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Bryson’s books are food for thought

Bryson’s books are food for thought

Photographer:Fotograaf: Edda Grol /Simone Golob

Nienke van Atteveldt inspired by Bill Bryson

What use is Nienke van Atteveldt to society? A good question and one that this Maastricht neuroscientist (who works primarily as a lecturer at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) has asked herself several times during her career. A few years ago, she decided to share her knowledge with the rest of the Netherlands. How? By writing a book about the world of brain scans: Kijken in het brein (Looking into the brain). Her inspirer is one of the most well-known non-specialist writers about science, Bill Bryson.

30 June 2006: the day that Nienke van Atteveldt (38) defended her PhD thesis at Maastricht University. For years, she used fMRI to study the relationship between writing and speaking in the brain, resulting in a cum laude credit for her dissertation. A day later, she left with her boyfriend to spend some time in the Ardennes. “Some recuperation.” During the holiday, she had a strong feeling for the first time that she wanted to do more with her knowledge. I thought: I have written a great thesis, but who will ever read it? I had included such interesting conclusions that it was a pity to just leave it like that. I thought it would be awesome to give food for thought to others.”
Coincidently, I happened to be reading A short history of nearly everything by Bill Bryson, a brilliant writer. He managed to write down something complex like the history of science in a clear, exciting and captivating manner. That’s what I wanted to do too!”

In 2004, Bryson – half British, half American – won a prestigious award (the Aventis Prize) for A short history of nearly everything, a non-specialist book about the most important scientific developments of the last century, in particular in the fields of geology, chemistry, palaeontology, and astronomy. In 2005, he received the Descartes Prize for scientific communication from the European Union. Before the bestseller rolled from the press, Bryson worked as a journalist for a while and wrote travel stories.

Van Atteveldt: “In the book, he portrays various scientists, telling how these renowned names came by their discoveries and insights. It made me realise that to make a difference as a scientist, you need to be independent-minded and follow your own ideas.”
What did she do with her urge to share her knowledge and findings? “I wrote an article about lip-reading and reading in De Psycholoog, a monthly magazine by the Dutch Institute of Psychologists.” But that is where it stopped. There was no switch from research to scientific journalism. “I like research too much for that.” Besides, not too long after that she received two subsidies: a Marie Curie grant from the European Union and a Veni grant for recently graduated PhD students from the Dutch research financier NWO.

Van Atteveldt left for Columbia University in New York, where she spent more than three years doing fundamental research. During her stay abroad, the possibility of applying for a subsidy arose in the Netherlands for ‘making scientific research applicable’. Together with Sandra van Aalderen, a former colleague from Maastricht University, and Meike Grol, also a PhD graduate in neurosciences and a journalist, she decided to take the chance. “Unfortunately we didn’t get the grant, but we were enthusiastic and felt that our message was too important to just drop the whole idea. Being too busy, we put the book on the back burner. In spring of 2015, it was finally published: their non-specialist debut Kijken in het brein – mythen en mogelijkheden (Looking into the brain – myths and possibilities).

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