Fact, fiction and physics

| 14th March 2019
Jim Al-Khalili
An interview with theoretical physicist turned novelist, Jim Al-Khalili, ahead of his appearance at the Edinburgh Science Festival.


The annual Edinburgh Science Festival is the world’s first public celebration of science and technology and still one of Europe’s largest. Running from 6-21 April, the festival gives audiences amazing experiences through a diverse programme of innovative events.

2019 is the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing and so the theme of this year’s festival is Frontiers.

Pushing the boundaries of our knowledge about science as well as exploring uncharted territories, the Festival’s ambitious offer has something for everyone with events ranging from hands-on science fun for young minds to world-class speakers and interactive events for all ages across the city.

Here, William Moss interviews the theoretical physicist Jim Al-Khalili.

Can you tell us a little bit more about your first ever novel, Sunfall?

Well, first and foremost it’s a thriller, a page-turner. I guess I wrote the sort of book that I would enjoy reading myself. The fact that it is science fiction is, well… it’s what I felt most confident writing about.

I knew from my teaching, my broadcasting work and my non-fiction writing that I could make the science engaging and exciting – what I didn’t know until I got started was whether I could weave a good yarn, to build and bring to life an imagined world with believable 3D characters that a reader would care about.

What are the scientific themes that run through the book and why did you choose those?

The main theme is the way physicists try to save the world from destruction by using dark matter. Here the science is speculative but possible. It is also utterly fascinating.

I know from my own field of academic research, and certainly by speaking to colleagues working on solar physics or on dark matter physics, that all the science in this book is correct. Some ideas I have pushed harder than others, but never straying too far from what we already know.

Other themes rely on such scientific ideas as quantum computing, quantum entanglement, artificial intelligence, augmented reality, metamaterials and nanotechnology – all of which are areas of science currently being developed.

Do you think that the apocalyptic themes and situations in the book are likely to arise in real life?

The clue to the success of this genre is that you take what is possible, however unlikely, and make it happen. So yes, every theme, event and situation in this story is possible.

Of course, the basic premise – that the earth’s magnetic field is dying – is not impossible, just highly unlikely. However, it is given credibility by mixing in a lot of scientific fact: our magnetic field is getting weaker, the magnetic poles are shifting very fast, there was what is called an ‘excursion event’ forty thousand years ago that may have cause the Neanderthals to become extinct.

None of this means the world really is about to die, but if the basic premise in this book does happen then it is very probably that all the events that follow will be very likely and possibly inevitable.   

Why did you set the book in 2041?

That’s simple. I wanted a world close enough to our own that we can recognise it, but long enough into the future for scientific advances being made now or speculative theories being developed today will have matured and be applied.

I have been meticulous about following a logical timeline. For example, if by 2041 there is the technological capability to make dark matter beams self-interact to create energy, then the science will have had to be developed a decade earlier, which means that we will have had to discover the particles making up dark matter in the 2020s.

In fact, the dark matter particles in the book are called neutralinos, which are among the front runner candidates for what physicists think dark matter is made of – we just don’t know yet.

 This is also the reason I didn’t want to set my story any later than 2041. In order to predict what the future will look like based on science being developed today, it becomes increasing speculative and wild the further into the future we stray. The year 2041 was, for me, the sweet spot.

How has your career in science informed Sunfall?

Without a doubt. My own training, with over 30 years of research into theoretical physics, means I know what is and isn’t possible – where I can or can’t stretch our current understanding of the laws of the Universe, as well as an appreciation of how the process of science works.

Living in the world of scientific research means I also have access to the views and advice of those at the forefront of research in their specialist fields.

Indeed, the seven years I have spent interviewing the world’s leading scientists on BBC Radio’s Life Scientific has given me a remarkable overview of cutting edge science today in so many different subjects.

What are the most pressing scientific challenges we face today?

Well, in the real world, it is not the imminent destruction of the planet by the Sun, but rather the destruction of the planet by us humans.

In the book, the ravages of climate change and environmental disasters are part of the backdrop – they helped me create the world as it might be in 2041.

But in 2019, we have more immediate problems. Yes, climate change is probably the most important challenge facing us, but it is far from the only one. The threat of pandemics, antimicrobial resistance, unregulated AI, over-population and the scarcity of resources such as food, water and energy… these are all problems we must face up to. But I still believe that science is the best way to tackle them all.

As a member of the scientific community you are perhaps more aware of the environmental challenges facing humanity than most. Do you see hope amongst the  overwhelmingly negative predictions for the planets future?

I have always been a ‘glass half full’ sort of guy. And so, yes, I am optimistic, despite the concern. I still hang on to the hope that the world will come to its senses in time.

It is not that science is unable to help tackle the challenges facing humanity, but rather that many of those who wield power are either suspicious of science, do not acknowledge just how much of a threat is facing the planet, or are simply more concerned with personal ambitions or ill-informed ideologies.

Right now, it’s the threat to our democracies that is as real and worrying as the threats to our natural environment. 

You are appearing at Edinburgh International Science Festival – what can audiences expect from your event?

I think I want to do two things: the first is describe all the cool science and technology that I am convinced is just around the corner – after all, 2041 will be in most of our lifetimes.

Secondly, I want to talk about the process of writing fiction and how, for me as a communicator and explainer of real science, I was able to make the transition from fact to fiction, by taking all my science and weaving it into a story that grips the reader from start to finish.

I guess the proof is in the pudding, so people will just have to read Sunfall and judge for themselves how successful I have been. 

This Author

Sunfall by Jim Al-Khalili (Bantam Press) will be published 18 April 2019. Jim will be at Edinburgh Science Festival on Saturday 13 April talking about the book. Tickets available here.

Image: Andy Miah, Flickr.



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