Jim's Blog

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.
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Clip 2: Quantum mechanics in under a minute
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Clip 3: Why many universes idea is simpler than just one.

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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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What’s in a Name? Everything.

I thought about tweeting this but realised I couldn’t explain it in 140 characters and I hate multiple run-on tweets. So here it is in a blog:

In October of this year I start presenting a new science programme on BBC Radio 4. It will be on every Tuesday at 0900 – a fantastic slot just after the Today Programme. In fact, the hope is that this will become a long-running fixture on R4 with around 30 or so episodes a year, so that the Tuesday 9am slot becomes associated with it. Just think what else is on at that time throughout the week: on Monday it’s Start the Week, Wednesday it’s Midweek, Thursday is In Our Time and Friday it’s Desert Island Discs. Tuesday is the only day without a recognised fixture.

The new controller of Radio 4, Gwyneth Williams, has been absolutely key in getting this programme commissioned – well, she’s the boss, right? Anyway, what is so fantastic is that Gwyn is very keen to get more science on Radio 4 and for science to continue its rapid move into mainstream culture – for instance, The Infinite Monkey Cage, presented by Robin Ince and Brian Cox, recently won a Sony Award.

So, what will the programme be about and why do I need your help?

The first thing to say is that this will not be like In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg, nor will it be like Material World, the excellent science magazine programme presented by Quentin Cooper. We have already recorded two pilots for the new series, differing in format, so that the powers that be in the BBC can decide on the style, format and flavour of the programme. At the moment, a very rough way of explaining what it is about is that it is like Desert Island Discs, without the discs. Each week, I will be talking to a different prominent figure from the world of science (by which I mean ‘science’ in its broadest sense: natural science, maths, engineering, technology, medicine and social science). There wil be Nobel Prize winners, shakers and movers, advisers to governments, writers or just fascinating people who have made a contribution to our understanding of the Universe. So, whereas Kirsty Young might ask her guests on DID something like ‘tell me why you never got on with your father’, I might ask ‘tell me where you were when you first had that Eureka moment that led to your scientific breakthrough’, or some such thing.

So, here’s the thing: we still don’t have a title for the programme!

We have come up with ideas like ‘Latitude‘, ‘The Life Scientific’, ‘This Scientific Life‘, ‘Science Talk‘. I even suggested ‘Curious Minds‘ but it was pointed out to me that that is the strapline for the whole of Radio 4: “Radio for Curious Minds”. Although it would be kinda nice to have the programme title reflect so perfectly the ethos of the network.
So, ideas please: either below in comments or tweet them to me (@jimalkhalili) with the hashtag #radio4sciencetitle

I thank you.

P.S. Apparently I am not allowed to offer a prize if a title is used but I will certainly publicise who came up with it if you are happy for me to do so.

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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. Continue reading
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