Q&A: Bill Nye, the Planetary Guy

A familiar face in science education, Nye is now CEO of the Planetary Society. Here, he discusses the status of space exploration, the "anti-science movement" and his popular 1990s TV show.
Written by Molly Petrilla, Contributing Writer

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Bill Nye the Science Guy's first episode. Though the award-winning children's TV show ended in 1998, Nye himself has remained an active force in science and education circles. In 2010, he became CEO of the Planetary Society, a nonprofit organization that the astronomer Carl Sagan helped found. On its website, the Society bills itself as "the largest and most influential public space organization group on Earth."

"There are two questions that trouble all of us at some point," Nye told me recently. "'Where did we come from?' and 'Are we alone?' If you haven't asked those questions since you were a little kid, I don't know what you're doing. That's what planetary exploration is all about. It's really, actually looking for the answers to those questions."

Noting that space exploration "brings out the best in us," Nye discussed what's happening in space travel now and how elementary science education could be better. He also admitted just how often that catchy Science Guy theme song still gets stuck in his head.

I hear you and the Planetary Society's founder go way back.

I had Sagan for astronomy. One of the weirdnesses of life. I wasn't his star student who went on to get three doctorates in astronomy. I just took the class. I've been a member [of the Planetary Society] since it started, going on 32 years. Now I'm on the payroll. Spooky business.

Tell me about your work with the Society.

We promote space exploration. Then we have these crazy projects. We're building a solar sail of a spacecraft pushed through space by nothing but light. Quite an extraordinary technology. It's built by 30,000 people who just think this is cool. We hope to launch by the end of this year. We need a ride, as you say in the business, on a rocket, so if you have a rocket going to medium-earth orbit, let us know.

We also support the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. We sponsor the only extraterrestrial intelligence search in the southern hemisphere.

How would you characterize the state of space exploration right now?

We're at a turning point, which is why I took this job.

On its website NASA states that "commercial space transportation is a vital component to the future of human space exploration."Do you agree?

It's a remarkable time in the history of space exploration. I'm personally very supportive of commercial space exploration. It's the key to the future.

Do you see any drawbacks to it?

Well, you don't want to create a system where the thing that you intended to be money-making becomes government-subsidized. But right now everything's great.

Where do you hope to see space exploration 10 years from now?

Ideally, we'd be discovering evidence of living things on Mars. It is not beyond beyonding that there are living things on Mars now. So then you would ask yourself the question, 'Well, what are they like?' These would be microbes, we presume. Do they have DNA? How different from us are they? It's an amazing question that no generation could ever ask before.

As I always like to throw in, space exploration brings out the best in us. It's what makes humans achieve great things. I like to pose it this way: What if we stopped looking over the horizon? What if we stopped searching? What would that say about us? That's not how you would get anywhere as people. You have to take risks and in this case, it's financial risks or risks of intellect and treasure. It's a commitment: society has to agree that this is a thing worth doing and spend some tax dollars on it.

You mentioned the Planetary Society's interest in searching for extraterrestrial intelligence. How's that going?

Well, nobody's found anything yet. But to me it's something we as a society just do in the background. You don't drop everything and commit four percent of your gross national product to it as we did in the Cold War get-to-the-moon days, but it's something you just keep going. As new discoveries are made about how you can send signals through space, then you develop that technology.

Along this line, the Kepler telescope just revealed there are tens of thousands of planets around millions of stars. This ups the chances of hearing from somebody. One discovery like that would utterly change the world. If we knew that we were not alone, it would change the way we think of ourselves and our relationship to the cosmos and so on.

Drawing on your Science Guy TV-show days, can you give me a favorite quick-fact about space that many people may not know?

Ninety percent of the universe is hydrogen. Eight percent is helium. Two percent is what I like to call "everything else-ium," but that's the stuff we can see. Ninety-four percent of the universe is dark matter — we just don't know what it is. The universe is expanding but it's not only expanding, it's accelerating. Do you know why?

I don't.

No one knows why, and when that's figured out, it will change the world the way relativity did or Isaac Newton did.

Aside from space exploration, what else are you passionate about right now?

My big thing is climate change. I'm writing a book about energy and you. People do not realize the astonishing amounts of energy we use every day. If you got Lance Armstrong at the height of his powers, he could not pedal a bike hard enough to run a hairdryer.

Energy use and climate change are intimately connected. It is not unreasonable to say that we have already made the world unlivable for people two generations from now. It may be okay, but it's certainly going to change a lot of things for a lot of people.

You have a long history with elementary science education in the U.S. How is that looking to you right now?

We're not doing nearly as well as we could. The big thing is that we don't start young enough. We also have to start teaching algebra at a younger age. Algebra turns out to be this big turning point. If you don't learn algebra, you can't think abstractly about all sorts of subtle things.

How young should kids be starting, ideally?

People ask me when I got interested in science and I always say I don't remember. It was certainly before I was 4, but I think it was before I was 3. I thought science was a worthy and interesting pursuit. We have to reach people at a much younger age than we do right now. You want to have science activities in pre-school and you want to carry them all the way through high school, all the way through college. It's an easy thing to say, a hard thing to pull off.

And it's also a political issue. Still, to this day, there's an anti-science movement in the U.S. that's just in no one's best interest. Everything that we like — food, cash machines, cars, roads, the Internet, bridges — it's all science. Science is the most important thing you can study, for crying out loud. And that we don't do enough of it is a formula for disaster.

Where do you think that anti-science sentiment comes from, and what's keeping it going?

People are afraid of it. Many of us are troubled by not knowing everything. The other charming thing in general about science, especially space science and astronomy, is that the more you learn about your place in space, the more unsettling it is; the more you realize that you're an insignificant speck of nothingness.

You're someone who's exposed to all sorts of innovative discoveries. What's the most exciting innovation that you've come across recently?

The ability of a Smartphone to communicate in so many extraordinary ways. It's a byproduct of having the technology in place anyway, but it is remarkable. My electric car sends me a text message when it's charged up.

The deeper, more fundamental innovation is going to be these solar panels that are not 15 percent efficient, but 30 percent efficient. They're available for spacecraft, but with improved manufacturing techniques they'll be available for everybody.

Looking back on Bill Nye the Science Guy, how would the show need to change if you were making it for kids today?

There are some details. We might have Madonna, but we'd have Lady Gaga. We wouldn't have the Spin Doctors, we'd have Rihanna. We would be in high-def. If I had it to do again, and I don't, we'd have merchandise. It didn't occur to me that the Walt Disney Corporation wouldn't have merchandise. It just never crossed my mind. And people want it. The big picture and the demonstrations would be pretty much the same.

And I would not pull any punches about climate change. On the old show, there are three really obvious demonstrations or mentions of climate change, but we'd do a lot more on it.

Are you a fan of the Bill Nye theme song?

Oh God, it's awesome. I saw that guy [who wrote it] in the grocery store the other day. Mike Greene. He produces music for industrial videos. Ford Motor Company wants music for the cars coming around the turn and he writes it. His company is called 38 Fresh. He's cool. He's a great guy.

Does it still get stuck in your head?

Yes, and people sing it to me constantly. And people ask me to sing it. And I have to remind people, in the example of Gilligan's Island, Gilligan doesn't sing the song. Bill Nye doesn't sing the Bill Nye song. He hires that out. He's got people for that.

And just for the record, how many bowties do you own now?

I have about 200. But there's a reason: Yes, one buys them, but people give them to me and they don't wear out. You have to tie that tie a heck of a lot of times to make that happen. I love them. They don't slip into your soup, they don't flop into your flask.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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