Professor Jim Al-Khalili’s five favourite words

Professor Jim Al-Khalili’s five favourite words

Theoretical physicist Professor Jim Al-Khalili is known worldwide for his work on nuclear reaction theory as well as his broadcasting and publication credits, which include the BBC Radio Four programme The Life Scientific and television documentary series Atom and Chemistry: A Volatile History. His work even extends to fiction, with the forthcoming release of his debut novel, futuristic sci-fi thriller Sun Fall. Among these pursuits, there is another publication to which Professor Al-Khalili has contributed: the Oxford English Dictionary.

A handful of quotations from Jim’s writings have been selected over the years by OED editors to illustrate some of the most ordinary words in English, like spring and spread, and some of the more technical scientific terms, like local cluster and focus.

In honour of the Oxford English Dictionary’s 90th anniversary, Professor Al-Khalili has shared with us five of his favourite words:


The faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident. Also, the fact or an instance of such a discovery.

In science, as in so many walks of life, what we achieve is not so much about ability, whether through nature or nurture, but about being in the right place at the right time. If I look back over my career in physics, as well as in broadcasting or writing, I see the multiple occasions of happenstance without which my life would have taken a different path through spacetime. So much of life is serendipity.

See the OED entry for serendipity.


(2b) The ability to understand and appreciate another person’s feelings, experience, etc.

As a humanist, I try to remain optimistic about the state of the world and the future of humanity, despite the many challenges that we face, from climate change to radical ideologies and continuing tensions around the world. The one human trait that I believe is more important than all others is ‘empathy’. If I try to be a good person and show compassion and kindness, then I don’t do so not because I want to be rewarded by a supernatural creator, or because I’m told to by an ancient holy book, but because I have empathy.

See the OED entry for empathy.


This is a very niche scientific term that has been the basis of much of my research in theoretical physics. The word derives from the medieval Italian princes of Borromeo who had as their heraldic symbol three interlocked rings that were joined together in such a way that if any one of them was removed the other two fell apart. During the 90s, I was working on a certain type of exotic atoms nucleus that behaved in a similar way. It was known as a ‘Borromean’ nucleus and had some interesting (to me at least) physical properties.


The emphatic and reflexive pronoun corresponding to I, me.

This word highlights my often tiresome (to others) pedantry, because I have grown to really hate the word – not in any sense of self-loathing you understand, but because of its all-too-common grammatical misuse. People seem to use it in a sentence to replace (for no good reason) the short and more correct word ‘me’ – as in [guard on my train to work]: ‘If you need a ticket, then come and see myself, the guard’. NO! Only you can see yourself.

See the OED entry for myself.


I am not a Yorkshireman, nor have I ever lived in the city of Leeds, but from my childhood I have been an avid supporter of Leeds United football club. Don’t ask. Reading football magazines or the sports pages of newspapers as a boy I developed the skill of being able to scan my eyes across an article and very quickly spot any occurrence of the word ‘Leeds’ to get news about my favourite team.

Find out more about the 90th anniversary of the OED’s first edition at our OED 90th hub.

Image credit: Vera de Kok

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