Jim Al-Khalili reads Sunfall at FutureFest Lates.
Theoretical physicist Al-Khalili, is a familiar face on the BBC, presenting such programmes as The Secret of Quantum Physics (2015), Gravity and Me (2017) and The Joy of AI (2018). In between demystifying physics on television for non-experts like ourselves, and his current research into quantum mechanisms in molecular biology at the University of Surrey, Al-Khalili has somehow managed to find time to write his debut novel, science-fiction page-turner Sunfall.
Upon our arrival at the Vaults Theatre, directly underneath Waterloo station, we were a little apprehensive that the talk would be nothing more than an opportunity for Professor Al-Khalili to promote his book. Luckily, our initial fears proved to be unfounded.
Al-Khalili did begin by reading a short chapter of Sunfall – carefully choosing an extract that avoided spoilers – transporting us to San Juan, Puerto Rico in the not-too-distant future, as two women in an apartment block bear witness to a huge, incoming tsunami. The passage had all the feel of a Hollywood blockbuster (the huge tsunamis of Deep Impact (1998) and San Andreas (2015) sprang to mind).
Set in 2041, Sunfall depicts the world on the brink of catastrophe – the Earth’s magnetic poles are reversing (which can happen, and did happen about 40,000 years ago, where the book begins), leaving humankind exposed to deadly radiation from space. Interestingly, when quizzed by Harkness on why he chose this particular event as the basis for his novel, Al-Khalili replied “science is not the villain”. While sci-fi often portrays “science going too far”, with humankind having to clean up after science’s mess (think AI in The Terminator franchise, or genetic engineering in Jurassic Park, for example), Al-Khalili places our correct use of science as the hero, in the face of an entirely natural disaster. What he made clear in his discussion with Hawkness is that science in itself shouldn’t be characterised as a villain, it’s how we use it – after all, in his words, science is knowledge and knowledge is a good thing.
Khalili described his book as ‘hard sci-fi’, championing scientific accuracy and plausibility, which, from a professional scientist, was to be expected. Having a phonebook full of science experts helped achieve this, with Khalili humorously recounting how, in researching his book, he was able to pop across the corridor to the office of Professor Justin Read, a leading astrophysicist, to verify that his utilisation of Dark Matter in the novel was scientifically sound.
Yet the discussion didn’t stay on Sunfall for long. It quickly moved into the quantum realm, Al-Khalili’s particular area of expertise, taking as his cue Danish physicist Niels Bohr’s famous adage: “If you are not astonished by quantum mechanics then you just haven't understood it.” And it is this sense of astonishment that really came through. From Al-Khalili’s early interest in the unknown, via the early 1980s magazine publication The Unexplained (which he elaborates upon further in his introduction to his book Quantum), his enthusiasm for the subject has not only permeated his research for the past 30 years, but has led him to try and engage the general public in one of the universe’s most bizarre and complex phenomena. While admitting that his initial hope for his journey into the quantum arena many years ago was to ultimately solve the great mystery underpinning quantum mechanics, Al-Khalili is now much more self-effacing in his outlook, claiming that his only hope for the field is that a single interpretation of quantum mechanics is proved to be correct, by anyone, in his lifetime.
The discussion ended in audience participation, with Al-Khalili fielding questions covering the worst use of science in Hollywood – The Core (2003) and Prometheus (2012) ended up being two of his biggest bugbears, whilst Interstellar (2014) won his praise for its scientific accuracy, made possible by having Nobel Laureate Kip Thorne as its scientific advisor. Interestingly, Al-Khalili gave a special nod to the 2012 film Looper, starring Bruce Willis and Emily Blunt, as one of the most well-thought out depictions of time travel in Hollywood (unsurprisingly, Hot Tub Time Machine (2010) could not be held in the same scientific regard).
The ease at which Professor Al-Khalili was able to jump across different subjects, from quantum biology and wormholes to time travel and AI, and present them in a way which was not only unintimidating for the non-scientists in the audience (like the DayOne Design studio!), but also obviously driven by pure passion for science in general, revealed the reason for the success behind this highly-regarded physicist, presenter and now, of course, novelist.
It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening – from the walk through the graffiti-ridden tunnels leading to The Vaults, to the inspirational and engaging conversation. Also, quite coincidentally, the 1980s magazine Jim Al-Khalili referred to, The Unexplained, was produced by Orbis Publishing; the very same publisher where some of the DayOne team cut their publishing teeth – now that’s spooky or else, something that can only be explained by ‘quantum’…