A Conversation With Bill Nye

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When it comes to influencing how we think about space exploration there may be no more effective advocate than Bill Nye—the Science Guy and CEO of the Planetary Society.

By Mario Boucher    Images: Courtesy Planetary Society

Visiting Bill Nye’s office at the Planetary Society in Pasadena feels like stepping onto Mars. A huge picture of the red planet hangs on the wall, a reminder of his fascination with space exploration. Other mementos include a huge Jupiter globe used on TV’s Star Trek, and a wall filled with visitor signatures.

Nye is relaxed as we sit down to chat.

WHAT IS THE PLANETARY SOCIETY?

We are the world’s largest independent space organization. In general, we embrace visionary ideas but not ideas that are very unlikely to be created.

We’ve always had education as part of our mission but we really want to formalize and hire the right people and provide a service where we think there’s an unfilled niche. I tell all science teachers, you can use space exploration to teach just about anything. Certainly, you can use it to teach geology, you can use it to teach physics, and you can use it to teach biology.

WHY DID THE SOCIETY CHOOSE TO LOCATE IN PASADENA?

Pasadena was picked back in the day because it is down the road from JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory]. Carl Sagan [one of the founders] used to love to come to Pasadena.

Also, we are very close to Sierra Madre and that’s where Mount Wilson is and where [Edwin] Hubble discovered the expanded universe. He did it just by looking and thinking about what he was observing in the stars.

HOW DID YOU GET INVOLVED?

After I graduated from engineering school at Cornell, I got a letter in the mail from Carl Sagan [who was my astronomy professor] to join the Planetary Society, so I did in 1980. By my 10th college reunion, I had started to do television in Seattle about science for kids on a Sunday morning show. [While I was in New York for the reunion] Sagan agreed to meet with me for five minutes, and he said, “What you’re doing sounds good, keep it up, but kids resonate to pure science.” I really embraced that, and then when I had the chance to do The Science Guy show with my producers, Jim McKenna and Erren Gottlieb, I thought we would do pure science, not just science tricks or demonstrations. It was a different approach and it did stand the test of time.

But then, Carl Sagan died in 1996 and there was a memorial service in 1997 in Ithaca. It turned out his kids watched The Science Guy. So Lou Friedman [one of the founders of the Planetary Society] came up to me and, in a very soft voice, asked me to join the board. In 2010 when we gave our cosmos award to Stephen Hawking, Neil deGrasse Tyson approached me and said “You should be the next CEO.”

As you know, I’m a very concerned environmentalist, very concerned about climate change, concerned about feeding the world’s billions, and raising the standard of living. These are very important to me. But space is what brings people together. People that just do not get along about anything else get along when it comes to space exploration.

As I say all the time, it is not a question of addressing climate change or exploring Mars or Europa, the moon of Jupiter. It’s not either or. We have a society with tremendous resources. You want to advance your knowledge of the cosmos and take care of your home world. This is not rocket science, it’s harder than that.

WHY BECOME AN ADVOCATE?

My father was quite the enthusiast astronomer. I remember looking at the moon through a telescope. When I was in college, I took a class from Carl Sagan and he was inspirational. I went to work at Boeing because I love airplanes. The thing that is so intriguing about an airplane for a guy like me, a tinkerer, is there’s nothing on an airplane that doesn’t have to be there. You can’t just add stuff because the weight is so important. It’s always captured my imagination and my heart.

The other thing about space now is that we have people who are not getting along. We have a divided country. We have a bad form of nationalism coming up with an “everybody else is inferior to us” kind of attitude, and not just the United States but around the world like the Brexit movement. But when it comes to space exploration, people work together.

The cost of the International Space Station is probably higher by including French spacecraft to attach French modules, Italian modules, Japanese modules, but the cost for agencies is way lower, the cost per taxpayers is way lower. If nothing else, the space station has a tremendous role in soft power, or diplomacy. 

SHOULD WE GO BACK TO THE MOON OR TO MARS?

Let’s talk about the moon base in context of what is likely. NASA is still the world’s largest space agency. I’ll say NASA is three times bigger than the next biggest and is twice as big as all the other space agencies combined. So NASA is inherently the world leader in space exploration.

It is not likely that NASA can have a project on the surface of the moon, a project in orbit or on the surface of Mars, and the International Space Station. Those three efforts probably cannot be conducted at the same time with the existing NASA budget. The technical things that are going to be required to put people on Mars or put people in orbit around Mars are extraordinary, but before you even concern yourself with overcoming these obstacles, you need funding.

If you have to choose between a moon landing and a Mars landing, I would prefer a Mars landing. Now, something orbiting the moon with NASA calling it a gateway spacecraft, that’s great. In the same way that we have a base in Antarctica, you have a base in orbit, what people call cislunar space between the Earth and the moon or in the vicinity of the moon’s space.

If somebody can convince everybody to largely increase the NASA budget and convince other space agencies around the world that this is a worthy investment of their intellectual treasures, then indeed, perhaps we could land on the moon, land on Mars, and keep the space station going.

WHAT IS THE BIGGEST DISCOVERY THIS CENTURY?

Probably the water under the surface of Mars. But you could also say it’s the hexagonal storm in the northern hemisphere of Saturn. You could say methane lakes or ethane lakes on Titan, moon of Saturn—but don’t make me pick. That’s why we do it all.

WHAT WILL BE THE NEXT BIG DISCOVERY?

We may find out more about the interior of Mars, whatever magnetism is still around and how it all got there [through NASA’s InSight spacecraft]. How the seismic waves move through Mars will tell us what the core is like, probably. The more we learn about Mars, the more we know about the Earth.

IS THERE OTHER LIFE IN SPACE?

I want to find evidence of life on another world in my lifetime. That, to me, would be amazing.

The practical applications are immeasurable in terms of world commerce. The clothes and shoes you’re wearing came from another continent and they got here because people understood that we live on a big ball and learned to navigate across the ocean. Whatever we accomplish getting to and from Mars will be amazing, but if we find evidence of life there, some fossil bacterium, it would change the course of human history. … Everybody would feel differently about being a living thing in the cosmos.

If they had DNA, does it mean that life started there? Mars is smaller than the Earth. It cooled off faster in the primordial solar system than the Earth did. It got an atmosphere and an ocean before the Earth did. Did life start on Mars, get slung into space by some impact on Mars, and you and I are descendants of Martians?

That is wild, extraordinary, and hard to believe. Nevertheless, not impossible and absolutely worth investigating for the really relatively small amount of money that we spend on these missions.

There is twice as much seawater on Europa (moon of Jupiter) as on Earth; the gravitational motion of the orbit and gravitational squeezing of the very powerful gravity of Jupiter keeps the water liquid. If you have liquid water for 4.5 billion years, is there something alive on Europa? Wouldn’t you want to know?

ARE WE ALONE IN THE UNIVERSE?

There are two questions everybody asks: Are we alone in the universe and Where do we all come from? It fills me with reverence every day to think that we are part of this cosmic process. That means that you and I are at least one of the ways that the universe knows itself. Cue the spooky music (Nye hums The Twilight Zone theme).

We wouldn’t have the world we have today without the discovery of relativity and so, just think about what is yet to be discovered and I pretty much guarantee you that the next giant discoveries are gonna have to do with space explorations. The next thing in physics is gravitational waves and what is the nature of dark matter or dark energy, whatever we call it, this unexplained source of acceleration in the universe.

The questions we ask to try to understand what life would be like on another world are based on our understanding of life on this world. Water seems to be the key molecule. “Follow the water” is the expression.

A QUESTION FROM 12-YEAR-OLD KYLE: WHY IS YOUR LAST VIDEO ABOUT SAVING THE WORLD?

I tell everybody the Earth’s going to be here no matter what humans do. If we wipe ourselves out, the Earth will keep spinning and keep orbiting the sun. We want to save the world for us and along this line we have fewer and fewer people in extreme poverty, but let’s have nobody in extreme poverty. We have actually fewer wars than are normally being fought around the world but why don’t we have zero wars? Wouldn’t that be good?

We still have tremendous disparity in wealth. We just want to redistribute wealth so that everybody has a high quality of life and that is a formula for not having conflicts. That’s what I mean by save the world.

When I was 9, the United Nations declared that there were an estimated 3 billion people in the world. Now there are 7.5 billion. We’re going to feed all those people through agricultural technology improvements. We’re going to feed all those people in less land than we have now. But that’s all going to be because of science—space science and agricultural science.

If you had no control over where you would be born but you could control when, this is the time you would want to be. Any other time in human history there’s a good chance your life would be miserable, but now that is less and less.

The landing on the moon and space exploration has helped with the ability to predict hurricanes, to have mobile phones that can communicate around the world at the speed of light. All that is better than it’s ever been.

 

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