Ever wonder how Bill Nye became "The Science Guy?" Or why he debated that creationist? Or what he thinks is the most amazing thing about the universe?
You're in luck. In an April 26 interview conducted at the 2014 USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C., Nye used his typical candor and deadpan wit to answer those and many other questions put to him by HuffPost Science. What follows is a condensed and lightly edited version of the discussion.
Macrina Cooper-White: How did you first get involved in science?
Bill Nye: I don’t remember--really it was that long ago. I remember my brother had a chemistry set back when they were dangerous and cool. I remember he made ammonia in the palm of my hand. Then I remember watching bees on azalea bushes in northwest Washington. I remember thinking “these things are just the coolest things ever.” And then I got stung by a bee, and my mother put ammonia on it, and it was like this huge connection for me. I’ve been fascinated with science ever since.
MC: Are there scientists in your family?
BN: My grandfather was an organic chemist, and my mother gave me his glassware to play with. In those days, chemists blew their own glass. If you needed a shape to do something, you’d just make it. My nephew and niece are both chemical engineers with PhDs in chemical engineering, which is a little unusual, and they can write computer programs that my grandfather would have no idea how to do, but they don’t blow glass. It’s different skills from different times.
MC: Is it true that your mother was a codebreaker during World War II?
BN: Yes. She went to Goucher College and in those days it was all women. It was the sister school to Johns Hopkins. The secretary of war, Stimson, was the first cousin of the dean of students at Goucher. Apparently, he asked her, “Do you have any women who can come work on this? I can’t tell you what it is.” So my mom and her buddies worked on the Enigma code in WW2. I remember people of that age, what they all talked about was “What did you do in the war?” And she would say, “I can’t talk about it, ha ha ha.” It was a huge secret and they took it seriously. As a little kid, I remember her uniforms hanging in the closet--she was in the reserves for a little while, I guess. And then they were declassified in 1992. Fifty years, that’s a long time to keep secrets, and they all did.
MC: So it sounds like you've always been surrounded by people interested in science.
BN: Oh, yeah. My father called himself “Ned Nye, Boy Scientist.” He was a salesman, he wasn’t a full-time scientist, but he respected it.
MC: Is that where you got the "Science Guy” nickname?
BN: No. My name came from a writer’s meeting with a guy named Ross Shafer, who is still a dear friend. We had to fill six minutes of television. That’s a long time. And he said, “Why don’t you do all that stuff you’re always talking about? Why don’t you just come up with something? You could be like, you could be like ‘Bill Nye, the Science Guy,’ or something?” And then he closed his briefcase, and he left. And I went, “That’s fantastic.”
MC: You began your career as an engineer at an aerospace company. What inspired you to become a science communicator?
BN: It took a long time. I started doing stand-up comedy after I won the Steve Martin look-alike contest in Seattle. The reason I won is that I understood Steve Martin better than the other contestants. As he wrote later, "What is the funniest moment in your life? It’s when you choose to laugh, that’s the funniest moment." So Steve Martin would set up this tension where after a while you gave in, you just started laughing. He’s ironic--it’s one thing after another that’s unexpected. You’re sitting there wondering if he’s crazy or not.
MC: So after winning the contest you thought, "OK, maybe this means I’m funny?"
BN: Funny, but more important, funny-looking. So I started doing stand-up comedy at open mic nights and I submitted jokes to this comedy show. And then I quit my job in 1986. I was a young guy and I figured if I didn’t do it then, I’d never do it. There was a lot of concern for a few years about whether or not this was going to work out for me. And then these producers on the television show “Seattle Today” started their own production company. We did this show called “Fabulous Wetlands” in 1988. Anyway, we pitched this idea for the “Science Guy” show for years, and it wasn’t until 1992 that they embraced it. The show started in 1993. So, you see it takes years and years. There isn’t really a big break.
MC: Why was it important to you to become a science communicator?
BN: When I was working as an engineer, I worked for these people who thought you should make a profit every three months, every quarter. And you can do that if you’re making, let’s take plastic cups as an example. You’ve got a machine that makes the plastic cups. You might be trying to improve the cups, you might be trying to improve the packaging and the sales arrangements to make your cups look better than the other guys’ cups, and make them cheaper. But you’re still selling cups the whole time. You can’t do that when you’re starting from scratch on a laser navigation system. It’s just a little trickier. Also, this was at the nadir, the bottom of U.S. engineering. You had Ford Pinto, Vega and leisure suits. People went to extract hostages from Iran and the helicopters all broke. It was just frankly a depressing time in engineering. So I wanted to affect young people so that in the future we would have more people interested in math and science. It was a conscious decision.
MC: Your decision to debate creationist Ken Ham last February was controversial. What made you decide to engage someone who denies basic scientific principles like evolution?
BN: Well, the science deniers are a big problem for us in the U.S. and the reason, I claim, is objective. No matter what you spiritually believe in, what keeps the United States in the game economically is innovation. And if you raise a generation of science students who are not literate, who don’t understand the fundamental ideas about life science, who don’t believe in tectonic plates, for example, you’re never going to succeed. The reason I did that was to raise awareness of these people. And I have to say I’m very surprised at how many strangers come up to me who watched that thing. Many of these debates or confrontations have happened over the years, with skeptics, guys like that. But this one just turned into a huge big deal. I thought it’d be like a college visit where there’s some twitter activity for a couple days, but this was out of hand.
MC: You helped inspire a generation of kids who watched your show. But how do you keep people involved in science at the college level and beyond?
BN: This is not a new problem. I mean when I went to engineering school, they used to have jokes like “Look to your left, look to your right. Those people won’t be here by the time you graduate.” I don’t know how to solve it except perhaps this way: if the U.S. space program were taking people to some place new, I don’t think you’d have to run around pounding on the table going “STEM, STEM, STEM.” It would just happen. Keep in mind that if we were to discover life on Mars, the world would change. This world would change.
MC: Why would the world change?
BN: It would be like Copernicus figuring out that the Earth went around the sun instead of the other way around. It would change the way that everybody feels about what it means to be a living thing, and what we are doing here. There are two big questions, you see, that everybody asks. Where did I come from, and am I alone? Those are the two deep, deep questions. And if you want to answer those, you’ve got to explore space. The U.S. space program is doing extraordinary things on planets with robots, which is cool, but when you get humans involved, that’s when everybody gets engaged around the world.
MC: Is Mars the next place we should go?
BN: Yes, we want to send people to Mars. And people say that’s a waste of money, but no. We will discover things that will change the world. And we will have innovation automatically because you’ll be solving problems that have never been solved.
MC: Would you go to Mars?
BN: I’d go if I'm coming back. I think the one-way people have not thought it through. Mars is not a happy, friendly place. It’s desolate, bitterly cold, and you can’t breathe. It’s not like finding orange trees in California, it's a different deal. Or going to Tennessee and just eating all the beavers and selling beaver pelts. No, Mars is miserably hostile.
MC: Do you think there’s intelligent life on Mars?
MC: Do you believe there is intelligent life somewhere in the universe besides Earth?
BN: Somewhere out there. There just has to be.
MC: Do you think aliens might already have visited us?
BN: It’s possible, but not very likely. What is likely is that somebody else out there is broadcasting radio signals and we will hear them one day. That is not crazy. If we got such a signal, it would utterly change the world. It would change the way everybody felt about the Earth and what it means to be alive and so on. And there’s one way to make sure you never hear that signal. Not listening.
MC: Do you think we live in a multiverse?
BN: We might. Understand that the evidence for the Big Bang is overwhelming. Just the other day, they further proved it. The nature of the cosmological constant, or the nature of the Big Bang, was predicted to have these waves, or these discontinuities. And it does, apparently, according to these observations from telescopes in Antarctica. So the Big Bang happened. Why it happened, and what was before the Big Bang, and is it even meaningful to ask what’s before the Big Bang? These are fantastic questions. The pursuit of it is what makes me so happy and crazy at the same time. So nobody knows what happened before the Big Bang. As far as I know no one knows. And that’s where speculation about the multiverse comes in. It’s a mathematical consequence of dialing the clock backwards. We’ll see.
MC: What do you believe is the most compelling scientific mystery?
BN: The whole thing puts me in awe when you start talking about the Big Bang. But as Einstein said, perhaps the most remarkable thing about the universe is that we can understand it at all, that we can make any sense out of it, is really amazing. I mean we’re these animals running around on this planet and we can understand that. What is the nature of consciousness? What is the nature of your mind? What goes on that I have a mind? I’d say I have a mind. It seems like I have a mind. You know, I speak with dogs frequently. They don’t really talk, but I feel they’re communicating. I just don’t think that they’ve asked these questions. But still they have emotions--they’re happy, they’re sad, they’re tired, they’re energetic in ways like people, but I don’t think they’ve asked a lot of questions. I don’t think they do a lot of calculus, not formally anyway.
MC: What if humans used technology, like a chip implanted in the brain, to boost our intelligence? Any ethical concerns about that?
BN: Be careful what you wish for, I will say that. Everybody’s got to remember. So you get one super-memory person, it doesn’t guarantee success. I mean, I’ve met a lot of very smart people who are miserable. It’s not clear that that’s what you want. It might be better to store information outside of your body, so we’ll see.
MC: If you had another life, what would you be?
BN: An engineer. Or maybe I’d be an astronaut. You know, I applied to be an astronaut four times. But after Christa McAuliffe got killed, they were reluctant to let teachers go up. Now the people who become astronauts are such crazy overachievers. It’s like, how many PhDs do you have? Three? Four?
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MC: You seem to have quite the reputation for your "selfies." The one you took with President Obama and Neil deGrasse Tyson received a lot of attention.
BN: I took that picture, everybody.
MC: Are you guys all buds now?
BN: Oh, we’re like that, are you kidding me? The president, Bill, Bill the president? He’s always calling me. Dude, I’m busy. I’m doing the dishes.
MC: Would you mind taking one more "selfie?"
HuffPost Science's Macrina Cooper-White with Bill Nye at the 2014 U.S. Science & Engineering Festival.