Honorary degrees recognise contributions to science

Posted on 26/03/2013

l-r Robin Ince, Adam Roberts, Phil Meeson, Jim Al-Khalili

Two Honorary Doctorates were awarded to distinguished scientist and presenter Jim Al-Khalili and science comedian, writer and alumnus Robin Ince at a special ceremony hosted by the Principal, Professor Paul Layzell in the Chapel.

The special event was the culmination of an exciting day of activities that made up Super Science Saturday on 23 March. The honorary doctorates in science were conferred in front of an audience of invited guests and visitors from the open day, and both awards were made in recognition of outstanding contributions to the wider understanding of science. 

The Citation for Professor Jim Al-Khalili OBE was delivered by Dr Phil Meeson, Department of Physics and the Citation for Mr Robin Ince was delivered by Professor Adam Roberts, Professor of Nineteenth Century Literature in the Department of English.

The award of a third Honorary Degree to anatomist, author and broadcaster Professor Alice Roberts has been rescheduled for personal reasons, and is expected to be part of the Summer Graduation Ceremonies.

Read on for the full Citations below:

Citation for Professor Jim Al-Khalili OBE

Principal, it is my privilege to present to you Professor Jim Al-Khalili OBE.

Jim is a theoretical nuclear physicist and a leading expert in the study of exotic atomic nuclei. He has held a variety of prestigious posts and fellowships and is presently a Professor of Physics at the University of Surrey.

Jim, however, leads an academic double life. He holds a second Chair in the Public Engagement of Science and uses his exceptional talents as an author and broadcaster to bring an understanding of physics and science to the wider public.

Jim’s work is wide-ranging. He has presented for television topics such as the safety of nuclear power following the Japanese tsunami disaster and explanations of astrophysics, quantum physics and chaos theory. He recently presented the BBC’s Horizon episode The Hunt for the Higgs, which describes the new experimental evidence supporting our fundamental understanding of the structure of the universe and his BBC mini-series Chemistry: a Volatile History, was nominated for a BAFTA. He has also written five popular science books, already translated into more than twenty languages and he is currently working on a sixth in his new research area of quantum biology.

Jim currently presents the Radio 4 programme The Life Scientific in which prominent scientists discuss what inspires and motivates them. He extracts both the science and the human side of science, the personal stories of circumstance, achievement, frustration, joy and deep satisfaction that explain to a non-scientific audience how science actually works at a personal level.

Jim’s work tends to deliver a deeper level of explanation and scientific rigour than is usual for television and radio. He has gained respect and recognition from both fellow scientists and from the wider public for raising the intellectual content of public science presentation and for addressing more deeply the curiosity of informed laymen, including scientists of other disciplines.

In 2007 Jim was the youngest ever recipient of the Royal Society’s Michael Faraday prize and in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in the following year he was awarded an OBE; both of these for communicating science. He has also won the Institute of Physics Kelvin Medal for his outstanding work in communicating physics face-to-face at numerous events and as a writer and broadcaster.

Jim is also President of the British Humanist Association. Atheism is a curious feature for the son of an Iraqi Muslim father and an English Christian mother and comes, he says, from the deep need of scientists to appeal always to the evidence. Jim spends much time putting the case for a more rational view of the world and enlightening people to the irrelevance of mysticism. There is not a little irony that we are today presenting an award to him in a place of worship.  He describes himself as an ‘accommodationist’, a term used to describe atheists who are not intolerant of the religious faiths of others.  In the 2008 BBC production Science and Islam Jim reveals the deep and important contributions that members of that religion and society have made to science and mathematics over centuries. The founding in Persia of a culture of science and education and its influence on medieval Western thinkers is a history that is often forgotten or ignored in the West.

To make an historical point about electromagnetism for the 2011 BBC mini-series Shock and Awe: The Story of Electricity, Jim demonstrated a 19th Century scientific invention known as a Tesla Coil. This is a lethal machine designed to generate extremely high voltages of many hundreds of thousands of volts that are discharged as lightning bolts to any nearby metal objects. Relying only on a thin chain mail suit for protection the tension that builds in the moments before switch on requires, you will understand, a good deal of trust in science. Sitting alone in this contraption, Jim is unable to forget the moment when the director’s instruction finally came; “All crew, except Jim, retreat to the ten metre safety zone.”

From the middle of a major electrical storm Jim describes an exhilarating experience watching the sparks fly from his fingers, smelling the ozone and, incredibly, realising that the finger he was using to demonstrate three-quarter million Volt lightning strikes to his head was getting too hot! Not quite as exhilarating, we presume, as the moment the machine was switched off! Jim may be an atheist, but it is quite wrong to say that he does not have faith and has not suffered for his beliefs!

In recognition, therefore, of his services to the wider promotion and understanding of science, may I invite you, Principal, to confer the Degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa, of the University of London, on Professor Jim Al-Khalili.

Citation for Robin Ince

Principal, it is my privilege to present to you Mr Robin Ince.

Born in the year of the Moon Landings, 1969, Robin graduated with BA English & Drama from Royal Holloway and Bedford New College (as was) in 1991, the year the USSR collapsed into fifteen sovereign republics. His career as a stand-up had already begun: his first gigs were at the Edinburgh Festival in 1990. He rapidly built up a performance career that spanned radio, TV and the internet. I might be tempted to say: ‘but he is more than just a comic’—since he has achieved a great deal in many other areas—if it didn’t sound condescending. ‘Just a comic’ misses the point. Being a comic—that is, being funny—is at the heart of what Robin does. Being funny is what makes him such an exceptional populariser of science. He has undertaken many national tours, including most recently his ‘Happiness Through Science’ UK show (which started in 2011, but continued through into 2012 because so many additional dates were added) and his current show, ‘The Importance of Being Interested’. His audiences come knowing that not only will they laugh, they will come away better informed than they went in.

Perhaps he is best known as the co-presenter, with Professor Brian Cox, of BBC Radio 4’s most excellent ‘The Infinite Monkey Cage’, an audio tour of the world of Science and scientists that manages to combine being very funny with being very interesting. The success of this show can be gauged by the fact that last November saw the start of its seventh series.

Those who only know him through ‘Monkey Cage’ may be surprised by how wide-ranging and varied his career has been outside presenting and stand-up.  He has been the lead singer in a rock-and-roll band; a TV impressionist and script-writer; a podcaster and a pundit. He has written books, organised comedy events, and he delivered the British Humanist Association 2012 Voltaire Lecture (‘The Importance of Being Interested’). He tours continually, drawing on seemingly inexhaustible reserves of energy and stamina. In 2011 he delivered one of my favourite TED talks, a grumpily beguiling piece called ‘Does science ruin the magic of life?’ (hint: no it doesn’t). 

A prominent atheist, Robin has been made a Distinguished Supporter of the British Humanist Association, which organisation he supports by organising events at the Bloomsbury Theatre and Hammersmith Apollo at which a broad range of stars appear. The first of these happened in Christmas 2008. Called ‘Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People’, it featured Richard Dawkins, Brian Cox, Simon Singh, Ben Goldacre, Mark Steel and Shappi Khorsandi and was broadcast on BBC4. He resurrected the show last December, to great acclaim.

Robin Ince has won two ‘Chortle’ awards (Best Compere in 2007 and the Innovation Award for 2006), won the Time Out Outstanding Contribution to Comedy Award in 2006 and ‘The Infinite Monkey Cage’ won a Gold Award in the Best Speech Programme category at the 2011 Sony Radio Awards.

As I mentioned, his current national tour is called ‘The Importance of Being Interested’. It’s a well-chosen title. Keeping people interested is vital; interested in the world around them, interested in themselves and in other people. Because unless we are engaged in the fullest sense with the problems facing the world we won’t be able to solve them; and unless we are interested we can never engage. Robin has managed to stay interested himself in a wide variety of subjects; and because of that he has proved expert, deftly, charmingly and consistently, at keeping other people interested. He is a great communicator, a popular educator who reaches a much larger audience than most of the academics who wear the gown of Doctor of Science, honoris causa or otherwise. 

In recognition, therefore, of his outstanding contribution to the popularisation of science, his full-throated public defence of reason and rationality, and his long-standing association with Royal Holloway, may I invite you, Principal, to confer the Degree of Doctor of Science honoris causa of the University of London, on Mr Robin Ince.


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