Updated: Jun 11, 2019
Author: Olivia Lloyd
Bill Nye “The Science Guy” visited a South Florida high school for the opening of a new robotics building. There he spoke with members of the press.
Nye is a mechanical engineer and TV personality. After graduating from Cornell in 1977, he worked at Boeing and later developed hit educational show “Bill Nye The Science Guy,” which ran 1993-1998. He has written three books and currently heads the Planetary Society.
Since we’re at a high school that has a scanning electron microscope, can you speak about the potential for this apparatus in a high school setting?
It’s an amazing thing that electrons have properties that act like waves, so you can look at things on the wavelength of a quantum. I encourage you all to look at insects with your scanning electron microscope. It’s astonishing. It can help everyone. It has always amazed me that Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace discovered evolution without any knowledge of DNA. Just think, just think what the future holds.
What would you like to see in young people to advance the future of science in the world?
What I want to see in young people to advance science is passion. Passion! That’s the key. You’re living in an extraordinary time. As Barack Obama remarked, ‘If you couldn’t pick where you would be born but you could pick when, this would be the time.’ As messed up as things might appear to be, they’re so much less messed up than they used to be. Because of science.
The future is really exciting. However, thanks to people like me, you’re going to grow up with climate change, and you’re going to have to figure it out. And you will! There are three things we want for everybody in the world: clean water, renewably produced electricity and access to the internet, or whatever you guys will call the internet in the coming years. Then we can provide education to everyone in the world and make the quality of life better than ever for people. So passion! That’s the answer.
Your mom was a codebreaker, so not only was that cool in itself, but also she was a woman in science and engineering. Now there’s this big push for exposing girls and women to STEM. Can you talk about how that’s improving science and making it open to all?
Half the people in the world are girls and women. Is that controversial? Let’s have half the scientists and engineers be women. I will say objectively about my mother [that] she was very good at puzzles and riddles. She and my dad used to write limericks. That was a thing. She was recruited by the Navy to break codes during World War II.
[I used to ask,] ‘What did you do during the war, Mom?’
‘I can’t talk about it. Haha.’
My whole life. The thing is, my father was a prisoner of war for four years … and my mother was in the Navy. Everybody in the developed world was working on solving this global problem, of ending this war. So when you hear people talk about the overwhelming nature of climate change, or the overwhelming nature of income disparity or the overwhelming nature of healthcare management, these are all solvable problems. If people won a world war in five years, we can solve anything. They didn’t even have the internet. Yes! What did they do all day? They came up with something. So we can solve this problem.
[My mom] was at the very beginning of what we now sort of take for granted: women in the workforce. Yes, there are disparities in income and we’re working on that, but it’s really a life lesson that these people of all ages, all income strata, got together and won the war. It’s really an amazing thing.
From your work with the Planetary Society and the shows you’ve done, how are you trying to work today to progress science and inspire young people?
The Planetary Society is very important to me. I… or point out that space exploration brings out the best in us. By us, I mean people all over the world.
You’ll hear people say a lot, ‘Why are we planning to send spacecraft to the moon or to destinations in the solar system or explore distant worlds that are inaccessible, why are you doing that when we have these other problems?’
Well, we have to do that. We have to do everything at once.
Now look around. All the clothes we’re wearing, with very few exceptions, were made on another continent. They were brought here on ships, because our ancestors figured out the world is a big ball. The world’s not flat, by the way. We checked. We managed that by understanding the position of stars in the sky. As we explore space we learn more about ourselves and our place in the cosmos.
You guys, young people, may very well be alive when evidence of life, or stranger still, something alive, is discovered on another world. And that will change the course of human history. It will be profound, like discovering the earth goes around the sun and not the other way around.
There are two things. The search for life is amazing to me, find[ing] life on other worlds. The other thing is, we don’t want to get hit with an asteroid. I can guarantee you, 100%, the earth will be hit with an asteroid. I can’t tell you when; it could be 10,000 years from now. There is no evidence the ancient dinosaurs had a space program. If they did, it wasn’t good enough. But we do. We could identify and deflect an asteroid. Those two things, search for life and asteroids, are really important to me, [and] so is exploration at large.
How important is it to you for a school like this to bring focus to STEM?
The reason the United States is the most influential culture in the world is innovation. I would like to remind everybody that in the U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 8 clause 8 refers to the progress of science and useful arts. Just think, they mentioned the word science in the Constitution. That’s pretty significant.
What keeps the U.S. in the game economically is innovation, and innovation comes from science. Everybody who is going to be the next innovator has to get excited about it in high school. That’s why this building is part of the bigger picture. It’s patriotic, for crying out loud!
Can you talk about what inspired you to make videos to help students learn science?
I came of age as a mechanical engineer, and a human. I wanted to affect young people. We have very compelling research that 10 years old is about as old as you can be to get the lifelong passion for science. If it’s not 10 then it’s 12, but it’s not 23.
We wanted to get people excited about science as early in their academic career as possible. The other thing we all want to work on, as educators, is algebra. Algebra is apparently the most reliable indicator of whether or not a person pursues a technical career. It’s not clear that it’s cause and effect, but thinking abstractly about numbers enables you to think abstractly about all sorts of things.
That’s why mathematics is in the STEM acronym. And it’s fun! What’s more fun than word problems? Come on! When you become an engineer you get paid to do word problems, and that’s fun for me. We’re just trying to change the world, that’s all.
Do you think there’s been an increase in the passion of the [current] generation in science?
The acronym STEM is everywhere. Now we have prototyping in robotics. That’s got to change things. When I came of age we had the space program. We had this overwhelming optimism that things were possible.
People [ask], ‘If they can put a person on the moon, why can’t they blank.’
We wouldn’t have the internet, probably, without the U.S. space program. I feel this optimism again in our society that anything is possible. Although, as I say all the time, the best is yet ahead, we have some really big challenges.
Does the same thing that inspired you when you started making your videos inspire you today?
Yeah, yeah. I mean I’m the same guy, that’s the problem. We did a hundred shows of elementary science, and now I’m writing books, and now I’m the head of the Planetary Society. We’re just trying to change the world, it’s the same message. There was a document that I wrote, and it was a single page, describing the show. We would give it to everyone who came to work on the show. We would give it to them, and it said ‘Objective: Change the World.’ That was in 1992. I’m trying to do something new, but I know, it’s the same. We’re just trying to change the world for the better.
If we could go back in time and get high school Bill Nye and bring him here today, what do you think he would do?
He’d be going nuts. I’m of an age I built Heathkits, from the Heath Electronics company. So 3D printing, additive manufacturing, I would be all over that. And my hair was a lot longer, that was the style then. I’d be going wild in here. I’m a tinkerer, that’s why I became a mechanical engineer. I can’t get enough. This is some real serious heavy equipment, so just make sure everyone is safe with it. Speaking of hair, I encourage everyone to wrangle their hair when you’re around any spinning machine.
What were inspirations for you that helped guide you along the way?
Both of my parents encourage a person, me, to be interested in science. My grandfather was an organic chemist and my mother I guess ultimately was some sort of mathematician, but she never talked about it. You grow up with that and you think it’s cool and you embrace it. I remind everyone to look at everything in this room. All the clothes you’re wearing, all the food you’ve eaten today, the chairs, this lectern, were shaped by people. And all these people understood science. All the shapes came out of somebody’s head. And this person understood science. This to me is amazing. I claim science is the best idea humans have ever had, and humans have had a lot of ideas. I celebrate it every chance I get.