Bill Nye the Science Guy wants to talk about disaster. Big time disaster. In his latest TV series, The End is Nye, he braves hurricanes, volcanoes and solar flares among other hazards to explain and entertain audiences on the way to a better appreciation of the planet we live on. Filmed in Montreal, the series marks the latest incarnation of the bow tie and lab-coat-wearing persona who first stormed into living rooms in the 1990s to make science essential viewing for the MTV generation.
The original lab coat is now in the Smithsonian, but Nye is on the move, this week kicking off a series of Canadian tour dates. A mechanical engineer by training, the Emmy award-winning host and science advocate is also CEO of the Planetary Society, an organization that promotes space exploration and defending the planet from asteroid impacts. This week he spoke with The Globe and Mail about his work and about the most pressing planetary threat of all – climate change.
You’re best known for your work on television. What’s it like for you to interact with a live audience?
It’s great. When you are doing television there’s a dozen people standing around waiting for you to finish saying this thing over and over again. You try to get them to laugh. Even better, you try to get them to suppress a laugh because they don’t want to mess up the audio, that’s even better. But with a live audience you really want people to laugh or boo or groan – and react!
How are you getting ready for your live shows in Canada?
I was just working on a slide about the “carbon bomb” and Canada’s potential role in adding a lot of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere if all these Canadian oil and natural gas deposits are exploited. It’s a lot of freakin’ carbon dioxide!
How much harder is it to make science fun when you’re talking about something like climate change?
It’s not hard at all. It’s what I talk about all the time. In The End is Nye we start with a disaster... climate change, asteroid impact, desertification of the breadbasket of North America. In the first half hour I get killed. Then in the second half hour I come back. Wouldn’t it be great if we had systems in place and used science to make the world better? My whole thing is the opportunities. Science gives you an awareness and fear of these potential problems, but also optimism about the future. If you’re not optimistic, you’re not going to get anything done.
What kind of pushback have you had?
When all these scientific papers are published about climate change, the other side – largely funded by fossil-fuels companies – starts talking about credentials rather than about research. The first thing is: “Bill Nye’s no science guy! He’s a mechanical engineer! He’s not a climate scientist.” Okay. I can read a graph though. I’ve read the papers. I am a science educator. Climate change is a real thing.
You’ve reached a lot of viewers and probably inspired more than a few of them to pursue careers in science. Who inspired you?
I had some great teachers. I talk all the time about my physics teacher, Mr Wang. That’s why I took the physics advanced placement exam, which is what lead to me getting into [Cornell] university. I had great math teachers. Then when I was at university, I had Carl Sagan, the famous astronomer, as a professor for one class. That changed my life!
What was it about him that influenced you?
What do you like about any professor or teacher? It’s their passion. Carl Sagan was passionate about the cosmos. He spoke with such eloquence about our place in the universe. He had this awareness of the history of science and art and poetry and music and so on, and he brought that perspective to every lecture. He wasn’t the first person to say it, but he would say when you’re in love you want to tell the world. He loved astronomy and he wanted everybody in the world to love it.
You went to Seattle to work as an engineer at Boeing. What turned you into a “science guy” on TV?
What happened was that Warner Brothers Records sponsored a Steve Martin lookalike contest. I had enthusiasm for it and I won – in Seattle, not the national contest. But I got the taste. And so I started trying to do stand-up comedy after that. I was a young guy. I was a volunteer at the Pacific Science Centre and I just realized that young people are the future (yes, I figured that out myself!) And I was concerned about it. Back then we had the Ford Pinto and the Chevy Vega – these were cars that were so bad they decided it was cheaper to pay the lawsuits than fix them. Then the U.S. abandoned teaching the metric system. I was getting discouraged as an engineer. I had been submitting jokes for Almost Live!, a comedy show [on Seattle’s local NBC affiliate]. And one week a guest didn’t show and we had to fill six minutes, which is a long time on television. So the host, Ross Shafer – who later went to work on Love Me, Love Me Not, a game show in Vancouver – he said you know, you could do that science stuff. You could be Bill Nye the Science Guy.
What did you come up with?
I did the household uses of liquid nitrogen – we’ve all got liquid nitrogen around the house, of course. Volunteering at the Science Centre, I spent a lot of time with liquid nitrogen. The thing that I got good at was freezing marshmallows. You chew the marshmallow and you literally wiggle your jaw in such a way that you get the steam coming out of your nose. Come on! It’s hilarious! So after that, it became clear that someday I could have my own show as Bill Nye the Science Guy, though it took several more years to get to the show.
What was your approach when it came to putting the show together?
I went back to my 10th college reunion and I made arrangements to meet with Carl Sagan during his office hours. He said, you gotta do pure science. Kids resonate to pure science. That was the verb he used – resonate – and I really embraced that. That’s why the Science Guy show is about fundamental science. Once in a while, there’s something about technology, but it’s generally elementary science.
The show was known, at the time, for its fast pace and frequent edits. What has it been like for you to see the transformation in media since then?
We used to have a saying on the Science Guy show: no bit to exceed 49 seconds. This was a guideline, not a rule, but we certainly had edits much more frequently than 49 seconds. TikTok is a manifestation of a response to the same feature of the human brain: after about a minute you want to see something different. And don’t come running to me, hand-wringing parents. This thing is deep within us. The thing I used to say to people in the 20th century is watch yourself when you’re reading a magazine in the physician’s office or waiting to meet the dentist. Watch how often you flip the page. It’s way more frequently than every minute. And so to me, coming of age – or I guess coming of professional age – as the internet was introduced and then went mobile on our phones, I’m on board with the whole thing.
These days you’re creating content in an era when there’s a lot of misinformation about science on social media. How do you combat that?
You just provide clear information, steadily, with the expectation that people are not going to change their minds. It takes a steady drumbeat. It’s getting people into the habit of embracing this idea that you have to be able to evaluate evidence, you have to learn to be skeptical and not to confuse skepticism with cynicism, and be dismissive of any authority. The larger idea that we talk about all the time is critical thinking. It’s a fine phrase. It’s being skeptical but also open-minded.
Why is it important for you to be part of the conversation about climate change?
It’s raising awareness. Twenty years ago there might be an article once a month in a major newspaper about climate change. Now it’s more like three articles a day. So with all this awareness, something will get done. We are going to do something. The whole question is are we going to do enough, fast enough to preserve quality of life? You hear people say we have to save the Earth. Save the Earth? The Earth is gonna be here, man! I want to be able to go outside in the summer! I want to preserve the quality of life for as many people as possible, because it affects all of us.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Bill Nye performs March 27 at Centre in the Square in Kitchener, Ont.; March 28 at First Ontario Place in Hamilton; March 29 at Meridian Hall in Toronto; June 20 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver; and June 21 at the Southern Jubilee Auditorium in Calgary. Tickets are available at csentertainment.ca. The End is Nye streams in Canada on StackTV.