PW: Why did you turn from travel writing to science in A Short History of Nearly Everything?
Bill Bryson: Originally, I thought it would be great to divide my career between travel and more serious, library-based writing. But the travel writing really took off, and I got sidetracked. This was an attempt to get back to the other thing I enjoy, which is doing proper research—not just fooling around but doing something a little more productive.
PW: Did you have a background in science or a longstanding interest in it?
BB: No, neither, which is part of the reason why this appealed to me. I had always suspected that science was a lot more interesting than they made it at school. In every classroom, there was a small number of people who, when the chemistry teacher would say something, these people would instantly get it and get excited about it. The rest of us were bored out of our minds and confused. I always wondered what was it these people were getting. What is science all about? What is it that excites people? That was kind of the idea of the book. I had this feeling that science ought to be interesting to everybody, since it's relevant to everybody.
PW: How did you educate yourself?
BB: I did two things: I read a lot, just read and read and read, and tried to get myself up to speed independently, and then I went out and talked to people and asked questions. I found a lot of people who were really willing to talk to me, and I was asking really dumb questions. The question I asked over and over was: "I'm sorry, but can you explain that once more?"
PW: You have a knack for analogy that helps make difficult scientific concepts comprehensible.
BB: It really helps to be ignorant and not too bright. Because if I had been a whole lot smarter I would have grasped this stuff in 11th grade and ended up writing it at the same level as textbooks, which would lose a lot of people. Because I have no aptitude for science, it was an advantage in a perverse sort of way.
PW: You devote a fair amount of space to the scientists who made important discoveries, and many of them are quite eccentric.
BB: A lot of times the science is pretty hard going, and it's so nice to be able to add in a bit of human interest. And scientists, God bless them, often provided that by being a little bit eccentric. It's a nice reminder that they're very human and it makes them more endearing—they can be not only extremely smart but also foolish. What is the one thing your mom told you not to do with the sun? Not to stare at it. You know that from a very early age. And here's Isaac Newton, one of the smartest human beings ever to live, and to find out what would happen, he stared at the sun as long as he could bear it.
PW: Who do you hope the readers of this book will be? Will they be your regular readers?
BB: The most satisfying person would a person who was expecting one of my usual books, picked it up and thought, "Oh no, what's this?" and started reading and said, "Oh, this is really kind of interesting." Somebody who came to it with a slightly doubtful attitude and kind of got gripped by it, because that's what happened to me.