An Interview with Brian Clegg
Brian is a Fellow of Royal Society of Arts and has degrees from Cambridge (Natural Sciences) and Lancaster (Operational Research) Universities. After 17 years with British Airways, Brian established himself as a business creativity consultant, freelance journalist and writer. He has contributed to a wide range of magazines, from PC Week to Good Housekeeping, and has written a total of 36 books. He originally wrote on business and creativity, but now concentrates on popular science. His titles include A Brief History of Infinity, The God Effect, Before the Big Bang and Ecologic, with Inflight Science the most recent addition.
Questions about Inflight Science.
Clare Dudman: How did your experience as an employee of British Airways help in writing this book (if it did)?
Brian Clegg: I think there are two ways it helped. One is seeing airports and airplanes from the other side. So, for instance, I learned about the strange arrangement of gates at Heathrow’s Terminal 4 while having a wander round there just before it opened. And the other benefit is that I did have a lot of experience of flying when I worked at BA – so experienced some of the highs and lows of being on a plane.
CD: What do you think is the most important aspect of writing a popular science book?
BC: Making it accessible. Particularly with a book like Inflight Science, which isn’t specifically aimed at science enthusiasts, but at anyone from teenagers up who might take a flight. I’m not saying you have to keep to simple topics – in fact my favourite things to write about are the likes of relativity and quantum theory, which have a reputation of being ‘difficult’ but which I’d see as being central to understanding modern science.
CD: Please would you go through the process of writing a book like Inflight Science. What comes first? BC: It varies from book to book. I usually have a short summary of what’s going to be in each chapter from the proposal stage. I then tend to research key aspects and slot them into the framework, before writing the main ‘flow’ of the book around them. But Inflight Science was rather different because it very much follows a plane journey from beginning to end, and I thought that would work better by writing it strictly in sequence. So it was very much driven by imagining myself on a flight, thinking of what I could see and spinning off from that the various things to describe and investigate. I have to say I had more fun with it than almost any other book I’ve written – it was lovely to write.
CD: I very much enjoyed reading the book even though I used to be a science teacher, and I should think a lot of other people would too - even an airline pilot - which reader did you have in mind when writing the book?
BC: Pretty well anyone who is on a plane or might at some point go on a plane, so all the way from the first time flyer to the pilot. I think we’ve become much too familiar with flying – and yet when you think about it, it’s quite remarkable. In just over 100 years since the Wright brothers we’ve developed an everyday ability that took birds millions upon millions of years to evolve. I wanted to bring back some of the sense of wonder that I think should accompany the act of flying – and should also accompany science. I hope the combination of using a lot of fun factoids with such a wide range of scientific possibilities will appeal to a very wide audience.
CD: Are you a frequent flier?
BC: Not any more. When I worked at BA a flew a huge amount, sometimes for quite trivial reasons. I once, for example, flew to both Shetland and Jersey in the same day (to post Valentines cards). However these days I try to travel by more green means where possible, and I have also become a much more nervous flyer for some reason, so having a book like Inflight Science would be an excellent distraction. I was really aiming at the twin problems of flying – fear and boredom – with the book.
CD: Can you remember the first time you flew? What was it like?
BC: I was six and we flew to Norway, which involved taking a prop plane (BEA) from Manchester to London, then an SAS jet to Norway. At the time it was just so exotic. Flying was more special back then (we’re talking the 1960s) anyway, but also, to a six-year-old it was tantamount to magic. And the Norwegian inflight catering, which involved strange pickled things, was a revelation.
CD: What is your most favourite memory of a flight?
BC: I’m not sure if favourite is the right word, but I have a memory of a flight that is seared into my brain. It was when I was at BA, and taking an internal flight in the US on the way home from a conference. At the time the internal US market had just opened up and it was very competitive – you had to be on time. But our plane was late, so the pilot decided to get us into Chicago airport a little quicker than usual. Rather than taking the usual gentle route to line up with the runway, he left the turn to the last minute, then turned so sharply that looking out of the window you were staring straight down the chimneys of houses. With screams coming from the aircraft cabin, he held this angle for an eternity as we descended. Then, suddenly, he snapped the plane level. It was no more than 2 seconds later than we hit the runway. I was travelling with two airline veterans, and both were white as a sheet when we got off. We reckoned the pilot was a Vietnam veteran. But scary though it was, it worked. His literal corner cutting meant we touched down on time.
CD: Do you have any connection with snails?
BC: My main association with snails initially felt rather unfortunate. Inevitably as a child I felt drawn to the character of Brian, the snail in the Magic Roundabout – and yet superficially he is a self-centred busybody, which isn’t very nice. However I came to realize that beneath the bluster was a heart of gold, so Brian wasn’t so bad after all.
CD: What is your proudest moment?
BC: I have trouble with ‘bests’ and ‘favourites.’ I recently did something for a magazine where I had to pick my 10 best books, which was terribly difficult. So I have trouble picking out a moment. But there’s another issue here. Just yesterday, by coincidence, I was thinking about pride, and wondering when it became a good thing. These days you can’t move for people (at least on TV) saying ‘I won’t accept charity, I’ve got my pride’ or ‘I’m so proud of little Johnny.’ Yet traditionally pride has been a sin. It goes before a fall. It isn’t supposed to be a desirable state of affairs. So in a bid to recapture the importance of humility, I’m not going to think of a moment involving pride.
CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
BC: Three, I’d say. Two are very common ones – getting married and having children. These might seem trivial, but taking the children example, no one can really prepare you for how much it turns your life upside down – and still is doing 16 years later. It doesn’t so much change your life as rip it into shreds and remake it in a new shape (probably from papier maché). The third life-changing event was having my first book published. It wasn’t much of a book, but it was mine – and with it came the realization that this what I wanted to do all the time. No other job compares.
CD: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
BC: Very difficult, this one. I do find all the terrible things on the news sad, but if I’m honest, I have to be selfish about this and for me it has to be the times when my parents died.
CD: If there was one thing you’d change about yourself what would it be?
BC: So much to choose from. I think it would be to become more natural with other people. I do my best, but I’m not very good at it – if the tests are anything to go by, I am on the fringes of the autistic spectrum, and that makes it quite difficult to do and say the right things. I wish I found it easier, as some people obviously do, to be a people person.
CD: What is happiness?
BC: Something the prime minister wants us to have more of. For me it’s usually about achievement. Making something happen. Creating something. Getting a positive response from other people. I suspect this is because I’m a show-off – so I love performing or having someone be enthusiastic about something I’ve written. But that ‘making something happen’ is often just making someone else happy, so happiness is definitely best a shared activity.
CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
BC: Tickle the dog’s tummy. As the one who wakes up best in my family I’m generally the one heading to make the morning hot drinks while everyone else is still in bed, but Goldie has other ideas and insists on having her tummy tickled before I’m allowed into the kitchen. This has become something of a ritual – I ignore it at my peril.