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Bill Nye: big ideas for big change

The ‘Science Guy’ is known for using humor to encourage kids to seek science in the everyday

“You can change the world!” was the anthem of the night as bow-tied and elbow-padded Bill Nye spoke to a packed Salomon 101 Thursday in a Brown Lecture Board event.

A childhood hero for many of the ’90s babies who dominated the crowd, Nye was welcomed onstage by the chanting of his name and a cadre of ushers sporting his signature bowtie.

A trained mechanical engineer, science educator and current CEO of the Planetary Society, Nye is perhaps best known for his long-running PBS TV show targeted toward a young audience, “Bill Nye the Science Guy.”

Bounding from topics including sundials, Martian microbes and carbon-dioxide-eating algae, Nye spoke of the importance of science in daily life, the excitement of space exploration and the opportunity for every student to contribute to the world. Nye delivered his remarks with an array of sound effects, such as gasps, gurgles, singing and motor sounds, eliciting laughter from the audience.

Nye’s passion for outer space shined during his talk, as he made the case for space’s relevance and accessibility.

“If we could drive straight up for an hour, we could be in outer space,” Nye said.

While showing a photograph of the surface of Mars, Nye said he was “struck by the idea that you could just walk around” on the planet. Take a camping trip there, Nye advised, but be sure to bring some water, food — preferably Tang — and most importantly, something to breathe.

Nye began the talk with the story of his father Ned Nye, a geologist who invented the sand dial after years spent estimating time as a Japanese prisoner of war. Ned Nye returned to America to invent the device, which people could “take to the beach so they don’t have to get any sand in (their) watch,” Nye said.

His father’s work instilled in Nye a passion for discovery and an avid interest in sundials, Nye said. He showed photographs of the three sundials he worked to install on Martian rovers to help “reckon time on another world.”

With the rover project’s price tag nearing $3 billion, Nye wryly noted that none of the rovers on the moon are locked. “I don’t know what they were thinking,” he added.

At his current day job at the Planetary Society, Nye is a part of a group of scientists developing a fleet of “laser bees” to deflect asteroids heading toward Earth. The drones would be propelled by solar power and “zap the surface of the asteroid” to divert its trajectory away from the planet, he said.

Nye also described another “crazy idea” the Planetary Society plans to put into action next year — a spacecraft “pushed through space by light,” Nye said. He cited the mass-energy equivalence equation — more commonly known as “E=mc^2” — as the fundamental theory behind the project.

Nye also addressed global warming, adding that the rapid “rate at which the world is getting warmer” is especially concerning.

Between the “astonishing thinness of the Earth’s atmosphere and the extraordinary number of humans burning it and breathing it,” global warming is an issue requiring drastic action, Nye said.

“We aren’t going to be able to change things in small steps,” he said. “You guys are going to live through a time where we are going to have to have big ideas. So we can — dare I say — change the world.”

He cited crops reflecting sunlight into space, artificial trees and ships fertilizing oceanic algae as the caliber of creative innovations that the current climate state demands. “None of these ideas is the whole answer, but you all as voters and taxpayers are going to have to figure some of this stuff out,” he said.

Nye highlighted alternative energy sources as promising avenues to combat mounting atmospheric carbon levels, personalizing the pitch with photos of the solar panels on his house and his solar-powered hot water system.

“It’s just plumbing. It’s not rocket building,” Nye said of his water heater. “If you could develop (more efficient) solar panels, you could change the world.”

Nye also expressed confidence in wind power and proposed addressing challenges in storing energy by using a system of electric vehicles, racks of liquid metal batteries, a smart grid and nano-tube power lines.

“This is where the electron has a dream,” he said.

Nye ended the talk with a description of his third-grade existential crisis on the beaches of New Jersey, when his teacher remarked there were more stars in the sky than grains of sand on the beach.

“I’m really no different from these grains of sand,” Nye recalled thinking. “They are just little specks on the beach. Bill is just another speck. The earth is just another speck. … I’m a speck on a speck orbiting a speck in the middle of specklessness. I am nothing.”

But science empowers us to help  people realize their “place in space,” Nye said.

“With your brain, you can, dare I say it my friends, change the world,” Nye shouted with a fist pump to close the lecture. The crowd, including one student sporting laboratory goggles and a full-length white coat, responded with a standing ovation.

Rob Rozansky ’14 said science often becomes “bogged down” in the way it is taught, but that Nye left him thinking “science is cool.”

The lecture engaged science and non-science majors alike and  was “easy for anyone to understand,” said Christian Ackmann ’16.

When one student announced it was her birthday during the question and answer session, Nye burst into verse, singing, “happy orbit-around-the-sun to you.”

“You’ve gone a whole other half billion kilometers, yes! That’s a long way around,” Nye said with enthusiasm.

Other students asked Nye to speak to the value of comedy in teaching scientific concepts and the gender gap   in science, technology, engineering and math fields.

“You are empowered when you do science,” Nye said. “As an educator and a citizen of the earth,” the best way to reduce exorbitant population growth on Earth is to raise the standards of living of women through education, Nye said. “Stick with it, seriously, you are going to have to find your own way.”

Another student asked Nye about what he hopes space programs accomplish in the near future.

“I want humans to walk on Mars,” Nye said. “When you have an active space program, you raise the expectation of your society” and foster collective hope, Nye said. “Space exploration is inherently optimistic.”

At the lecture’s close, Nye dialed Neil deGrasse Tyson, current director of the Hayden Planetarium and astrophysics research associate at the American Museum of Natural History. With Tyson on speakerphone, Will Palmer ’15 asked the final question of the night, asking Nye and Tyson their opinions on whether science degrees today seem like a “transaction” instead of an endeavor motivated by a zeal for discovery.

Tyson noted the role of space exploration to instill a societal passion for science. With missions such as touring the backside of the moon or ice fishing on Mars, science is intrinsically appealing.

“When you lay that out as a vision statement, everyone wants to participate. You don’t need incentives to get people into science,” Tyson said.

Marguerite Suozzo-Gole ’15.5  said Nye left her wondering if she could squeeze in an engineering degree in the two years she has left at Brown.


See The Herald's exclusive Q&A with Nye.


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