Skip to main content

Together we are beating cancer

Donate now

Bill Bryson: notes from a non-scientist

by Laura Dibb | Analysis

6 December 2012

0 comments 0 comments

In one of our boldest steps yet in our fight against cancer we’ve pledged to raise £100million to support the building of the Francis Crick Institute. The Crick, set to be one of the largest biomedical research centres in Europe, will benefit millions of people – not only cancer patients but also those suffering from other illnesses such as heart and neurodegenerative disease. But in order to make this happen we need the support of generous philanthropists.

And is why last week we held the first in a series of science lectures we’ll be running at the Wellcome Trust collection in London. Its focus was on how remarkable scientific breakthroughs can be made when scientists who work on a range of different areas and diseases work together with each other.

These benefits of scientific collaboration must not be underestimated. As Professor Sir Paul Nurse, who hosted the talk, said, it was the combination of biology and physics that brought about the discovery of the structure of the DNA double helix – one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of our time.

On the night, we were thrilled to have the American bestselling author Bill Bryson speaking, who’s most famous for his novels ‘Notes from a Small Island’ and more recently ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’. You can watch his talk here:

Bill talked of his amazement at the levels of dedication scientists will go to in their work. He had the night before met a geo-chemist who was about to leave for a remote location in Antarctica for up to six weeks. The researcher goes to measure the rate the glacier is melting to increase their understanding of climate change.

Bill asked him: “What’s it like to spend three months with another guy in a tent?”

The scientist replied; “It’s friggin awful! It’s just a nightmare. No matter how decent and considerate and wonderful the other person is and how hard you try to be like that yourself it’s impossible for two human beings to stay together for that long a period without there being friction… it’s especially bad when the weather closes in and you’re stuck in a tent for days at a time.”

Bill was amazed that anyone would go year after year to the most remote and bleak of situations knowing it would be awful. He said:

“It gave me a moment of clarity about what scientists do. I could never do that. I don’t know anyone in my sphere of life who would. I don’t know any writer who would go and spend three months in a tent with a stranger at a time just to gather another morsel of information for the sake of humanity. I don’t know any historians who would, or lawyers or accountants. But I do know many scientists who would.”

The event was thoroughly engaging and the audience would most certainly have left with a new found respect for the wonders of science. We can now look forward to the second in the series next Spring.