Bill Nye thinks we can change the world


As the music faded out, a familiar chant escalated from an audience of over a thousand strong: “Bill! Bill! Bill!”

Bill Nye pranced onto the Marshall Student Center Ballroom stage, and to the mantra of his own name, he began doing a jig. 

Yet the Science Guy, invited Tuesday night as part of the University Lecture Series, was not there for only fun and games. 

“I want you to get fired up,” he said. “I want to get you fired up so you can change the world.”

Nye pointed to a picture of Earth taken from the perspective of an astronaut standing on the moon.

“If you showed my father this picture when he was your age, he wouldn’t have thought it was real,” he said. “People perceived the world as looking like a classroom globe … this is when humankind discovered the Earth. People hadn’t grasped that the Earth is a planet like any other planet.”

Before getting into Earth’s history, Nye talked about his family history. He went on about his father, a young scientist and a World War II prisoner of war. 

Nye’s father worked on Wake Island, an important location for travel between Asia and North America.  On the same day Pearl Harbor was attacked, Wake Island was also bombed. Two weeks later, Japan’s navy captured his father.

While in internment, Nye’s father became fascinated with sundials. He eventually came up with the idea of a sundial that could be used on a beach — a beachdial. 

“I said, ‘Dad that’s brilliant,” he said. “We’re going to make dozens of dollars on it.”

His father joined a sundial society, which Nye said was basically just a bunch of people standing in a circle while observing a sundial. 

“Everything that casts a shadow should be made into a sundial. Everything that sticks up should become a …” Nye said before looking down at his crotch and reconsidering. “Um, OK. Maybe not everything.”  

The audience laughed, while Nye regained his composure to continue telling the tale of his father’s inquisitiveness.

“One of my father’s greatest ideas was to turn the Washington Monument into a giant sundial,” Nye said. 

The idea was to put markings on the lawn that kept track of time, but there was one problem. Washington Monument’s shadow would get too long during winter and cover the White House. Nye’s father concluded that the president would have to move somewhere else so as not to take away focus from his sundial.

During his story that seemingly wasn’t intended to have a point, Nye made an observation — the shadow that a sundial makes is gray. 

“Wow Bill, thanks,” Nye said, mocking the audience. “I never noticed that.”

Nye, nonetheless, continued this observation with momentous enthusiasm. 

“If you make a shadow with your finger, or a friend’s head, the shadow is gray,” he said. “It’s also ever so slightly blue.”

The light blue color comes from the Earth’s sky and the exact tint is unique to Earth. 

“Next time you’re on the moon, should you go there, I hope some of you do and I hope you come back … the shadows are sharp dark,” he said. “See on Earth we have an atmosphere. Really? Yes, governor.”

While he was in engineering school during the “disco era,” Nye said he remembered scientists making a big fuss over a picture sent back from Mars. Instead of Mars having a blue sky, as everyone assumed it would, its atmosphere was colored more like an eggshell.

“Somebody said, ‘Hey man I don’t think the sky on Mars is blue,’” Nye said while imagining the conversation at NASA. “’What do you mean? It’s a planet’ … ‘I know, but like dude — it’s a different planet.’”

Decades later, after Nye hosted his PBS show, he said he was invited to a meeting about the Mars Rover. 

“I didn’t want to look stupid, or stupider, so I played along,” he said.

Taking inspiration from his father, Nye also had the idea to put a sundial on Mars in order to calculate time on another world. 

“It would be like those guys who speak Klingon,” he said. “Except it will be real, but on Mars.”

In fact, there were already three sundials on Mars.

“I was apparently not the first guy to suggest a sundial,” Nye said. “But I was the first guy to jump out of his chair and wave his arms about it.”

The scientists also discussed the shade of Martian shadows. The shadow seemed to have a yellow tint instead of a blue one. Nye nicknamed a shadow’s colored tint as its xanthodescence.

“Come on people, it starts with an X,” Nye said. “X is sexy, X is cool.”

The reason for this difference is the atmosphere, he said. Mars has an atmosphere of 95 percent carbon dioxide, compared to Earth’s .04 percent. Life would suffocate instantly on Mars.

At this point, the lecture took a more serious turn. Nye explained that during our lifetimes, the carbon dioxide on Earth went from .03 to .04 percent of its atmosphere. 

“That tiny change, that seemingly insignificant change of a fraction, is changing the world,” he said. “That’s the problem you guys — the atmosphere is that thin and we have so many people trying to breathe or trying to burn it.”

Nye used Venus as an example of what life on a thick atmosphere would be like, and asked the audience to remember being a kid and playing the game where the floor turns into lava and water into acid. 

“On Venus, it’s really like that … it’s very undesirable. We would all die and we don’t want that,” he said. “The Venusian atmosphere is very thick … by the way, before it was Venusian, it was Venereal … we had to change it.”

If people don’t change their ways, Earth’s atmosphere will not stay hospitable to us. Nye said the problem is a growing population, many of whom deny scientific fact in favor of false beliefs.

“We land things on Mars, but we have a substantial amount of people who don’t believe in science. We have a lot of deniers in the U.S.,” he said showing a picture of Sarah Palin on the screen. 

“Here in Florida, you guys take it up a notch,” he said, showing a picture of Gov. Rick Scott to the roar of the audience. 

“You shall not speak this phrase!” he said, running in circles while plugging his ears, mocking Scott for banning the term “climate change” and “global warming” in different state government departments. 

In Minnesota, Nye said its state government was worried because a lake was melting a little faster after winter than usual.

“You guys are in Florida! Your state is going to go away!” Nye said, projecting an image of South Florida sinking under water. 

Nye said much of science denial stems from fundamentalist religious organizations, which aim to indoctrinate children at their most vulnerable. Nye showed a billboard along a Kentucky roadway with dinosaurs eating coconuts on Noah’s Ark.  

The advertisement was for the Creation Museum’s attempt at fundraising for a replica of Noah’s Ark, estimated to cost $73 million. Nye debated the museum’s founder, Ken Ham, last year over the issue of teaching creationism in school.

When asked what would change his views on creationism, Nye said the refutation of abundant proof that the universe is over 6,000 years old, such as the measurement of light from stars that are millions of light years away.

Ham, on the other hand, said nothing would sway his belief.

“Imagine this guy on a jury. He’s just there saying nothing will change his mind,” Nye said before covering his ears and spinning circles. “Haha! Can’t hear you!”

The biggest problem for people when considering the age of the universe is wrapping their head around 4.5 billion years.

“It’s really hard to imagine that,” he said. “Dude, are you high?”

Understanding the length of time, he said, is just as hard to contemplate as the size of the universe. Creationists also criticize the possibility of aliens and blame NASA for spending money on the search.

“If our society stops looking up and out, what does that say about us?” Nye said. “Our ancestors who didn’t go up the hill and onto the next valley, those aren’t our ancestors. They couldn’t compete with those who did go over the hill, who did go to the next valley.”

Nye talked about working recently with Neil Degrasse Tyson, who sits on the board of directors for the Planetary Society, of which Nye recently became the chief executive officer.

The organization is sending a satellite, called a solar sail, into space. Nye said it is so shiny that people will be able to see it with the naked eye.

Though it doesn’t have a practical use, it is meant to be a celebration of science exploration and a hope for the future.

A future that is threatened, Nye said, by climate change. 

“I want you guys to change the world,” he said. “I am wearing a watch, but I’ve never wound it in almost 10 years because it is solar powered.”

Nye said his house is entirely solar powered, and he even gets to enjoy hot showers without destroying the environment.

“When you get an electric bill every 60 days for five bucks, that’s just fun,” he said. “We can do this, we can get this done. But I want you guys to do it better. I want you to change the world.”

Nye harkened back to his father’s generation, which he said is the greatest generation when every American joined together in support during World War II. 

“If you don’t like government regulation now, you just wait until stuff stops happening … in World War II, they rationed tires.”

Nye proposed a fee on carbon, which would make people pay extra for doing things that released carbon into the environment.

Everything running on fossil fuels would cost more, but that money would go to invest in researching better, greener alternatives. 

The energy is there, Nye said. There’s enough sunlight in the four corners of the U.S. to power North America three times over. The problem is figuring out a grid that can distribute it and a battery that can store it. 

“You guys can figure this out,” he said. “You could get rich — Bill Gates rich, head of IKEA guy rich.”

But is Earth worth saving in the first place, Nye asked the audience. After all, Earth is so unimaginably small in a universe that is unimaginably big.

Nye remembered his third grade teacher telling him that there were more stars in the observable sky than there are grains of sand on all of Earth. 

“Mrs. Cochran, are you high?” Nye said. “Are you ever on the beach? There’s a lot of sand.”

Nye recollected sitting on a beach in Delaware and crafting a sundial out of some string and the cardboard from a six-pack of beer. He said he became paralyzed with doubt looking at the sand. 

“I’m just a speck, standing on a bunch of specks, on another speck, orbiting around another speck, that isn’t that remarkable of speck, in a whole bunch of specks around,” he said. “I’m a speck on a speck in a speck in a universe of specks. Ugh!”

But, Nye concluded, it is finding joy in a universe of endless discoveries that makes it all worth it to keep that adventure going for generations to come.

“It’s that joy of discovery, that’s what drives us,” he said. “That’s what make us different from — let’s say — grouper or maybe crabs.”