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The mystery of the Two Little Boys

By Matin Durrani

One of the reasons why the BBC Radio show Desert Island Discs has been on air for almost 70 years now is that it’s such a simple format.

Guests choose their favourite eight records to take to a desert island while chatting about their life and work to the presenter, currently Kirsty Young.

Jim Al-Khalili — enjoys listening to Rolf Harris

It’s also tempting to think what you might pick if you were on the show. You’d want to appear to have impeccably good taste of course, while not appearing too conventional or mainstream.

All of which left me wondering why the theoretical nuclear physicist Jim Al-Khalilli, who appears on this week’s show, decided to choose Rolf Harris’s Two Little Boys as one of his eight records.

The song, which was a surprise number one UK hit in 1969 for the Australian entertainer, describes the life of two boys who grew up to fight in the American Civil War. It’s a bit of a cheesy and mawkish song — no, actually, it’s awful — but there’s an interesting story behind why Al-Khalili picked it.

The Surrey University physicist grew up in Iraq, where his father had returned after meeting his English wife while studying engineering in Portsmouth. The family used to listen constantly to the BBC World Service radio broadcasts and his mother one day wrote in, asking for the Rolf hit to be played for Jim and his brother as a request.

It was, to their surprise, and Jim and his family’s name was read out on air.

The show’s, unfortunately, a bit light on physics. Al-Khalili, for example, begins an interesting discussion about nuclear fusion, which gets about as far as him calling it “the holy grail of energy” as it does not produce carbon dioxide or “horrible nuclear waste” before presenter Kirsty Young cuts him off with a shrill “Enough of the science!”

Jim also touches on science in the Islamic world — indeed, he is currently putting the finishing touches to a feature on the topic, which is to appear in the April issue of Physics World magazine.

His favourite book is the heavyweight The Road to Reality by Roger Penrose and his luxury is an acoustic guitar.

You can listen to the broadcast via this link

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One comment to The mystery of the Two Little Boys

  1. Magnum

    I slogged through Penrose’s Road to Reality and actually read every single page. I’d love to have the chance to work through it again, but this time making sure I understand all the maths — but I’d need to be stranded on a desert island for several months or something like that!
    I watched Al-Khalili’s documentary series on science in Islamic history — very interesting. I had no idea about the observatory in Maragheh.


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