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Jim Al-Khalili awarded an Honorary Doctorate

Posted on 23/05/2013

Phil Meeson with Jim Al-Khalili

The distinguished scientist and presenter, Jim Al-Khalili was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in science by Principal, Professor Paul Layzell, in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the wider understanding of science. The special event was the culmination of an exciting day of activities that made up Super Science Saturday on 23 March. 

The Citation for Professor Jim Al-Khalili OBE was delivered by Dr Phil Meeson, Department of Physics. 

Citation for Professor JimAl-Khalili OBE

Principal, it is my privilege topresent 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.


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