“I certainly have a lot of colleagues who would run a mile rather than talk to a journalist” he tells me; evidently, he is not one of themAlice Save for Varsity

Sitting down at my desk with Zoom ready to go, I was excited to meet Professor Jim Al-Khalili again. I saw him years ago when he came to my school, but ever since watching him be interviewed by Philomena Cunk in the hit TV mockumentary Cunk on Earth, I’ve been dying to ask him about it.

As one might expect from a documentarian, radio show host and university lecturer, he is incredibly easy to talk to. We first discuss his childhood, moving from Baghdad to Portsmouth in 1979 and going on to study Physics at the University of Surrey. He gained a PhD in nuclear theory there in 1989 and remained as a professor.

In my quest against arrogant STEM students, I ask Al-Khalili if he thinks scientists should engage more with the humanities and media: “I certainly have a lot of colleagues who would run a mile rather than talk to a journalist” he tells me; evidently, he is not one of them. However, that classic STEM student arrogance still affected him. “Colleagues were saying, ‘Jim, don’t waste your time doing that. Focus on getting those papers out and getting those grants.’ Why can’t I do both?”

“It’s just another way of debating things, as long as we are still making the serious stuff as well”

But the power of pop science is evident. “I remember doing a press release with a Chinese researcher to celebrate Chinese New Year. Some newspaper came to us and asked us to come up with a mathematical formula for using chopsticks.” It went viral. Jim recounts his Chinese colleagues discussing this: “We spent months developing new mathematical models of particle physics to get the paper published in a journal that half a dozen experts will read. And yet, over coffee in an afternoon, we write some bit of fun that is read by millions.” This certainly makes me feel better about spending my time writing for Varsity instead of doing coursework.

Al-Khalili is no stranger to large audiences; his radio show, Life Scientific, is listened to by two million people every week. He believes that if his show makes a more informed society and inspires others to pursue science, then that’s infinitely more valuable than any paper he might publish. Increasing the media literacy of scientists can increase the scientific literacy of the world.

Another show he’s been on that has reached an audience of millions is Diane Morgan’s hit TV mockumentary Cunk on Earth. Now was my chance to finally get an answer to a question I’ve had for years: What was it like to be interviewed by the notorious Philomena Cunk? “It was great fun, and Diane is so sweet.”

Hearing that Diane Morgan is a lovely person is music to my ears. However, much to my disappointment, he explains that the interviewees knew that she would be messing with them; these are not Borat-style improvisations. Al-Khalili had been a fan of Morgan for years before being on the show, so he knew what was coming. However, this speaks to the amazing acting ability of all the academics who appear in the series. Their confusion is always convincing, and their ability to keep a straight face is remarkable. This is all very surprising given some of the professors I know (especially the physicists).

“Over coffee in an afternoon, we write some bit of fun that is read by millions”

Al-Khalili explains that they were told the general subjects they would be asked about, in his case, topics like the history of flight or Galileo. They then did some general homework on the subject, but nothing too serious, because they knew the questions would not be. “She’d be reading something off the teleprompter and say, ‘Oh for fuck’s sake, do I really have to ask that? ’”

I have often thought that Cunk’s ability to effortlessly mock that very common documentary style was perhaps a sign that documentaries have really stagnated. I turn to Al-Khalili for answers, and he admits it can be a little silly, “People ask Brian Cox and me, why all that background music and why you are standing on a mountain?” The answer: “Because it’s fun.”

Equally, Al-Khalili explained that satirical shows like Cunk don’t trivialise science: “It’s just another way of debating things, as long as we are still making the serious stuff as well.” I’m convinced. Though the style of documentaries might come off as a bit goofy, it keeps us engaged, and a good balance between comedy and seriousness is a sign of a healthy edutainment culture.

However, he voices concerns about the medium’s future. With internal uncertainty within the BBC and the rise of streaming networks, Al-Khalili says that many of the documentaries he made early in his career would not be made now, and future projects are only getting harder to greenlight.


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This ultimately pushes people online to find “informative content”, but this is incredibly unregulated. Though it is fantastic how accessible it is for people to make YouTube documentaries, not everyone has the best intentions online or the understanding to produce accurate content. “It’s down to the consumers to make judgments themselves. But we know that doesn’t work. People can go down rabbit holes of conspiracy theories.”

Al-Khalili says the solution is AI filters; however, they are still getting things wrong and are too easily manipulated at this stage. The future is, therefore, uncertain. However, it might not be so bleak; Al-Khalili tells me there is a light on the horizon. More Cunk. “There are rumours of another series”, and with that tantalising tease, he signs off.