Academic Page

Research Background

Jim began his research career as a theoretical nuclear physicist and has over three decades of experience in nuclear reaction theory and few-body quantum scattering methods to study nuclear structure, particularly as applied to the study of exotic nuclei.

Pioneered the application of few-body methods in nuclear reactions, in particular stripping and knockout reactions at fragmentation energies. Nuclear physics research has spanned a wide range of phenomena from low energy astrophysics and decay studies to hadron physics and meson production.


Current Research

His current interest is in open quantum systems and in particular quantum mechanisms in molecular biology. In 2017, he was part of the interdisciplinary team at the University of Surrey that was awarded a grant by the Leverhulme Trust to set up the world’s first Doctoral Training Centre in quantum biology. Recent papers include modelling proton tunnelling processes in DNA and the effects of environmental de-phasing and the quantum measurement problem.

In 2020, he set up a new Quantum Foundations Centre at the University of Surrey to bring together research interests in the foundations of quantum mechanics, the nature of entanglement and decoherence. In 2021, he was awarded a grant by the John Templeton Foundation to study the arrow of time and its implications in quantum biology. The project involves six institutions in the UK (University of Surrey, University of Oxford, University of Bristol) and US (UCLA, UC San Diego, Arizona State University).

Jim also has a number of papers, review articles and books on the history of science.


Al-Khalili obtained his PhD (1986–1989) in nuclear reaction theory from the University of Surrey, during which he developed a reaction model to study the importance of the tensor force in polarized deuteron scattering at high energies. His work helped tie down certain aspects of the role of the strong force in nuclear scattering. He showed that during its interaction with a target nucleus, the deuteron can be excited to an intermediate spin-singlet state, which is needed to reproduce the vector and tensor analysing powers. During his PhD, Al-Khalili also published papers on the effects of Pauli blocking on deuteron scattering and on the Schrodinger reduction of the Dirac equation.

Following his PhD, he was awarded a two-year SERC Fellowship (1989-1991) to work at UCL where he published his first single-author paper and worked with Colin Wilkin on modelling h-meson production in nuclear reactions. During this time, he also extended his PhD work by developing the first parameter-free few-body computer code with full spin-dependence.

By the early 90s, and having returned to the Surrey nuclear theory group, he became interested in relativistic wave equations, such as the Kemmer-Duffin-Petiau equation, and developed a new optical model formalism for both alpha and deuteron elastic scattering. It was around this time that he became interested in the new field of halo nuclei. These strange entities owe their existence to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and can best be modelled as one or two valence neutrons (the halo) weakly bound to a nuclear ‘core’. Al-Khalili extended the model he had previously applied to deuteron scattering to study 11Li, the most exotic of the halo family. Such 3-body nuclei are unusual in that any two of the three subsystems (core-n or n-n) are unbound. They have thus been dubbed ‘Borromean’ after the three interlocked Borromean rings in knot theory. Al-Khalili was the first to successfully implement a ‘four-body scattering model (3-body projectile interacting with a target nucleus), which took fully into account the few-body correlations (the Borromean characteristics) in the halo.

By the late 90s, he was also beginning to develop a side interest in quantum mechanical effects and mechanisms in biology, together his colleague at Surrey, Johnjoe McFadden. They published their first paper in the field in 1999, but it wouldn’t be for another 15 years that would start to take the field seriously. They published a popular science book on the subject, entitled Life on the Edge: The coming of age of quantum biology, which was shortlisted for the Royal Society science book prize and has subsequently been translated into 17 languages.

Research Output

  • h-index of 36 and i-10-index of 70 on Google Scholar
  • Over 100 peer reviewed papers with over 5000 citations.
  • 100+ invited talks at national and international conferences and workshops
  • Editor of three nuclear physics textbooks and contributing author in two other textbooks.

Affiliation & membership

  • University of Surrey Distinguished Chair, Professor of Physics and Public Engagement in Science
  • Fellow of the Royal Society (elected 2018)
  • Honorary Fellow of the Institute of Physics
  • Honorary Fellow of the Institute of Engineering and Technology
  • Member of advisory panel of FQXi (Foundational Questions Institute)
  • Member of judging panel for Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering (2017–)
  • Patron and Vice President of HumanistsUK
  • President, Blackham Society, HumanistsUK
  • Member of advisory board of HAPP (Oxford University Centre for History and Philosophy of Physics)
  • Patron, Orthopaedic Research UK
  • Honorary Patron, National Education Museum
  • Past President of the British Science Association (2018–19)
  • Past Trustee and Member of Council of Institute of Physics (2017–2020)
  • Past Member of Board of Directors of CaSE (The Campaign for Science and Engineering) (2014 – 2020)


Jim is currently supervising four PhD students in quantum biology and the theory of open quantum systems.

  • Lance Li(2021 – ) , Quantum Computing / Nuclear structure modelling
  • Max Winokan(2020–) , Quantum Biology / Computational Chemistry
  • Lester Buxton(2018–) , Quantum Biology – Brownian motion in the Caldeira-Leggett Model for a damped environment.
  • Louie Slocombe(2018–) , Quantum Biology – Quantum effects in DNA replication fidelity
  • Sapphire Lally(2018–) , Quantum Biology – Master equation for non-Markovian quantum Brownian motion
  • Matthew Bush(1993-97) , PhD, September 1997, Spin-dependent interactions in the three-body eikonal model (supported by EPSRC research studentship), with J.A. Tostevin.
  • John Brooke(1996-99) , PhD, September 1999, Non-eikonal corrections to nuclear few-body scattering models (supported by EPSRC research studentship), with J.A. Tostevi
  • Neil Summers(1998-2001) , PhD December 2001, Beyond the adiabatic model for the elastic scattering of composite nuclei (supported by EPSRC research studentship), with R.C. Johnson.
  • Steven Young(2000-2004) , PhD June 2004, Probing halo nuclei with the pion photoproduction reaction (supported by Project Studentship on Grant GR/M82141).
  • David Howell(2003-2007) , on knockout reactions as probe of exotic nuclei, supported by EPSRC studentship
  • Christine Carter(2004-2008) , on (p,2p) quasielastic reactions as probe of exotic nuclei, supported by EPSRC studentship
  • James Broomfield(2005-2009) , on model-independent methods in electron scattering, supported by EPSRC studentship.
  • Adrian Cannon(2005-2009) , on modelling proton radioactivity in proton-rich nuclei, supported by EPSRC
  • Elizabeth Cunningham(2006-2010) , on scattering models on unstable nuclei, STFC studentship
  • Adam Godbeer(2011–2015 , Quantum tunnelling models of DNA base tautomeric mutations, EPSRC studentship
  • Rosh Sellahewa(2012–2015 , Isovector And Pairing Properties Of The Gogny Force In The Context Of Neutron Stars, STFC studentship
  • Tomokazu Miyamoto(2012–2016) , A Four-body Model for the Breakup of Borromean Nucleus C-22.
  • Nicholas Werren(2016–2019) , open quantum systems.
  • Michael Dinmore(2016–2019) , Nuclear reaction theory (transfer reactions in astrophysics).


Jim is currently supervising four PhD students in quantum biology and the theory of open quantum systems.

Year 1 – The Universe (Module code PHY1037).

This first year 15 credit module introduces many of the fundamental concepts in astronomy, cosmology and relativity theory. It begins with classical (Newtonian) celestial mechanics, properties of stars and galaxies and some of the tools required in observation in Astronomy.

Then it moves on to outline the concepts which underpin Einstein’s Special and General theories of relativity discussing events and physical phenomena from different frames of reference and in different co-ordinate systems, and the way in which mathematics relates these descriptions. Concepts of inertial frames of reference, Lorentz transformations, invariants, and elementary relativity principles and covariance, will be introduced, as well as a discussion of the ideas underpinning the general theory of relativity: principle of equivalence and curvature of space-time.

Big Bang cosmology will be introduced and cover current views of the origins of the universe and its constituent parts (cosmic microwave background, inflation, black holes, dark matter and dark energy). A study of the history of astronomy and the various philosophical and scientific cosmological models throughout history will take place in a series of lectures, entitled The History of Ideas, throughout the semester as part of this module.

For further details see here.

  • Direct Nuclear Reactions, course of 12 lectures delivered to French postgraduate students at Institut de Physique Nucléaire, Orsay, France, 18-20 May 2005
  • Invited lecturer on Nuclear Reaction Theory at 8th National Postgraduate School on Nuclear Physics, University of Wales, Bangor, 3-16 September 1995
  • Invited lecturer on Structure and Reaction Studies with Halo Nuclei at Euroschool on Exotic Beams (European Postgraduate Summer School), Leuven, Belgium, 31 August, 4 September, 1998.
  • Few-body models of direct nuclear reactions, 10 lectures as part of ECT* Marie Curie Doctoral Training Programme, Trento, Italy, 25-29 Aug 2003.