Professor Jameel Sadik “Jim” Al-Khalili OBE is a British theoretical physicist, author and broadcaster. He is currently Professor of Theoretical Physics and Chair in the Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey. In this interview, he speaks with Scott Jacobsen about what has driven him to pursue this career, his socially progressive outlook, his association with the British Humanist Association and the congruences between science and humanism.
The interview has been edited for clarity and readability.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: How did you become an activist and a scientist, and science communicator?
Prof. Al-Khalili: I think it’s fair to say that my career evolved gradually. When I began my academic life it very much followed the traditional route of PhD, postdoctoral research, at University College London then Surrey, then I secured a five-year research fellowship after which I became a full time (tenured) academic lecturer and moved up the academic ranks to professor by teaching and conducting research in my field of theoretical physics. I did all the usual stuff of publishing my research, attending conferences and applying for grants.
But around the mid-90s I also became active in outreach activities and communicating science more widely to the public. I found I enjoyed this as much as I did my other academic activities. I began to get involved as a contributor to radio and TV programmes and wrote my first popular science book, on black holes, in 1999. From then on, one thing led to another. Over the past decade I have been more involved in public life, but always speaking as a representative of the scientific world.
Jacobsen: Were parents or siblings an influence on this for you?
Prof. Al-Khalili: Not particularly. They were encouraging and supportive. But it was my wife who really enabled me to do what I do now.
Jacobsen: Did you have early partnerships in these activist and scientific pursuits? If so, whom?
Prof. Al-Khalili: Science is a collaborative endeavour, so over the years I have built up a wide range of colleagues and collaborators, whether in my research fields or in the public arena. The academics in the nuclear physics group at Surrey are scientists I have worked with over the years and published many research papers with. Several senior colleagues were also valuable mentors for me, supporting my development in my early career.
Jacobsen: How did you come to adopt a socially progressive worldview?
Prof. Al-Khalili: I don’t feel my worldview is particularly different from the vast majority of people I interact with on a daily basis. First and foremost, I am a scientist and so I try to see the world objectively and demand evidence for views, policies and beliefs. I am also liberal and secular in my politics. I served for three years as president of the British Humanist Association and I feel that my humanist values do indeed shape my worldview to a large extent. Last but not least, I come from a mixed culture and heritage background: born in Iraq to a Muslim Arab father and Christian English mother, I feel I can have a broader perspective on the world that is not shaped by just one ideology.
Jacobsen: Why do you think that adopting a social progressive outlook is important?
Prof. Al-Khalili: It depends on how one defines ‘socially progressive’, since I suspect that people from a wide cross-section of the political and social spectrum might regard themselves as forward-thinking and progressive. I also feel it is important to stress that being socially progressive is meaningless if we do not learn the lessons from the past. We cannot wipe slates clean and move forward without understanding where we have come from.
Jacobsen: Do you consider yourself a progressive?
Prof. Al-Khalili: I hope so. I can say that I am an optimist about the future, despite the many challenges that face the world today.
Jacobsen: Does progressivism logically imply other beliefs, or tend to or even not at all?
I think it is one of those terms that can easily be adopted by many ideologies. Maybe it is quite a clearly defined ideology or worldview in its own right. If so, then I need to learn more about what it implies.
Jacobsen: What are your religious/irreligious beliefs?
Prof. Al-Khalili: I am not religious. I guess I am defined as an atheist, which is a strange term since it implies there has to be a supernatural being, a god, in the first place for me not to believe in! Essentially ‘atheism’ is for me no more a belief system in itself than not collecting stamps is a hobby.
Jacobsen: As a progressive, what do you think is the best socio-political position to adopt in the United Kingdom?
Prof. Al-Khalili: Ideologically, I align myself with the liberal left and the social welfare stance of the traditional Labour movement.
Jacobsen: What big obstacles (if at all) do you see social-progressive movements facing at the moment?
Prof. Al-Khalili: In the UK, I think the biggest challenge is the disillusionment of many in society, such as those who voted Brexit, which manifests itself in a craving for elements of the past: a return to some perceived utopia when ‘things were better’. For me this is the opposite of a social-progressive movement.
Jacobsen: How important do you think social movements are?
Prof. Al-Khalili: I find this quite difficult to answer because today social movements can grow so quickly that there is often not enough time to consider carefully what they actually stand for. We live in an age of post-truth politics, disillusionment with establishment, vast inequalities in society, and social media that can pick up a meme and spread it faster than a virus. In this environment, social movements can thrive. But that does not necessarily mean that all social movements are for the good.
Jacobsen: What does your current work focus on?
Prof. Al-Khalili: I am doing many things. My academic career continues, as does my broadcasting, and I am excited about new developments in scientific research. In recent months I have stepped back from a lot of my public work to focus on writing, not least of which is my first novel, which I hope will come out next year.
Jacobsen: Where do you hope your professional work will go into the future?
Prof. Al-Khalili: Well, I hope to continue as it is today. I am very happy doing what I do.
Thank you for your time, Professor Al-Khalili.
Keep up-to-date with Professor Al-Khalili’s work by following his Twitter account: @jimalkhalili
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere.