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20 July 2022

Jim Al-Khalili Q&A: “I wouldn’t swap my home in Southsea for anywhere else”

The physicist and broadcaster on Leeds United, US visa problems, and his soft spot for the millennium.

By New Statesman

Jim Al-Khalili was born in Iraq in 1962. A theoretical physicist and broadcaster, he is a former president of Humanists UK and of the British Science Association.

What’s your earliest memory?

Being on a noisy Iraqi Airways propeller plane when I was two and a half, flying from the UK back to Iraq with my mother and baby brother. We’d spent 18 months with my grandparents in Portsmouth.

Who are your heroes?

My childhood hero would have been any one of the early 1970s Leeds United team, but probably Eddie Gray. My adult heroes are the charismatic American physicists Richard Feynman and Carl Sagan. Or maybe one of the current Leeds team!

What book last changed your thinking?

The neuroscientist Anil Seth’s recent Being You: A New Science of Consciousness.

[See also: Hannah Fry’s Q&A: “Pull handles on push doors make me feel like an idiot”]

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Which political figure do you look up to?

Thomas Jefferson (for his intellect and liberal views, not his dodgy reputation on slavery), Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

The history of quantum physics.

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In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I wouldn’t swap my home in Southsea for anywhere else. As for a time, maybe the turn of the millennium when we had hopes of resolving many of the world’s problems. Before 9/11, before the market crash of 2008, before Donald Trump, and when we still had a chance to avert the climate crisis.

What TV show could you not live without?

Sports programmes: football, tennis, Formula 1, athletics.

Who would paint your portrait?

No one. I already have a couple sitting on the floor in my office, facing the wall as I don’t know what to do with them. Portraits of people still alive are a bit silly, especially in the age of a trillion selfies.

What’s your theme tune?

Anything upbeat that you can dance to.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

To follow what my gut instinct tells me is a good opportunity to pursue, not what others think is best for me.

What’s currently bugging you?

Having to go through the lengthy and tortuous process of applying for a US visa for a book tour across the country later this year. My visa waiver (ESTA) was rejected for the first time ever and I have no idea why, other than being born in Iraq despite being British.

[See also: Howardena Pindell Q&A: “A white parent tried to get me expelled from university”]

What single thing would make your life better?

My life is great as it is and I wouldn’t change a single thing – I am in good health, have a wonderful wife, happy and successful children, I enjoy my work and I am financially secure. In fact, I try not to feel too complacent or smug about my life when so many others are struggling far more than I could ever contemplate.

When were you happiest?

In the following order: when both my children were born, my wedding day, my first date with my now wife of nearly 37 years, being elected a fellow of the Royal Society, and Leeds winning the First Division in 1992.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

A marine biologist or archaeologist.

Are we all doomed?

Not yet. I’m an optimist and refuse to believe that we won’t come to our senses before it’s too late.

“The Joy of Science” by Jim Al-Khalili is published by Princeton University Press. He will speak at Bluedot Festival at Jodrell Bank Observatory, Cheshire, on 24 July

[See also: John McEnroe’s Q&A: “You don’t win every time, no matter how good you are”]

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This article appears in the 20 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Broken Party