Saturday, 3 December 2016

THE ENLIGHTENED ONES - Jim Al-Khalili & Brian Cox

The following is the unedited version of an exposé currently featured in the 17th revised edition of The Moonshine Memorandum (see below): If you wish to report intrusiveness or inaccuracies, please email To make a formal complaint under IPSO rules please contact IPSO directly at .

Eyes tightly closed, as if perceiving vibes that no one else could catch, she kept her voice low: “Jim Al-Khalili, OBE. Works out of Room 88 BB 03, University of Surrey.”
            I sat still and thought of Al-Khalili’s club-steak ears and mixed human-Vulcan heritage. I’m just guessing here, regarding a younger, alternate-timeline version of Dr. Spock, but bar his shaved palate, I perceive Vulcan speech patterns and even Vulcan patterns of logic and emotional aridity in Al-Khalili, whose name means “The Enlightened One” in the ancient Aramaic language spoken by Spock. Apart from lending point and purpose to a science seemingly lacking in clear and palpable returns, it is this very Spock-ness which exposes physics to occasional criticisms as a soulless, somewhat inhuman discipline. But suspecting that we were  visited even now by emissaries of back-from-the-future civilizations, I had long been  intrigued by the author and science communicator, professor of theoretical physics  and Chair in the Public Engagement in Science -  to the point even of sending him a copy of my latest. In this I suggested that Vulcans were a partly naturalised Galactic people, who worshipped Baal and Astarte and whose language, Klingon (pronounced tlhlngan), is an etymological issue of Hebrew and close relative of Arabic. To which Al-Khalili, with that unfortunate Vulcan talent for the unsentimentally uncouth, never even replied.
             And who should join us at that very moment but Michio Kaku-Macho, the Paparazzo of theoretical physics – a short, animated astronomer and quantum-physicist whose supply of ready-made answers is the largest in the world and by far the most prolific source of information about the universe. Alongside him was Professor Brian Cox, physics’ popular poster boy, anxious to reveal the meaning of existence to anyone prepared to listen. Products of the media and experts in absolutely everything, from the perfectly plausible to the patently absurd, both had become something of a cult figure. And  both were pioneers in the use of  showmanship. Cox, of course, was used to accolades, having originally made his reputation as a rock-band rebel, or keyboard player with the pop group D:Ream.

            Before becoming an established revolutionary, Russell Brand, you may remember, was a sort of rebel,  too - sticking Barbie dolls up his bottom by way of calling for a general revolution. But physics had other matters to occupy its attention, accompanied by an underlying disquiet perhaps that all that glittered may not be the real McCoy. So they changed the time-slot - and McCox became a hit. He also became convinced of his own genius.  Relieved of all the weight that attaches to science, physics had found its star. An icon with the face of a cherub, but no pedigree or repute as a researcher, Professor Cox is almost defined by his banality. Though to his credit, on the market-side he "is ahead of even leading pop acts such as Adele and Justin Bieber." Which I think is rather the point. Easy to like, difficult to admire, his involvement is certainly more a case of blatant opportunism than investigative physics. Or as Einstein said of Mach: “He was a good experimental physicist but a miserable philosopher.”  Which doesn’t  make him a bad  chat-show host, admittedly, just another case of Russell Brand infantilism, albeit more D:reams of wondrous whimsy, because unlike the saccharine Cox, Brand has a sense of the absurd and is a natural for  television punditry. Both their images are on T-shirts and artifacts of fashion. Nor do I suppose that Belinda regrets having referred to the self-conscious TV-presenter as a “frightful bore” who didn’t live up to
his billing - or crooning. “He has swapped science for glitz,” she said, adding that the only difference between a prostitute and a pop star was the size of the fee. But why, I ask you, let science get in the way of your success? Others may beg to differ. And the broader scientific underpinnings are too elaborate to feature here, but the thing I want to know is why - cosseted perhaps by his quaint distinction of being a "Professor" - Physics continues to be patronised by an attention-seeking celebrity who affects to know that the planet Earth has never been visited by an alien civilization, when "there are some two trillion galaxies in the observable universe." Well, what are the odds? I don't generally offer advice, it's not my place - and it is also perfectly true that the tin-opener wasn't invented before the tin - but there are, in my view, three possible explanations for the Fermi Paradox. The first, and likeliest, that the Universe is not Euclidean. The second, that our current Newtonian universe - the space-time continuum as a sort of ether at rest - has collapsed to be replaced by a quantum-gravitational fluidity (for what matters here - notwithstanding The Stargazer's slapstick standards - is not the technology, but the conceptual shift). And the third, and kindest, that the eminent Professor hasn't got a clue what he is talking about. For if that’s the case, as I truly suspect, I’ll have to get rid of his T-shirt.

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Ian O.S. said...

A reshuffle of his speechwriters might help !

Bobby B.Stoker said...

I don't know who's responsible, but this is brilliant. As a fully qualified non-expert, one who gets his physics from social media celebrities such as Professor Cox - and far be it from me to gainsay such an authority – I believed it all. So here's a tip Professor: stick to humour, science isn’t really your strong suit...