Professor Jim Al-Khalili: From escaping Saddam’s Iraq to science on the BBC

Professor Jim Al-Khalili, professor of theoretical physics at the University of Surrey and science broadcaster. (Courtesy Channel 4)
Updated 31 May 2018
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Professor Jim Al-Khalili: From escaping Saddam’s Iraq to science on the BBC

  • As a teenager he escaped Saddam. Now he explains how he sees the green shoots of a new Arab flowering of knowledge
  • Professor Al-Khalili: The whole region is moving in a good direction. Look at the changes in Saudi Arabia. The crown prince doesn’t get the plaudits he deserves.

LONDON: Professor Jim Al-Khalili is the science teacher we all wish we’d had at school. As presenter of The Life Scientific on BBC radio, he makes sense of such arcane subjects as nuclear fusion, the genetics of cancer, robots and mutant worms. As for astrophysics at music festivals... now there’s a subject guaranteed to keep their attention in science class.

Al-Khalili, 55, calls himself a science communicator. As well as “The Life Scientific,” which is also broadcast on the World Service and is back on BBC radio with a new series, he has lectured in the Middle East, presented science programmes on television, (one of which, “Chemistry: A Volatile History,” was nominated for a Bafta) and written a stack of books and scientific papers. His first novel, “Sunfall,” a science fiction thriller set in the 2040s, is due out soon.

Oh, and he also has a rather busy day job as professor of theoretical physics at the University of Surrey in Guildford, south-east England.

Before our meeting, he had warned that he tends “not to engage” with the politics of the Middle East and in particular with the politics of Iraq, the land of his birth.

What he does engage with, however, is the Arab world and its place in history. In 2009 he made a three-part series, “Science and Islam,” and has written books about that golden age, between the 8th and 14th centuries, when learning flourished in the Arab world and the heart of it was Baghdad.

“If you were a mathematician, an inventor, a poet, if you were anyone with a new idea, Baghdad was the place to be,” he said. “Muslim, Christian, Jew, whatever you were, wherever you came from didn’t matter. Europe was in the Dark Ages. Baghdad was the place where you could make your name. A Persian working in Baghdad wrote a single book on algebra called “The Book of Completion,” because when you solve a quadratic equation it’s called completion. But we know that author today because his name was Al-Khawarizmi and from his name we get the word algorithm.

“At the same time you had a few European scholars travelling to Andalusia in Spain, which had been conquered by the Moors of North Africa, because the great works of science were written in Arabic and those scholars wanted to read them and translate them into Latin.”

I mention that the Museum of Islamic Civilisation in Sharjah contains 500-year-old medical instruments that could easily be used in surgery today.

“Absolutely!” said Al-Khalili. “Arab scientists invented forceps delivery!”

This explosion of learning was no renaissance, he insists. “Renaissance means re-birth. This was a first-time birth. Algebra didn’t exist before the Arabs. Chemistry didn’t exist.”

So… six centuries of discovery and advancement and then it stopped. Some would say it not only stopped but went backwards. Why?

The stock answer is that Arab society veered off into conservative Islam, but  surely Islam is not opposed to learning?

“Not at all. In fact when filming in two madrassas I met two very senior imams who told me it’s anti-Islamic to not lift up your eyes, to not learn. The Qu’ran tells us to keep learning from the cradle to the grave. Scholars say go find out how the world works and it will help you to better understand the Qu’ran.”

Al-Khalili spent the first 16 years of his life in Baghdad, speaking Arabic at school and English at home. His grandfather was a well-known author and poet. His Iraqi father met his English mother, a librarian, when studying at Portsmouth Polytechnic (now university) in southern England. Jameel — shortened to Jim by his teenage footballing pals — is the first of their four children.

Neither parent faced any family opposition to their union. The Iraqis welcomed their English daughter-in-law “with open arms” while Al-Khalili senior and his British father-in-law bonded at their first meeting while watching the wrestling on TV.

Baghdad was a great place to grow up until Saddam Hussein came to power, he said. Al-Khalili’s father, an electrical engineer, had never joined the Ba’ath party but still worked his way up to the rank of major in the Iraqi air force. 

“He kept his head down but he was kicked out because he was married to my mum, and they passed a law saying you couldn’t be in the armed forces if you were married to a non-Iraqi. He went into civilian jobs but never got promoted.”

As the regime grew in brutality — “I had cousins who were executed by Saddam” — the family made secret plans to leave Iraq.

“We couldn’t tell anyone. We used to come to England every other year to see my grandparents so people thought we were just going on holiday. My dad couldn’t even tell his mother, my grandmother, that we weren’t coming back. We bought return tickets. I felt bad not being able to say goodbye to my friends. But we got out just in time. My brother and I would have been conscripted for the war with Iran and with our background we would have been frontline fodder.”

That England was not an unfamiliar place to him undoubtedly made things easier. “For me, moving to England meant I could get all the football comics on the day they came out and I could watch “Match of the Day” on the day and not three months later.”

He studied physics and entered academia but also discovered a talent for broadcasting. He presented his first documentary, “The Riddle of Einstein’s Brain,” in 2004 and hasn’t stopped since.

Neither he nor his father, who is now 86, has ever returned to Iraq. Aside from any residual caution, familial ties also lessened as the Al-Khalili clan dispersed all over the world from the late 1970s onwards. 

“My father’s overwhelming emotion is that he got his family out safely. There is no nostalgic pull. Baghdad is not the place we remember,” said Al-Khalili.

He admits feeling angry that the overthrow  of Saddam Hussein has become conflated with the continuing instability today.

“Make no mistake, Iraqis wanted regime change. When George Bush senior failed to finish the job back in 1991, Saddam simply re-grew his power base and went on to kill a lot of people.”

But there is cause for hope. “There is a smidgin of democracy in Iraq now. When I was a kid, I didn’t know who was Sunni and who was Shia. We celebrated Christmas and no one cared. The clerics are closing their power. The whole region is moving in a good direction. Look at the changes in Saudi Arabia. The crown prince of Saudi Arabia doesn’t get the plaudits he deserves.”

There are even signs of tiny green shoots signaling another flowering of knowledge in the Arab world.

“You can’t create that climate of learning without open-mindedness and money. A thousand years ago, the Abbasids in Baghdad had the money and the power. In Europe, the Renaissance had the Medicis (the Florentine family who accumulated immense wealth and power). In the Middle East today, they have the money to build the universities and bring in expertise.

“And young people are asking about their heritage. They want to know where all the old souks and spice markets have gone. The older generation might go, ‘Ugh! The old markets were dirty and smelly — go to the mall.’ But the young people are saying, ‘No, it’s our culture and we want it.’”


Pakistan is rapidly becoming a “digital-first country”, Google

Updated 18 November 2018
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Pakistan is rapidly becoming a “digital-first country”, Google

  • Pakistan digital growth is supported by population and increasing penetration of internet, IT experts
  • Prime Minister’s Taskforce on IT and Telecom to meet next week to draw comprehensive policy

KARACHI: Destine to become the fourth fastest growing economy by 2030, Pakistan, supported by a growing population, fast growing business and increasing penetration of Internet, is poised to grab first position among the digital economies, Information Technology (IT) experts say.
US technology giant, Google, says Pakistan is quickly becoming a “digital-first country”, which means there are new opportunities for brands to reach and engage with consumers that may have previously been overlooked.
“It shows that Google has realized the marketing potential of the country and they are now encouraging businesses to focus on Pakistan as a potential market,” Badar Khushnood, vice president of growth at Fishry.Com and vice chairman of [email protected], commented.
According to Google, there are five reasons for “considering expanding your digital campaigns into Pakistan”.
Pakistan’s growing population is the first reason that makes the country attractive for the foreign and local investors to venture into the IT sector.
“Pakistan has a population of more than 202 million people, which means there are lot of potential consumers coming online every day. And the country is even more urbanized than neighboring India, with nearly 40 percent of total households living in cities,” writes Lars Anthonizen, head of large customer marketing, South Asia, Google.
Pakistan’s economy grew by 5.7 percent in fiscal year 2018. HSBC in is recent report published in September 2018 has projected Pakistan to become the fourth fastest growing economy by 2030.
Around 90 percent of the companies in the country are SMEs which are contributing more that 40 percent to the country’s 313 billion economy, according to the State Bank of Pakistan.
Third attraction, according to Google, is the country’s growing smart phone users. Pakistan has 152 million cellar subscribers, and 60 million 3G/4G subscribers, according to Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA).
This number will likely grow quickly as smart phone prices have dropped over the last few years. Pakistan also has some of the cheapest data prices in the world, which is helping to grow mobile app usage, according to Google.
However, experts say more work is needed to be done to fully utilize the existing potential. “We need to work on optic fibers, penetration of 4G, creation of data centers, telecom infrastructure and most importantly creation of awareness among masses,” Pervaiz Iftikhar, a member of the newly formed prime minister’s Taskforce on IT and Telecom, told Arab News.
Pakistan’s overall Internet penetration stands at 29.9 percent with 62 million broadband subscribers, a fourth attraction for the investor, as per Google. In spite of this, digital consumption in the country continues to grow quickly. YouTube watch time, for example, has seen over 60 percent growth over the last three years.
The Chinese-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is the largest Chinese investment venture in Pakistan with around $62 billion, a fifth reason to look toward Pakistan.
The mega project under BRI is not only limited to the infrastructure and energy sector but it is also contributing to the growth of the IT sector in Pakistan.
“One of the first CPEC projects is to lay 820 kilometers of fiber-optic cable, connecting more Pakistanis to the Internet. This is in addition to ongoing investments in 3G and 4G network expansions from China Mobile, and the company has already announced plans to invest another $225 million in 4G expansion (bringing its total investment to $2.4 billion),” writes Lars Anthonizen.
“We have to connect every village through fiber optics that will not only create thousands of jobs but would multiply opportunities for the IT business countrywide,” Pervaiz Iftikhar added.
“A lot of potential exists in the IT sector of Pakistan with the young population turning to computers, smart phones and other digital means, and the country offers big market for local and foreign investors”, Jehan Ara, another member of the prime minister’s Taskforce on IT and Telecom and president of [email protected], commented.
Badar Khushnood, who is also former consultant of Google, Facebook and Twitter, called for comprehensive policy for the growth of the IT sector.
“Taxation systems should be rationalized, simplified, and encouraging for startups. The country also needs data protection laws, and broader cyber laws,” he added.
The first meeting of the prime minister’s Task Force on IT and Telecom is expected to be held next week in Islamabad. “Comprehensive strategy including short term and long term measures would be discussed in the upcoming meeting of taskforce because country needs a policy for the persistent growth of IT and Telecom sector”, Pervaiz Iftikhar informed.