Wednesday, 25 September 2013

"This Statement Is A Lie": Interview with Jim Al-Khalili

written by Fergus Houghton-Connell, with interview by Sampad Sengupta

Jim Al-Khalili reads out the sentence “This statement is a lie” from the screen. A mixed reaction from the crowd ensued. Some looked baffled, others looked intrigued, a few laughed and I saw someone with an expression on their face as if to say “So?”. The problem is that if the statement is a lie, then it is in itself telling the truth, so it can’t be a lie. But the statement can’t be the truth because the context of the sentence directly contradicts that conclusion, so we have a paradox. A paradox is simply something that is self contradictory, despite logical reasoning.  

Mr Al-Khalili started the night off in a packed DRT with one of the simpler paradoxes. Imagine a box in which you put a cat and a bottle of poison. This poison is part of a mechanism such that it could break at any random time, thus killing the poor innocent cat; a sad end it seems. However, assuming we can’t see inside of the box and that the lid is firmly shut, until we open the lid, we don’t know whether the cat is dead or alive. Due to the random nature of the poison mechanism the cat can therefore be seen as both dead and alive. How can something be dead and alive, I hear you cry? Well, this is an example of one of the fascinating paradoxes that was introduced during the night.

Al-Khalili once said, “Public scientists were regarded as lower calibre, but that attitude is gradually changing”. ‘It was a problem among scientists then that if you were a good scientist then you should spend your time doing research, maybe a bit of teaching, but doing what academics should do’, he explains. ‘ If you went out into the public and started selling books, somehow you were selling out, you had to make the science much simpler. You were betraying your colleagues by simplifying too much.’

Al-Khalili is a huge advocate of communicating science and for the past two years has been hosting BBC Radio 4’s Life Scientific. ‘That (attitude) has completely changed now. Even when I started doing popular science 20 years ago a lot of my colleagues were saying you shouldn’t be doing that, you should be getting research grants and doing papers. Now, because there is so much science on TV on the radio and the web, that its become a respectable thing for scientists to do. People like Brian Cox do it on a vast scale; he’s reaching people who would never be that interested in science. We’re now regarded as proper scientists, its something that scientists aren’t ashamed of doing anymore.’ 

Al-Khalili seemed delighted that someone under the age of 60 listened to Life Scientific when we said we listened to it. On the program he has interviewed Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the discoverer of Pulsars, Richard Dawkins and many more. ‘I can talk about inspiring next generation and all, but because I work as the admissions tutor in the Physics department at Surrey University I get to see all the Ucas personal statements and I would say roughly half of the 500 applicants that came through last year mentioned Brian Cox. Some people will say he’s a pretty boy and not a real physicist but here are students doing A-Levels who are originally inspired to do Physics because they saw Brian Cox on TV. Some people prefer watching BBC 2 or listening to radio 4, but as long as there are different ways of explaining science then it is our job to tell people what we’re up to.’  

Jim said his inspiration was a good teacher at school and a class test that he did well in and his mates failed. ‘The teacher hauled me up in front of the class and patted me on the head and I remember thinking Hm, this is quite cool”, and from then on I wanted to know all about Physics.’ 

My passion at the moment mixes my current book that I’m writing and my research and its an area called “Quantum Biology”. We’re used to Quantum Mechanics applied in Physics and Chemistry, but now we’re starting to appreciate areas of molecular biology, certain mechanisms, like the way enzymes capitalise reactions, the way DNA bonds, that can only be explained if you have Quantum effects taking place, so I’m writing a popular science book, called “The Quantum Biologist”, about Quantum Biology. It’s one of those subjects where Physicists, Chemists and Biologists are working together; it’s now becoming respectable. 5 to 10 years from now, that will be huge.’ 

After such a memorable lecture on physical paradoxes, it seems Jim Al-Khalili’s next lecture could be on Physical Biology. If so we look very much towards it but in the mean time we have to wonder whether this statement is in fact a lie.


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