the first announcement back in September I volunteered on Twitter, then on BBC television to eat my boxer shorts on live TV if this result is proven to be right. Now, many people mistakenly believe that this second repeated experiment is the confirmation needed for me to fetch the ketchup. Continue reading

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