On Thursday the 8th of September I had the pleasure of being in the pub to watch a talk given by science guru Professor Jim Al-Khalili. This was supposed to be a talk on his areas of expertise and my areas of interest – black holes, wormholes, and time travel – but the evening turned out to be odder than any of those who attended could have expected.
Well over one hundred people were crammed into the room at the Globe Inn, many of whom were drinking, and all of whom were perspiring. The heat and the humidity was fierce and hindsight says this may have contributed to the events that would unfurl. On the other hand, maybe Jim’s always a bit strange. Strange like a quark! That’s a physics joke there for you.
Jim sat at the front of the room wearing what he told us was his lucky brown jacket. There was an attempt to ask him what was so lucky about it by Ian, one of the organisers of the Portsmouth Skeptics in the Pub cult, but this was met with disapproval by the professor and Ian’s eyes were glued shut as punishment.
This set an uneasy tone for the evening as you can imagine.
The talk began shortly thereafter and our expectation of some interesting physics was dashed immediately as Jim launched into the act that first shot him to fame in Yorkshire, the famous Ghost Vet sketch.
For those of you who never got to watch the Ghost Vet sketch before it was banned by the U.N. and removed from YouTube the gist of the story is that Jim, a vet to the spirit world, is asked to inseminate a dead cow. With hilarious consequences! And horrible, horrible, gratuitous racism.
The sketch received a polite and fearful ripple of applause from that half of the crowd who weren’t nauseous by the end of it.
Jim then promised to get on with the actual talk so long as the contractual sacrifice met with his approval. A drunkard was dragged in from the alley behind the pub and ritually shaved to resemble the professor as closely as possible.
The execution was swift and the bemused, swaying drunkard probably didn’t feel the sharpened spatula strike that took his life but the quantity of blood that gushed out over the pub floor was a little too much for a couple of elderly gentlemen who burst into tears and fled from the room. This, fortunately, freed up some space for a small group of Jim’s devoted female acolytes to enter and seat themselves in the hot, red liquid. We were told they would absorb the victim’s “Haemo-Essence” and give strength to the professor of physics.
The physics talk then really began and Jim explained why black holes and wormholes were impossible since the night sky was merely painted on the inside of the “CosmoShell” that surrounded the planet. Time travel, he said, was possible but only in a leftwards direction. He refrained from going into this any further but winked a lot. There were some knowing nods from members of the audience.
One of the evening’s other organisers, Trish, laughed a little too hard at this point. Pressed as to why she answered that she assumed the whole evening was just a big joke arranged by Professor Brian Cox to sully the name of his biggest rival.
Jim was less-than-pleased with this declaration by Trish and proceeded to give her two options: become an Absorbing Acolyte or undertake the Karaoke of Pain challenge. Trish chose the latter option for her punishment and the Tombola of Torture Tunes resulted in an M.C. Hammer medley.
We were all punished that evening.
Professor Al-Khalili then opened up the floor to questions, promising to remove an item of clothing any time he couldn’t provide an answer. We learnt that the CosmoShell was six inches thick and connected to the surface of the Earth at the Blackpool Tower, that he was busy at weekends writing a new sketch about a ghost toilet attendant, that his hobbies included going for long walks and doing crosswords, and that he was Bear Grylls’ mentor during the 1980s among many other fascinating facts. A query about neutrinos, though, lead to Jim removing his lucky brown jacket.
A hush fell over the crowd at this point as it became apparent that Jim – like all of us – had been sweating. Unlike the rest of us, however, the pattern of Jim’s sweat was unusual to say the least. The professor mistook our quiet concern for adoration and began a twenty minute routine of impressions of Britain’s favourite light entertainers; Larry Grayson, Lionel Blair, and Ted Rogers all surfaced. He was rather good.
Eventually, regular skeptic attendee Pam raised her hand and enquired as sweetly as she could as to the strange markings on Jim’s shirt.
We were all worried about Pam as she was frog-marched away by two of the professor’s heavies. After she was out of sight and the sound of the industrial blender had started, Jim seemed to sigh heavily and then told us all that his torso had required rebuilding following an aborted attempt to transform himself into a machine. The result of this was that he sweated in a different manner than “sub Jims”, his term for anyone not him. To demonstrate this he proceeded to perspire from his knee into a pint glass.
This took twenty minutes in near-complete silence (the industrial blender ushered up a constant drone as backdrop). We were “encouraged” (with some threatening sharpened spatula-waving) to give the professor a standing ovation at the conclusion of this demonstration and that almost brought the night to an end. It only remained for an Absorbing Acolyte to return with a novelty-sized test tube full of what she referred to as “Liqui-Pam”.
We formed an orderly line, sipped of the Liqui-Pam (a little chewy, but sweeter than expected), bowed to the professor, and were allowed to leave alive. The two elderly gentlemen who had fled earlier in the evening were impaled on spikes outside the pub.
Overall, I would say that if you get a chance to see Jim Al-Khalili give a talk then it’s well worth it and highly recommended.