|Professor Jim Al-Khalili|
|Investment and communication|
|Science and science fiction|
GC – Does science fiction sell discovery too easily, promising us the stars and clean limitless energy and robot servants, and if so, how do we realign expectation? Or with smartphones and global communication, are we already living in the future?
JAK – I think to some extent, yes, technology is moving so fast now, that science fiction is losing the fight to predict what the future will be like in ten years, because it’s going to be beyond even the wild expectations of science fiction writers. I don’t have an issue with science fiction, it always has an important role in helping us become futurologists, and helping us imagine what the world might be like, but at the same time, technology is changing so fast, I don’t see any dangers.
GC – Following on from that, what were your favourite science fiction stories that inspired you to take a career in physics, and do you think that sense of wonder still exists in modern books and films?
JAK – Well for me, I think what I really loved as a kid was watching the old Star Trek, the original series, so late sixties, early seventies. There was very little popular science around at that time, and so really, having decided to go into science, I really discovered, the people I was inspired by, my science heroes, I really only encountered once I had already started studying science seriously myself. Popular science writers like Carl Sagan, science fiction writers like Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, and then popular science writers in this country, people like Paul Davies, John Gribbin and, Richard Dawkins who in the early to mid eighties were an inspiration to me as a young scientist myself.
GC – As a scientist, is it sometimes difficult to watch a film or a television show without going “but you can’t do that?” Are there any violations you find particularly irksome, or are you more forgiving if you’re being entertained?
JAK – I think the latter. I think if you’re going to watch science fiction, even if it’s as silly as Doctor Who, there’s no point watching it if you’re going to try and pick holes in it, it’s too easy, so I suspend my disbelief, tongue firmly in cheek, and sit back and enjoy it for what it is. I don’t expect it to be accurate scientifically, and it doesn’t bother me as much as it does many other scientists, when it does get things wrong.
GC – Last question, and it’s the big one. In your mind, what is the next frontier of science that you would want us to reach, and what would it mean to us?
JAK – Gosh, yes, that is a big one. Of course, the important things in science will be outside of my field, things like finding a cure for cancer. Or certainly in my field, finding a solution to resolve the issue of what’s going to happen when our climate changes so dramatically. I guess mainly for me, finding a working fusion energy reactor would be something, delivering clean energy for everyone would be a holy grail, and then more theoretically, closer to home for, how the Hell does that atom exist in two places at once? Finding the resolution, a single definitive explanation for the weirdness of quantum mechanics, that would suit me.
GC – Professor Jim Al-Khalili, thank you so much.
JAK – You’re welcome.
The Edinburgh International Science Festival has recently concluded, but will return in 2013
Professor Jim Al-Khalilis’ book, Paradox: The Nine Greatest Enigmas in Science, is now available from Bantam
Special thanks to Frances Sutton on the Science Festival media team for their kind assistance in arranging the interview.
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