Bill Bryson’s bestselling travel books include The Lost Continent, A Walk in the Woods and Notes from a Small Island, which in a national poll was voted the book that best represents Britain.
His acclaimed book on the history of science, A Short History of Nearly Everything, won the Royal Society’s Aventis Prize as well as the Descartes Prize, the European Union’s highest literary award.
He has written books on language, on Shakespeare, and on his own childhood in the memoir The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid.
His last critically lauded bestseller was At Home: a Short History of Private Life and his most recent book, One Summer: America 1927 chronicles a forgotten summer when America came of age and changed the world for ever.
He was born in the American Midwest, and lives in the UK.
It is over a decade since popular US author Bill Bryson embarked on his eye-opening journey of research for the acclaimed science book ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’. At that time, he could never have envisaged the popularity and esteem his book would be held in today.
With Bryson’s impeccable wit, charm and honesty, he managed to open up a world of science that was accessible and revealing in equal measure. And yet, in writing the book, Bryson was faced with narrative adjustments and the trepidation of not knowing many of the fields he intended to cover.
“At that point I was known for doing slightly humorous travel books, so I was expecting scientists to be very cynical of me,” says Bryson. “And yet I was astounded by how helpful so many scientists were, answering my really uninformed questions, often very openly and with great patience.”
As a student, Bryson had felt science was a distant subject that was taught in a lacklustre way and never provided the answers he so enthusiastically sought. In his book he was keen to portray the “amazement of science”, which was so often lacking in his own school textbooks.
“I found scientists had very often forgotten the magic they do,” notes Bryson. “One of the questions I asked every single scientist I met ‘was what drew you into your field?’ It was really interesting to see so many stop and think to recall what excited them about their discipline.”
Golden Age of Communication
This “magic” Bryson says is what attracts a wider public audience and engages young people in science today. He believes good communication is crucial and is something that has dramatically improved in many parts of the scientific community since writing the book. “I think we are in the golden age of science communication, with an awful lot of scientists adapting and projecting their science extremely effectively now,” brims Bryson.
“I think it is better than at any other time I’ve known Britain in the last 40 years. Scientists are telling stories really well on television and there’s a lot more variety and excitement in the way it’s being done now.” He cites a recent programme on BBC4 by Professor Richard Fortey on ‘The Magic of Mushrooms’ as a great example of a working scientist bringing enthusiasm and authority to the screen.
After his book won the prestigious Royal Society Aventis Prize and EU Descartes Prize for science communication, he found himself almost by accident being cast as public champion for science. “For a long time I resisted this role and kept telling people I was not a scientist and not really the right person to act as a spokesman for the world of science,” says Bryson.
“I was really a stark outsider, but I found it hard to resist doing things for prestigious organisations and institutions like the Royal Society. I’m still a little embarrassed and feel it should be up to the scientists themselves to present the arguments for science.”
Yet despite this, the author has since thrived as an active science communicator, receiving the President’s Award from the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) for advancing the cause of the chemical sciences in 2005. Bryson and the RSC first came into contact when the latter sent a copy of ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’ to all schools and colleges in the UK. With education a priority for both, they jointly created the annual Bill Bryson Prize, to recognise and encourage excellent science communication in schools and colleges.
“The prize is a lot of fun and very exciting. Students are encouraged to think creatively about science and then accurately communicate a scientific idea. We get all kinds of clever and interesting podcasts, videos, cartoons and songs. It is all about discovering the wonder of science and the entries are always very imaginative and inventive.”
Bryson brings the conversation back to the responsibility the education system has in informing young people about the importance of science. He believes a basic understanding and appreciation for science is needed even for those who will never pursue a career in it.
“There is a real problem with the education system. Every society has a duty to produce new generations of chemists, physicists and biologists. I think all students should come away with at least a basic understanding of science, what it does for us, and an appreciation of how important science is to telling us who we are, where we’re going and how we solve problems in the world,” declares Bryson.
“I came out of school knowing absolutely nothing about the periodic table for example, and while I don’t need to know it the way a chemist does, an appreciation for it would have been good.”
No matter how much Bryson dwells on his torrid time as a self-declared “terrible student of science at school”, what is noticeable, is his passion today for science is stronger than ever. He talks enthusiastically about the many great science writers he has long admired, from the late Stephen Jay Gould, to Richard Dawkins and Matt Ridley.
One bugbear for Bryson though, despite a hesitancy to plunge too deep into the area, is daily newspaper coverage of science. “I hardly read newspapers anymore, but when I do, I notice there is a tendency for journalists to oversimplify and get things wrong. I’m not sure whether it’s haste or people being given responsibility when they’re undertrained,” adds Bryson.
Bryson recalls numerous media stories that have not helped his blood pressure levels, but there is one in particular that stands out in his mind. The infamous story that there was just 100 cod left in the North Sea, reported in the Sunday Times and then the Daily Telegraph in 2012. “It was completely sloppy journalism misinterpreting information and cobbled together without research. You couldn’t be more wrong,” vents Bryson, once a chief copy editor of the business section of the Times and deputy national news editor of the business section of the Independent. “I think newspapers are a sort of ongoing train crash nowadays. One national journalist once told me their newspaper had introduced a policy where there would be no health stories included unless there was a celebrity angle. This is the world we’re in today.”
As a former national journalist in the late 1970s and 1980s, he understands the newsroom pressures and tight deadlines, but his pet hate also manifests itself in newspaper surveys that claim to be accurate studies. “The worst thing I see in UK papers is the reporting of some very dubious surveys as science that will say ‘Men who wear neckties have better sex lives’ carried out by Tie Rack, and yet newspapers always fall for it,” howls Bryson.
“It is an extremely competitive craft with so many different titles competing for readers and the upside of this is it makes the papers livelier, more inventive and imaginative in the way they look to attract readers. Compare this with the US where papers are quite staid and the New York Times is no different today than it was in 1958. Yet the downside of competing is the tendency for the journalism to be slapdash.”
For Bryson, the chance to edit the Royal Society’s 350th anniversary book was a major honour that sits proudly alongside many of his best-selling works. The 2010 book Seeing Further: The Story of Science and the Royal Society celebrated the Society’s vast achievements and its contribution to the development of modern science. He has since being elected an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society, becoming the first non-Briton to receive this honour in May 2013.
As a writer who often focuses on the past and most recently in One Summer: America 1927 looks back at five eventful months in history, it is fascinating to hear his views on the future and how science may shape it.
“I remember from my childhood in the 1950s when we thought of the future as something terribly exciting,” observes Bryson. “Personal helicopters and gyrocopters were round the corner and we were all going to have platforms outside our front door to take off and go shopping. We would be driving helicopters like cars, live in underwater cities and inhabit Mars; we couldn’t wait to get there. Now we seem to have gone in the opposite direction.
“Everything is now scary and gloomy and however bad things are now, there is this conviction that the world will be a worse place in 20 or 40 years’ time. My feeling is we were wrong in the 50s and we are wrong now. The future was never as great as we thought it was going to be as most of our hopes never came true and I think it won’t be as bad as we fear now. I’m sure healthcare and more equitable shared wealth will make the world a better place, but climate change and overcrowding will be worse.”
Bryson’s appetite to write another science book is definitely there and the more involvement he has as an honorary Fellow of the Kavli Institute of Particle Physics, the British Science Association and the Royal Society, the greater the temptation. “The world is incredibly interesting and I still can’t believe I get paid to satisfy my own curiosity, I’m really lucky. The fact I get all this variety in my life, is so gratifying,” Bryson humbly asserts.
“I’ve got into the habit of two kinds of books; the slightly amusing books that involve travel and the more serious books I write to impart information. So as long as I can keep going I’ll do both, and I’d still like to look to do more science in the future,” aptly concludes Bryson.
Below is the full conversation from the Royal Society event entitled The importance of science: an outsider’s perspective held on 15 April 2014.