At twenty to five, I settled in a patch of sun outside the Royal Society. I could not have been the only one thankful for the good weather; doors were not due to open until six and already a queue twisted toward the street. The talk itself would not begin for almost two hours, so why the competition to get seats? Perhaps the names attached explain the demand. The talk was on ‘The Importance of Science: an Outsiders Perspective’ and physicist Jim Al-Khalili OBE was interviewing journalist and best-selling author, Bill Bryson. Bryson is trained as a journalist and editor, yet this hack has produced several hugely well received travel books as well as an award-winning book on popular science: A Short History of Nearly Everything.
Though Bryson describes himself as an introvert – a better writer than story-teller – his natural wit and charisma shone throughout the interview. With so many popular science books, we have to question what a hack can bring to the field. Bryson claims that he offered the only thing he had over the experts: his ignorance. Forgive the analogy but his science writing, like his travel writing, is a journey of discovery. This ability to connect with his readership through shared experiences strengthens his science writing. When describing his experience of science in school, Bryson admitted that, “as soon as they turned their back to the class and start writing complicated diagrams of the board, they lost me”, isolation by science teachers which many of us can relate to.
Not everyone is naturally a scientist but this doesn’t mean they can’t get excited about science. In some cases it might be that being taught by the experts isn’t what you need. The point of popular science media is to engage people, to inspire thought and to educate, all in the time it takes for someone to wait for a train or have a cup of tea. No one picking up an article wants to feel as though they must commit to it long-term.
This can be difficult. Al-Khalili raised the example of his recent interview with Peter Higgs, of Higgs Boson fame. Al-Khalili described listening to Higgs’ eloquent, beautiful two minute explanation of the particle physics behind his discovery. He then had to explain to Higgs that none of it was likely to make the final cut of the program; it was not science for the masses. Only as a physicist himself had Al-Khalili been able to understand. “Here’s a challenge” he told Higgs. “Can you try to explain it in thirty seconds?” Higgs’ answer? “No”.
Not all science can be summarised simply and quickly. Even where it can, sometimes it isn’t ideal. Bryson talked about the limitations of writing A Short History. So often he would have to ask permission from experts to make sweeping generalisations about their field in order to fit it into the book. In most cases he found the experts less than happy about this, and understandably so. It is when facts become less important that media begins to go the way of sensationalist journalism. It is up to newspapers, magazines and the journalists themselves to find the balance. With cuts being made and print media in decline, we must increasingly rely on other ways to do this. An American by birth, Bryson claimed one of his reasons for staying in England was the quality of British TV. High quality documentaries are at our fingertips and there has been a big take-off in popular science books in recent years.
In an all too short an hour, Bryson covered both the joys and challenges faced by science in the media today. It’s clear to see how a man seemingly overflowing with interest and enthusiasm has played his part in paving the way to science being accessible to everyone. In the last few minutes Bryson described, with characteristic gusto, his new book: One Summer. The book covers the events of the summer of 1927 in America. With science, culture, travel, autobiography and history covered, it’s left for us to wonder where Bryson might turn his talents next.