Were you a child genius at school?
I’ve always been curious about the world and good at maths, I suppose. My love of science was fuelled by science fiction. I was put in a bright kids class at the age of seven, which meant we got to do more advanced material, but we also got teased mercilessly.
What were your first experiments?
We used to pack tennis balls full of homemade explosives and detonate them. I can’t believe I still have all my fingers. It all seemed so innocent in the pre al-Qaeda days.
In idiot terms, what is quantum physics?
It’s the rules that govern the behaviour of things on the atomic scale. When dealing with objects this small, nature gets a little weird and you have to throw your intuition out the window. For instance a particle – which we tend to think of as a solid object – can behave like a wave, and vice versa. If you’ve ever watched waves on the surface of a pond interfere with each other, then you’ll understand how strange this is. How can a solid object interfere like a wave? It’s impossible to visualise, but that’s what experiments tell us.
What’s the most impressive bit of kit you’ve seen?
The magnets at the National High Magnetic Field Lab in Florida. They are the largest and strongest in the world – running full tilt they consume as much electricity as a small city and generate fields hundreds of thousands of times more powerful than a fridge magnet. Strong enough to rip a metal bar out of your hand or short-circuit a pacemaker. If you’re really bored, you can levitate frogs as well.
What’s the worst accident you’ve ever caused?
Generally I’m pretty careful, but I once managed to expose myself to quite high levels of gamma radiation at a nuclear reactor. Sadly, no super powers resulted. Only pissed off health-and-safety officers.
Do you get approached by shadowy governmental organisations who want to use your powers for bad?
I know a scientist who was offered several hundred thousand pounds for a new refrigeration technology he was working on that the military was interested in. It’s up to you whether you take it or not, but I think he had some moral issues with it.
So, who typically becomes a scientist?
Obviously, people who are interested in maths. But there’s a lot of other skills that go into being a successful scientist. People who have good communication skills tend to thrive… because so much of your work is going to conferences, interacting with other scientists and exchanging ideas. You have this typical picture of some geek with no social skills – if you’re like that, then you’re not going to be as successful as someone who’s more sociable.
Do you have a particular rival scientist?
Yeah, I do. There’s a Japanese guy who keeps trashing my work. I’ve never met him, but I’m going to Amsterdam soon for a conference where he’s going to be so there might be a showdown. The trashing is all done in very polite terms and footnotes, though.
Does it never boil over?
Not in writing, but when it’s in person at conferences… I’ve seen people yelling, it gets very emotional. There was one physicist who threw a chair at another one in disgust at an equation. But that’s the Russian guys – they get quite heated about these things.
How accurate is the portrayal of science in the movies?
I’d say 95% of the movies I’ve seen are complete crap. On the one hand it’s good that they’re giving science a higher profile, but if it’s just completely wrong then I’d question whether there’s any real benefit.
Is there a film that is loved by scientists?
Well, one of the problems is that it’s very difficult to suspend disbelief. You go to see a Hollywood blockbuster and the average person doesn’t realise that you can’t hear sound in space, for instance. So every time during Star Wars that there’s an explosion in space and you hear it, I know that’s just wrong and it irks me a little bit.
Is time travel ever going to be possible?
It might be, through the creation of ‘wormholes’ in spacetime. But it would be so far beyond the level of technology that we have right now that we don’t have to worry about it. Basically, if time travel were possible, there’d be people from the future walking around now. But I’ve never met one, so I’ll remain sceptical.
Is there a particularly far-out theory that is being worked on as we speak?
This idea at [nuclear research facility] CERN involves searching for a particle called the God Particle, the Higgs-Bosun. It’s been proposed as the reason why everything has mass. It has huge implications for why we exist at all and nobody’s ever observed it. So if it is observed a lot of theories will be cracked.
Do you have a favourite theory?
The crazy theory I like – and I don’t know if it’ll ever be proven – is that of multiple worlds. Where, basically, every time a decision or observation is made, the theory has it that there’s a parallel universe that splits off and the opposite thing happens. There’s a universe where instead of turning left, I turned right and got hit by a truck. So that world exists, but we have no way of accessing it.
Will we ever? And if not, what use is it?
I don’t know if it’s ever going to be testable, but it solves a lot of the philosophical problems thrown up by quantum mechanics. It has a nice aesthetic to it: the idea that absolutely anything is possible. If you’re disappointed you went out one night and didn’t get that girl’s number you can take solace in the fact that in a parallel universe it happened differently.
Are any scientists religious?
Many of the scientists I know are not religious, but on the other hand the more that they study the universe the more some become convinced that it’s so complex and so beautiful that it can’t have evolved spontaneously.
How is Stephen Hawking viewed by other scientists?
Within his field he’s definitely highly regarded. But is he an Einstein? I would say no. Most scientists don’t feel he’s at that level.
Why is that?
Newton and Einstein came up with what we call complete paradigm shifts. You see the universe in a particular way – for instance, before Einstein came along everybody thought that space and time were absolute quantities. Then Einstein came along and said actually, the measurement of time depends on how fast you’re moving… So time isn’t absolute any more – that’s a complete paradigm shift.
Give us an amazing fact for the pub?
Sure – there are more atoms in a teaspoon than there are stars in the entire universe. It’s an analogy I often use to get across how incredibly small the atomic scale is.