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Bryson, Bill

Category: Genius

 
 
 

William McGuire "Bill" Bryson, OBE, FRS (born December 8, 1951) is an author of both humorous books on travel, as well as books on the English language and science.

In 2004 he was made an honorary Doctor of Civil Law from the University of Durham and in 2006, was awarded an honorary Order of the British Empire (OBE) for his contribution to literature; in 2009, he was the first American to be made an honorary freeman of the City of Durham.

Although we could have classified him as a writer, this would not have done him justice.   Bill’s genius is in communication and his passion is in communication and the need for communication, clear concise communication. In recognition of his achievements in this sphere, he has been awarded the James Joyce Award by the Literary and Historical Society of University College Dublin.

 

He cares passionately about humanity and the road it is taking.  In 2002, for example, he travelled to Kenya with CARE International, an independent humanitarian organisation working to end world poverty through sustainable development programmes.

He cares passionately about the environment, the countryside, nature and the preservation of our heritage.  He is an environmentalist via his writing and his involvement in a number of environmental groups.  In 2003, Bill was appointed as a Commissioner for English Heritage, and in 2005 he launched a call to improve the protection of Britain’s ancient trees and woods alongside The Woodland Trust and the Ancient Tree Forum.  In 2007, he replaced Max Hastings as President of CPRE (Campaign to Protect Rural England)

We do not have a category labelled ‘all round good egg’, but if we had had one, Bill would have been in it.

Making science accessible

 

Bill specialises in making science accessible to both other scientists and the general public.  In order to make any subject accessible you have to understand it, then express ideas that their inventor may have found impossible to explain.  In some ways this makes the interpreter a better scientist than the original inventor, as it indicates a level of understanding that surpasses that of the originator.  ‘It is the sign of a genius to be able to express complex ideas in a way that enables others to understand’. 

In order for any idea to be verified and disseminated, it has to be made intelligible to others, as only impartial second opinion and third party scrutiny actually truly test.  Thus the ideas of any scientist who is unable to explain them coherently will probably die with him, and in any case deserve to die with him, as they cannot be verified.  Anyone therefore, who has the patience to unravel the convoluted thoughts of a scientist and order them and present them in an intelligible form, is doing the scientist an enormous favour, possibly raising him from oblivion to at least some form of recognition.

 

There is another facet of Bill that also raises him way above the average scientist in ability and that is his powers of observation.  Everything he writes is minutely, dispassionately and accurately observed.  Bill does not miss a thing, tiny apparently irrelevant details are noted and analysed then presented often softened by humour. 

Humour, incidentally, is also a sign of genius. 

Bill has received numerous awards for his efforts to make science more accessible.   He has received the President's Award from the Royal Society of Chemistry for advancing the cause of the chemical sciences. He and the RSC jointly created the Bill Bryson prize, an annual award to encourage science writing in schools.

He was a member of the Campaign Board for the Royal Society's 350th Anniversary and edited Seeing Further, a book that tells the story of science and the Royal Society since 1660.   Additionally, he gave the Royal Society Anniversary Lecture at Gresham House in September 2010 and took part in a panel discussion on the Magic of Science in Durham in October 2010. 

On 13 November 2012, Bryson was awarded an honorary doctorate from King's College London. According to King's site, the award was relating to: "Bill Bryson OBE: the UK's highest-selling author of non-fiction, acclaimed as a science communicator, historian and man of letters."

Works

 

Bryson was born in Des Moines, Iowa, his mother Agnes Mary (née McGuire) was of Irish descent.  In 2006 Bryson published The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, a humorous account of his childhood years in Des Moines.

Bryson came to prominence in the United Kingdom, however, with the publication of Notes from a Small Island (1995), an exploration of Britain, and its eccentricities. He has written a number of sequels to this book, adding to the very accurate picture that indeed Britain is a nation of eccentrics [and quite proud of this]

I particularly liked the idea of Cape Wrath. I know nothing about it — it could be a caravan park, for all I know — but it sounded rugged and wave-battered and difficult to get to, a destination for a serious traveler. When people asked me where I was bound, I could gaze towards the northern horizon with a set expression and say: 'Cape Wrath, God willing.' I imagined my listeners giving a low whistle of admiration and replying 'Gosh, that's a long way.' I would nod in grim acknowledgment. 'Not even sure if there's a tearoom,' I would add.

He received widespread recognition again with the publication of A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003), a book widely acclaimed for its accessible communication of science and for which he won the 2004 Royal Society Aventis Prize for science writing.  In 2005, the book won the EU Descartes Prize for science communication.

Bryson attended Drake University for two years before dropping out in 1972, deciding instead to backpack around Europe for four months. Some of his experiences from this trip were relived as flashbacks in Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe, which documents a similar journey Bryson made twenty years later.

In 1995 Bryson returned to the United States to live in Hanover, New Hampshire. While there he wrote a column for a British newspaper. These columns were selected and adapted to become his books I'm a Stranger Here Myself, and Notes from a Big Country.  During his time in America, Bryson decided to walk the Appalachian Trail and wrote about the experience in A Walk in the Woods.

Bryson has also written two popular works on the history of the English language — The Mother Tongue and Made in America — and, more recently, an update of his guide to usage, Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words (published in its first edition as The Penguin Dictionary of Troublesome Words in 1983).

Bill Bryson's African Diary [2002] documents his travels in Africa for CARE International.   

Recent books include At Home: A Short History of Private Life[ 2010];  One Summer: America, 1927 [2013] and The Road to Little Dribbling [2015].

Life

with family

Bryson was born in the United States, but he has been a resident of Britain for most of his adult life.  He has British citizenship, but has retained his American citizenship, so holds dual nationality.

Bill first visited Britain in 1973 and decided to stay.  He obtained a job working in a psychiatric hospital — the now-defunct Holloway Sanatorium in Virginia Water, Surrey. He fell in love with a nurse there named Cynthia Billen, and they married. Although they moved to Bryson's hometown of Des Moines, Iowa in 1975 so that Bryson could complete his college degree at Drake University, they moved back to the UK in 1977, where they settled in Kirkby Malham, North Yorkshire.

 

Bryson became chief copy editor of the business section of The Times and then deputy national news editor of the business section of The Independent. He left journalism in 1987, three years after the birth of his third child and started writing independently.  In 1990 their fourth child, Samuel, was born.

Bryson returned to live in America in 1995, for a short time but returned to the UK.  He now lives in the old rectory in Wramplingham, Norfolk.  He served as the chancellor of Durham University from 2005 to 2011.

Bill Bryson Profile at Durham University website

 

Bill Bryson was Durham University's 11th Chancellor, and formal head of the University, from April 2005 to 31st December 2011.  His commitment to engaging with all aspects of Durham life was a defining part of his Chancellorship.  Sam Roseveare, President of Durham Student's Union from 2009-2010 said:
"Bill Bryson has been an inspiration and a true friend to Durham students. We will miss him greatly when he leaves.  As a staunch advocate of student volunteering and charity work, Bill has made a genuine and personal impact on the student experience and coupled with the eloquence of his addresses at Congregations, he has been the very archetype of a Chancellor.  There is a great deal of goodwill felt towards Bill - I was discussing his departure with a group of students and it was as if they had lost, if not a close family member, a close family friend!"


Genius is often veiled

 

One of the problems of our time is that there is a belief that the most wise in our culture are those who are incomprehensible.  In the old days they would have been labelled as sorcerors, those who sought to impress, confuse and frighten by big words and wild gestures.   Black magic.

Bill is a white magician, he seeks to explain in simple but concise language, weaving gentle spells with words; he has no desire to impress and seeks more to reassure.  There are no big words or wild gestures.  He is not averse to challenging the sorcerors, although they rarely realise they are being challenged.  In a rather endearing but roundabout way, he occasionally shows that in some cases the subject upon which these clever men are pontificating with such certainty is maybe not as certain as they would like us to believe.  That smoke and mirrors may be in operation.

 

If we take a subject like evolution and the great number of very confident statements of absolute ‘fact’ that are being made about our evolutionary history, Bill reports all faithfully, but then allows himself to add the comment:

… bearing in mind fossils can be buried anywhere within an area of slightly over 9.3 million square kilometres, little of which will ever be turned over, much less examined, most fossils will never be known.

If we cannot cross examine the men of science they can not be challenged and like the sorcerors of old, men of science can wreak immeasurable harm upon our planet.  The list of mistakes - thalidomide, DDT, lead in petrol, CFCs, heavy metal use, vaccines, 'novel' pharmaceuticals, immunosuppressants, nanoparticles  - is stacking up and that list is increasing, because they presented the science in such a way that people felt hesitant to challenge their positively and confidently made assertions.

We no longer have any other checks and balances in place. 

At no time in our history have we needed people like Bill more.  The sorcerors of old might have caused a few wars and plagues, but the sorcerors of our age could wipe us and all our fellow species off the face of the planet.

Bill ‘knows’ more than the people whose words he faithfully records.  Wisdom only comes to those who are pure of heart.

Bill was elected an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 2013, becoming the first non-Briton upon whom this honour has been conferred. His biography at the Society reads:

Bill Bryson is a popular author who is driven by a deep curiosity for the world we live in. Bill’s books and lectures demonstrate an abiding love for science and an appreciation for its social importance. His international bestseller, A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003), is widely acclaimed for its accessible communication of science and has since been adapted for children.

His belief in the importance of science in shaping our future — and the need to improve how we communicate the vitality and excitement that science provides — led Bill to set up the Bill Bryson Prize for Science Communication, in conjunction with the Royal Society of Chemistry. The competition engages students from around the world in explaining science to non-experts.

Bill has received numerous awards for his remarkable ability to communicate science with such passion and enthusiasm

 

References

Oh ............ yes............ and he is also left handed .....................

 

Observations

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