Bill Bryson: 'There are people who just like to read the same book over and over.'Bill Bryson: 'There are people who just like to read the same book over and over.' Photo: Viki Yemettas

CONSIGNED to a footnote in history: such is the fate of those who contributed - but not quite enough - to the great narrative of human existence. Yet occasionally, the better, more intriguing story is found in small print at the bottom of the page. This is what Bill Bryson found when he delved into the sometimes impenetrable world of science.
Take, for example, Karl Scheele, a Swedish chemist of the 1750s who managed to discover eight elements, including oxygen, yet never received his due credit, with his findings overlooked or made by others by the time he was able to publish.
America was kind of like my mother, and England was kind of like my wife. And then I went to Australia and felt as if I was taking a mistress, almost. I fell for this gorgeous chick unexpectedly. I really kind of felt that way about Australia.
That, in itself, is a reason to take more notice of Karl Scheele. But as Bryson discovered, there was another, more unfortunate side to the pharmacist. Scheele had the bad habit of tasting everything he worked with: fine in the kitchen, Russian roulette in the laboratory.
On the menu were mercury and hydrocyanic acid, which he also discovered. At 43, Scheele died at his workbench, his bad gastronomic habit catching up with him. ''And that was just like a footnote, a passing reference to somebody,'' says Bryson. ''And to me, that's the story, that's certainly the way into this whole subject.''
This whole subject was A Short History of Nearly Everything, a remarkable and engaging tour de force of the universe and science created by Bryson almost a decade ago, but still exciting audiences today.
The book brings Bryson to Melbourne this week for the Florey Institute's annual Kenneth B. Myer Lecture, which commemorates the late businessman and philanthropist who helped build the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, in 1963. Each year, the Florey invites a speaker to discuss the beauty and mystery of the brain. The free public lecture has become something of a Melbourne institution.