Born in Rochdale, Lancashire, UK, Brian attended the Manchester Grammar School, then read Natural Sciences (specializing in experimental physics) at Cambridge University. After graduating, he spent a year at Lancaster University where he gained a second MA in Operational Research, a discipline developed during the Second World War to apply mathematics and probability to warfare and since widely applied to business problem solving.
From Lancaster, he joined British Airways, where he formed a new department tasked with developing hi-tech solutions for the airline. His emphasis on innovation led to working with creativity guru Dr. Edward de Bono, and in 1994 he left BA to set up his own creativity consultancy, running courses on the development of ideas and the solution of business problems. His clients include the BBC, the Met Office, Sony, GlaxoSmithKline, the Treasury, Royal Bank of Scotland and many others.
Brian now concentrates on writing popular science books, with topics ranging from infinity to 'how to build a time machine.' He has also written regular columns, features and reviews for numerous magazines and newspapers, including Nature, BBC History, Good Housekeeping, The Times, The Observer, Playboy, The Wall Street Journal and Physics World. His books have been translated into many languages, including German, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, Polish, Turkish, Norwegian, and Indonesian.
Brian has given sell-out lectures at the Royal Institution in London and has spoken at venues from Oxford and Cambridge Universities to Cheltenham Festival of Science. He has also contributed to radio and TV programmes, and is a popular speaker at schools. Most recently he appeared with the BBC's business editor, Robert Peston, teaching him quantum theory, took part in a feature on time travel to accompany the movie Looper and took part in the University Challenge Christmas Special. Brian was a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Bristol University and is also editor of the successful www.popularscience.co.uk book review site.
In an interview, Brian talks about being a popular science writer:
What started you on writing?
I've written things as long as I can remember. At junior school I produced a series of comics (the artwork was awful), and later on I was always writing short stories. My first attempt to write a novel was in my teens. I never really stopped writing, but when I worked at British Airways I had limited time for it. It was about this time that I took a logical look at what I was doing. Instead of just writing the first thing that came into my head, I looked for promising markets. Initially this meant writing for computer magazines, then business magazines and business books before making it to popular science.
Whatever happened I would have written - there's just something inside that makes it happen, and I wanted that writing to be published. I do regret that the school system, certainly when I was in my teens, forced a decision between sciences and the arts. I would have loved to have studied some combination like physics, maths and english. Eventually I did break through, but I think it would have been sooner if I'd more early opportunities to develop my writing skills.
Is it hard to keep focussed?
It's the question I get asked most. Given a lot of my working day is just sitting around at home, don't I keep getting distracted from work? In fact it's no problem. It's not so much that I'm hugely organized, as that I really want to do write, and so I do get round to it. Having said that, like practically everyone I really do have to apply a bit of self-discipline. My natural tendency when I sit down at the computer is to spend as much time as possible checking me e-mail, reading journals and so on - I do have to force myself to get started, but once I do, I wonder why it was a problem because I enjoy it so much.
It is, to be honest, a great job if you don't mind being on your own a lot. I take my dog (a golden retriever) for a walk midmorning most days, and I look out at all the offices and factories that I can see from the nearby fields, and think how lucky I am to be able to go for that walk when I want to. To be fair though, the walk is very much part of the working day - I have almost all my best ideas on these walks, and always take a voice recorder to capture ideas as I go.
Why do you write popular science?
Science has always fascinated me. There is a sense of wonder about the more amazing aspects of science that really isn't duplicated in any other subject. It's a childlike thing - it takes you back to the best bits of being a child - without being childish. The trouble is, it is often put across in a dull way, and I relish the opportunity to do it differently. It's also because it's a subject I've always enjoyed as a reader.
Who are your favourite writers?
I am very eclectic in my reading. In fiction I do read a fair amount of science fiction and fantasy - my favourites are Gene Wolfe on the serious side and Robert Rankin as a humorist (and J. G. Ballard if I want to feel miserable) - but I'm equally likely to be reading P. G. Wodehouse, P. D. James, Margery Allingham or Jane Austen. Of the other popular science authors, I'm particularly fond of James Gleick, and Simon Singh is always good value for money, but again I read fairly widely in non-fiction.
Do you prefer writing about people or about science?
The simple answer is 'yes'. I think that writing a pure biography misses out on the edge I have in being able to explain scientific topics, but science alone lacks a roundness it gains by adding the people factor in. I really wish there had been more about the people involved when I studied Natural Sciences at university - although I've always been interested in science, a lot of the topics were a lot duller than they would have been if I'd known something of the personalities involved.
Some of my books - such as Light Years and Infinity - have tended to be topic driven. Others - First Scientist and The Man Who Stopped Time - driven by an individual, but always for me it's the mix of people and science that makes the subject so fascinating.
Any advice for new non-fiction writers?
It’s harder than you think it’s going to be. Don’t bother unless you are very determined. Also it’s not good enough to have a great idea, you have to be able to sell that idea to an agent or publisher - and that can be harder than writing a book. I have put together a little guide with some advice on getting non-fiction published: The Non-Fiction Agent.