Bill Bryson and the art of curiosity

Published by Emma Lee-Potter in on Thursday 19th June 2014

The Prince's Teaching Institute Bill Bryson-1Bill Bryson is one of my heroes.

He writes like a dream, explains complicated stuff in the most entertaining way and seems like an all-round lovely man.

I never drive through the Yorkshire Dales without thinking of the “Malhamdale wave” he described in Notes from a Small Island. We lived in North Yorkshire for three years and while everyone was incredibly welcoming I knew we’d have to live there for at least a quarter of a century before we weren’t referred to as “the new people.”

Bill Bryson described it brilliantly, writing: “But gradually, little by little, they find a corner for you in their hearts, and begin to acknowledge you when they drive past with what I call the Malhamdale wave. This is an exciting day in the life of any new arrival. To make the Malhamdale wave, pretend for a moment that you are grasping a steering wheel. Now very slowly extend the index finger of your right hand as if you were having a small involuntary spasm. That’s it. It doesn’t look like much, but it speaks volumes, believe me…”

It makes me smile just to type those words so when I was invited to hear Bill Bryson deliver the annual Prince’s Teaching Institute lecture last week I was on the train to London faster than you could say Malhamdale.

The PTI had invited schools to send groups of year 11 to 13 students to the event, which was held at the Royal Institution. Applications flooded in and teenagers from 36 schools travelled from as far afield as Pontypridd, Birmingham and Portsmouth.

Bill Bryson’s key themes on the night were the importance of understanding science and the value of teaching it creatively but in reality his talk ranged from his fear of being attacked by a grizzly bear during his research to his belief that teaching is “heroic.”

He began the 90-minute session by explaining that A Short History of Nearly Everything was his attempt to understand the world and the universe and that he had known nothing about science when he began working on the book.

“The only advantage I had was my ignorance,” he said. “At first I thought ‘what can I bring to this?’ But what I could bring to it was this infinite capacity to be amazed.”

At the end of his talk questions flooded in and he patiently and charmingly did his level best to answer each one.

He revealed that that he is full of admiration for scientists but wasn’t excited by science at school, that sheep go through the menopause (really?) and that the one thing he’d like to do but hasn’t is to play shortstop for the Boston Red Sox baseball team.

When a teacher asked how he could get his students to be curious and ask questions the author told him: “We are all born with huge amounts of curiosity but we don’t value it as a trait. How do you keep that going in kids? Do your best to be interested in everything. Even the most obvious things are amazing.”

As always Bill Bryson hit the nail slap bang on the head.

Image by Patrick Wigg, PTI

3 comments so far

  • I am so envious. I remember laughing so much while reading one of his books on a train (A Walk in the Woods) that my fellow passengers actually moved away, clearly thinking that I was some sort of escaped nutter. He made me laugh like that again while I was reading a Short History of Nearly Everything (this time in the privacy of my own home) with his explanation of the Big Bang. I mean, how?!

  • Thanks very much for commenting, Catherine and John. You can imagine how thrilled I was when I got the chance to go to this BB talk. He was fabulous and the teenagers in the audience were clearly enthralled too!

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