Q&A

‘WE’RE VERY LUCKY TO BE ALIVE’

A top travel writer tackles science and concludes It’s a fluke that humans exist

BILL BRYSON August 11 2003
Q&A

‘WE’RE VERY LUCKY TO BE ALIVE’

A top travel writer tackles science and concludes It’s a fluke that humans exist

BILL BRYSON August 11 2003

‘WE’RE VERY LUCKY TO BE ALIVE’

Q&A

A top travel writer tackles science and concludes It’s a fluke that humans exist

BILL BRYSON

BILL BRYSON’S hilarious travel books have led readers on jaunts through Europe, Britain, Australia, Africa and his native United States— entertaining them with gentle jokes and witticisms about the people he encountered along the way. But in his latest book, A Short History of Nearly Everything, the best-selling author heads out in a new direction—into the world of science. The Iowa-born Bryson, now living in England, talked to Maclean’s Senior Writer Sharon Doyle Driedger about his attempt to find answers to some of science’s most intractable questions.

Why did you decide to write a book about science?

I wanted a break from doing travel books. It’s easy to fall into a pattern where you’re

telling the same kinds of jokes over and over. I thought it would refresh me if I did something else for a while. The other thing is, I had given my wife a vow that I would stay home more.

How did you manage to bring clarity and humour to such complex subjects as quasars and black holes?

The analogy I use is the automobile. Most scientists go straight to, “Here is an internal combustion engine and this is how it works.” They forget the romance and get right down to the nuts and bolts. Most people find it very off-putting. For the average person, a car is about the joy of driving with the top down with the wind in your hair. That’s the kind of book I was trying to write. It was incred-

ibly hard work. There was so much to learn and I have no particular aptitude for it. I would read until I understood things—kind of—and then I would go off and find experts in the field and get them to clarify things.

Why does science, even in an age of technology, seem boring to so many of us?

Schools are failing to excite us about science. But, to defend them, it’s tough to teach because there’s so much out there. It surprised me how many scientists I interviewed—all absolutely geniuses in their own fields—who were not terribly up to speed on other fields.

What’s the most important thing you learned in writing the book?

How lucky we are to be here—both as a species and as individuals. That was the message that came back to me again and again— how many billions of billions of fluky events were necessary to get us here today. We’re very lucky to be alive at all, but then to be at the top of the heap and to be the most sophisticated creature in the universe—as far as we know—that is very lucky. We are the custodians of life—possibly of all life there is and will be. That’s a big responsibility and we have to take it seriously. It’s time we behaved as grown-ups, instead of letting things die off or killing them off. To put it in a Canadian context, you just have to look at the East Coast. There’s a possibility that our grandchildren will never taste haddock, because there just won’t be any left.

What was the weirdest thing you discovered while doing your research?

So much of it was weird. What really stuck with me was realizing that if you shrunk the earth down to the size of a standard desktop globe, the atmosphere would only be about as thick as two coats of varnish. That drives home how foolish we are to tamper with it. Once you leave this atmosphere of ours, as far as we know, the rest of the universe is lethal to us. This is the only place that could support our kind of life and we throw all sorts of crap into it.

How do scientists differ from you and me and the guy on the street?

Part of what makes a scientist good is to be kind of weird in their thinking. They don’t have to worry about their appearance or their behaviour in the same way as an accountant or lawyer or somebody dealing with the public. So, scientists can get away with being a little bit crazy. That’s a big part of their charm. Isaac Newton was probably the weirdest. He was very reclusive. He had almost no real relationships with other human beings. We certainly don’t know about any sexual relationships. He was a failure in terms of happiness and congeniality. At the same time, he was amazingly brilliant—one of the half-dozen greatest minds ever. He looked at the moon and all the other bodies in the sky and thought, “Why don’t they fly off or crash into us? Why does the moon go around the earth in this very reliable way? ” He realized there must be some invisible force. He was thinking in ways no other human being had before.

Why do the scientists you portray appear so vain?

Scientists believe something very fundamental about how certain science works. So they build their career around a certain hypothesis and, all of a sudden, somebody comes along with an alternative way of explaining these things. It would take a very special human being to say, “Yes, you’re right. I’ve wasted my whole life. Well done, young man.” They do what any human being would do—they fight tooth and nail to defend their theory.

Why did you and your wife, Cynthia, move to Britain in July?

I like it there. It has nothing to do with what’s going on in the world these days. We’ve been planning for a long time to move back to the U.K. It wasn’t exactly fleeing George W. Bush’s America. We were waiting for our kids to get to the right ages.

You’ve published travel books about the United States, Britain, Europe, Australia and even Africa. Why not Canada?

Canada is very high on my list. Canada fas-

cinates me. Here is this remarkable and immense country and yet, like most Americans, I know practically nothing about it. I’ve always wanted to visit the Maritime provinces. I once saw a car that had New Brunswick licence plates, and I thought, “God, that’s so exotic!” Also, I’m fascinated by the Yukon and the whole history of the gold episode.

You cancelled a scheduled appearance in Toronto earlier this year because of the SARS scare. Wasn’t that an overreaction?

At the time, I was just about to go on a book tour in the States and then Europe, and it didn’t seem to me to be a very good idea to become a carrier of the disease. On a book tour, you may meet, casually, 7,000 people. If you’re one of those people who carries the disease and doesn’t know it, that’s a fairly irresponsible thing to do. Don’t forget that during the great flu epidemic in 1918— which I wrote about—15 per cent of people had the flu, but didn’t have any symptoms and they were infecting other people. That doesn’t seem to be the case with SARS, but that wasn’t known at the time. fi1]