Bill Nye's career might be entirely unique. He's gone from a beloved children's TV personality to a combative opponent of creationism and climate change denial without breaking stride. Now he's returning to the spotlight as an earnest crusader for space exploration.
Seventeen years after Bill Nye the Science Guy ended, Nye — who still wears a bow tie daily — remains a public science educator: he recently wrote a book on evolution and traveled to the Everglades with President Obama on Earth Day. But as CEO of the Planetary Society, a nonprofit space advocacy group founded by Carl Sagan in 1980, he's most excited about space.
Tomorrow, the society will launch its first-ever mission: the LightSail, a thin Mylar kite that's designed to harvest energy from the sun to propel itself forward, instead of using chemical rockets, like most spacecraft. If this and future test missions are successful, this sort of solar sail could someday be used to carry spacecraft all over the solar system for a fraction of the current price, with a lower risk of breakdown over time.
I recently spoke with Nye about the importance of this mission, his passion for engaging in public debate, and his transformation from Boeing engineer to TV star. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Joseph Stromberg: Last month, I spoke with Neil deGrasse Tyson and brought up an objection people sometimes make to space exploration, and I wanted to see your response. What do you say to people who wonder why we're spending money in space when we have so many problems on Earth?
Bill Nye: Space brings out the best in us. It drives us. And don't tell me it doesn't affect you every single day.
People can't tell which side of the street they're on without looking at their phones. That information comes from satellites in space. If the weather report is off by an hour, people start complaining. That data comes from space, too. We knew Hurricane Sandy was coming for the same reason.
"If you're a politician looking to derail the progress of science, I think you're not doing your job"
There are solar storms that can knock out communications on Earth — and we need space assets to know they're coming. And if the Earth were to get hit by a huge asteroid, that's it for us. That's basically control-alt-delete for civilization. We don't want that.
There's also this intangible thing of national pride, and inspiration. That's why you have countries like India and Mexico revving up their space programs. NASA is the best brand the United States has. There's nothing quite like it.
Joseph Stromberg: The Planetary Society is spending more than $5 million to put this LightSail into space. Why is it so important?
Bill Nye: Back in 1976, Carl Sagan went on the Tonight show with Johnny Carson and held up a model of a solar sail. This is a technology that allows a spacecraft to get pushed through space by the pressure of sunlight — of photons. It's amazing.
That mission never happened, because it was canceled in favor of the Space Shuttle. And I love the shuttle — I applied to be an astronaut four times, but I never got the gig, because I just don't have the PhDs. But although the Space Shuttle did some great things, it didn't go anyplace new. It wasn't about boldly going where no one had gone before — it was timidly going where hundreds of people had been.
So anyway, at the Planetary Society, we advocate for missions farther and deeper into space. New places. And solar sailing, which we're testing in this mission we're calling the LightSail, could let us do that. We could use solar sails to push spacecraft to all sorts of distant destinations, for a much lower cost than conventional propulsion. This is a totally new technology.
Joseph Stromberg: I also wanted to ask you a bit about your career. You were once an engineer at Boeing. How'd you become a TV personality?
Bill Nye: I won a local Steve Martin lookalike contest, and I started doing some standup comedy on the side. Then I started working at a company called Sunstream Data Control. And I eventually quit, because I felt that my managers were obsessed with things that would make them money in three months — and you can't create a new thing from scratch running your company like that. You're just not going to come up with an extraordinary new idea. And that's what I wanted to do.
So I was volunteering at the Pacific Science Center, and I thought a lot about how young people really were the future, and I wanted to affect them. I felt that during that era, there was a systemic problem in our society. In all sorts of ways, we were satisfied with mediocrity. And I really wanted to change that.
The show was basically an effort to affect kids and change the future. And the kids who watched the show, they're coming of age now and are starting to run the world. I'm waiting to see if they can cure cancer and invent a better battery.
Joseph Stromberg: More recently, you've been publicly debating people over things like evolution and climate change. Why do you feel that it's worthwhile to take them on?
Bill Nye: Well, first of all, I think denying climate change is in nobody's best interests. But I also think denying science in general is in no one's best interests.
First, there's the enormous significance science has for humankind. The reason you and I are able to talk on the phone right now, the reason we have TV and airplanes and weather reports, is because of science. The reason I'm alive — and wasn't killed by appendicitis — is because of modern medicine. The reason we're able to feed 7.2 billion people in the world right now is science. It's not magic.
When you have people denying this basic process, and how we all got here, it's offensive to me intellectually. And I happen to think it's unpatriotic. Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution says the government shall "promote the progress of science and useful arts." So if you're a politician looking to derail the progress of science, I think you're not doing your job.
I want voters and taxpayers to recognize this. Do you really want to vote for somebody who doesn't believe in the scientific method — and doesn't believe that we defeated smallpox? Do you really want that person running your government?
When it comes to climate change in the US, most of the denial comes from the fossil fuel industry. They've worked very hard to introduce this idea that scientific uncertainty — in other words, a margin of error — is the same as doubt about the whole thing.
But I feel strongly that climate change is in nobody's best interests. No one's. Even the fossil fuel industry, which is making money in the short and medium term, even they won't benefit in the long term.
Joseph Stromberg: What do you hope to gain by publicly debating people like Ken Ham, who operates the Creation Museum, about evolution? Do you think you can convince people?
Bill Nye: That debate started with an offhanded comment I made on Big Think. I said, "If you want to believe the Earth is 6,000 years old, that's fine, but don't make your kids believe it." And in lots of states, kids are taught that evolution is just one possible theory that explains how life came about, and that creationism is another.
We need these kids to be part of the future. We need them to innovate and change the world. But if you raise a generation of students who don't believe in the most fundamental idea in biology, it's a formula for disaster. This is against our national interest, and if you raise a generation like this, they're victims.
A lot of people were concerned that the debate would just draw attention to those people, and energize their base, and I understand that. But what I believed going in is that my audience wasn't in the room there. They were online. And I think that has been validated: the video of the debate has had 4.5 million views in a year.
Joseph Stromberg: You mentioned that you think climate change is in no one's best interests. Why is that?
Bill Nye: Humans will live through it. Right now, we're extinction-proof. We're just so dominant on this planet. But in the worst case, it could end up like Road Warrior: a couple of tribes on a remote island, eking out a living and killing each other.
And in the medium term, people living in places like Miami will be displaced. They will build sea walls for a few years, like in Holland, and then people will have to move. New Orleans will have more and more trouble. These people won't be able to sell their houses, and it'll lead to economic problems.
And all this is in the developed world. There are way more places where people can't afford to move — they don't have the resources to move — and that's going to be real trouble. That keeps me up at night.
Joseph Stromberg: Do you think we'll be able to solve it?
Bill Nye: I'm hopeful that we can change the world, in two different ways.
One way is technological. We need to invent a better battery. Tesla just announced plans to basically hang car batteries on the wall — I'm very interested in that for my own house in LA, which can produce four kilowatts of solar power, but storage is a problem.
We also need to pursue better transmission lines — maybe with carbon nanotubes, which would greatly reduce the electrical resistance and make things more efficient. In general, we need a smart grid. If someone can figure out how to desalinate seawater more cheaply than we do it now, that'd be huge. Some people are working on using graphene to do it, and it looks promising, but it's tricky to bring it up to industrial scales.
"Space brings out the best in us. It drives us. And don't tell me it doesn't affect you every single day."
But we're also going to need a top-down, regulatory program for greenhouse gases. I say to all the climate deniers, "If you don't like big government now, just wait until stuff starts going wrong and people need help."
When it comes to public support for this issue, I think a lot about our country during World War II. My father was a prisoner of war in Japan, and my mom was a code-breaker in the Navy — she was recruited because she was good at math and science. They were part of the "Greatest Generation," as people like to call it.
I want the millennials and their offspring to serve as the next great generation, and respond to this big crisis we're facing now. Back then, it was this huge, organic movement. You had Glen Miller singing, "Get a load of those guys, high in the skies, wingin' to victory." Everybody was involved in it.
We need this to happen for climate change. I love "Uptown Funk," but what if it were about transmission lines, or graphene desalinization of seawater? That'd be pretty cool.