Bill Nye has been asked about the origin of his love of science for years. Turns out, it’s all about the bees, the bumblebees to be more exact.
He said before he turned three years old, he could remember watching bumblebees on the Azalea bushes in his parents’ front yard. He was just fascinated.
“I mean I sat there for so long one day that I was convinced I was seeing the same individual bee coming and going. And maybe it was. It sure is possible,” he said.
Nye said he would watch the bee load up her pollen baskets, then hit the air and come back. And the thing that always struck him while he was watching this was how small the wings were for such a relatively large animal.
Several years later, when he was about six, he said he remembered reading Ripley’s Believe It or Not! in the Washington Post.
“And the article said, ‘According to Aerodynamic Theory, bumblebees cannot fly.’ It was really this moment for me when I realized that the bees are fine, the problem is with the theory,” said Nye.
He said this was a turning point for him as he realized, for the first time, that not everything grown-ups tell you is going to be true. And there are mysteries literally under our noses that just haven’t been figured out.
“Around this time, my brother had a Lionel Chemistry Set which he used to make ammonia in my hand. Not long after, a bee stung me, which was traumatic. My mother put ammonia on the wound. And I had this circle of ‘wait a minute.’ All this magic is done with molecules. These events were all within a few months of each other the way I remember it and it changed my life,” Nye said.
Nye became Bill Nye the Science Guy after calling in to a radio show in Seattle. The host was giving away movie tickets and had asked a question about Back to the Future.
“And the answer was so and so many jigowatts. So I called him and I said, ‘You know you can say jigowatts but scientifically literate people will say gigowatts,” Nye remembered.
After calling in every day for about three months, Nye was invited to the writer’s meetings for the show. He would leave his engineering job at Boeing, go to a meeting and then head back to work.
One day, Nye was at a book-signing event with the host and a few other people. The author they had booked cancelled. The host turned to Nye and said, “We need six or seven minutes on the show. Bill, why don’t you do that stuff you’re always talking about? You could be Bill Nye the Science Guy or something.” And with that, a new career was born.
The first segment he ever did was in January of 1987 and it was about the household uses of liquid nitrogen. In fact, he still uses one of the bits he used to do because it’s so cool.
“You freeze marshmallows in liquid nitrogen, chew them and steam comes out of your nose,” Nye said.
He said it took him from 1987 to 1992 to convince people that this was a cool thing to be doing.
These days he’s not only Bill Nye the Science Guy but is also the CEO of The Planetary Society, a group that fights the good fight trying to make sure the NASA budget is restored. They are also working on ways to destroy or reroute asteroids that have the potential to hit Earth.
When I asked Bill about climate change and global warming he said he thinks it is the most serious problem facing humankind right now.
“What’s happened is certain companies, especially the oil industry have managed to introduce the idea that scientific uncertainty is the same as doubt, but that’s not true. Climate change is happening and it’s caused by humans,” he said.
According to Nye, it is perfectly analogous to what happened with the tobacco industry introducing the idea that cigarettes do not cause cancer at all, rather than asking how many cigarettes cause cancer or how fast do they cause cancer?
He said it wouldn’t matter except we are going to die one day.
“And it’s just a question of how low will the quality of life get for the people in the developing world as a result of climate change? Low, extremely low or astonishingly low?” said Nye.
Nye thinks it would be best if the United States could get ahead of these problems and be producing the technology to deal with climate change rather than playing catch up with Chinese engineers and innovators.
“I understand that some members of government grew up at a time and in a place where there was so much space, there were so many natural resources, the world was so optimistic when they were young, that they literally can’t imagine the effects of climate change and I am sympathetic to that,” Nye said.
Nevertheless, he said climate change is happening and humans are causing it and we have to do something about it. He said the key idea is that it’s not how much carbon dioxide is in the air now compared with when the dinosaurs were alive. It’s not how warm the world is right now, but the rate at which it’s changing.
“It’s the speed not the absolute numbers that matter,” said Nye.
As a voter, taxpayer, engineer and self-proclaimed medium-level thinker, Nye feels we need new ways to store energy.
“What you want to do is use all this energy that shows up here every day from the sun. And all the energy that’s stored in the spin of the Earth, which makes wind and get your energy that way,” Nye enthused.
And what about nuclear energy? Though Nye said he has an open mind about nuclear energy, it’s proved to be too expensive an energy option.
Nye called electricity “magical” because of the number of tasks you can accomplish with it. He said if we can find a way to store it and distribute it, we could change the world.
In terms of helping the planet, Nye said the key to the future is not just to do less but also to do more with less. He said it’s a difficult idea to grasp at first but then it starts to make sense.
“Because we all share one atmosphere, every time you use more carbon dioxide than you needed to, you’re affecting people from Papua, New Guinea to Oslo, Norway,” Nye explained.
Combining errands so you drive less, recycling water bottles, turning off the lights when you leave the room. These are all great ways to help the planet, but in order to effect significant change, Nye feels there have be bigger ideas.
“Liquid metal batteries, molten salt heat storage, grid to vehicle – vehicle to grid electricity storage. We need these big systems but that’s going to take scientists, especially engineers for the future,” he said.
So what does Nye think is the best way to get kids interested in science?
“Demonstrations are fantastic. I often tell parents to let their kids mess around in the kitchen, but just make sure they know that cleaning up is a part of it,” said Nye.
It’s also a good idea to get students to embrace Algebra. He said Algebra is the single most reliable indicator of whether or not a student will pursue a career in science or engineering. Algebra is not expensive to teach. Nye said there are only a few adjustments required.
“We need to get students used to using letters to represent numbers earlier in school so when the time comes, they’re more open to it,” Nye said.
He said we don’t need to start over with the school system; we just need to tweak it. Nye feels one of these changes is going to have to include increasing teachers’ pay.
“We have to make it so when someone comes out of Engineering school and has the choice to work for Google or going to work as a teacher where they make a third of the pay, that they choose teaching,” said Nye.
Because nine months out of the year, kids spend more time with their teachers than they do their parents, Nye said teaching is not where you want to save your money.
“I meet Nobel Laureates and I hang out with rocket scientists all day and believe me, these are not the people you want teaching kindergarten,” he said.
Bill Nye will be in Omaha giving a lecture at the first annual Nebraska Science Fest. He said his talk will be hilariously funny and charming and will focus on the importance of science and technology. He said he would also discuss the enormous opportunities for young people in the future that are going to result from climate change.
“There are things we are going to have to do in the coming years to mitigate or take advantage of the changing climate. Someone is going to get rich and I would just as soon it was someone from the United States,” said Nye.
Bill Nye’s lecture is at the Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall, Friday, April 12th at 7:30 p.m. The Nebraska Science Festival runs April 12th-14th. Visit www.nescifest.com for a complete schedule of events. Details on The Planetary Society are available online at www.planetary.org.