Bill Nye, the host of the National Geographic Channel's upcoming miniseries “American Genius,” spoke with Not Impossible Now about visionaries, rivalries and why it’s “cool to be geeky.”
More than just "The Science Guy," Bill Nye has work many career hats – or in his case, lab coats and bow ties – over the years: aerospace engineer, kids' television host, comedian, science expert and educator, university professor, media talking head, patent holder, Planetary Society official and "Dancing With the Stars" contestant, among them.
Now Nye's turning his focus to the phenomenon of friction. No, not the actual kinetic force in strict scientific terms, but the sparks that fly when two rival, equally brilliant and ambitious inventors whose adversarial pursuit of lofty achievements led to profound scientific and technological advancements for all humankind. As the host of the National Geographic Channel's "American Genius," an 8-part docu-series chronicling some of history's most determined visionaries, Nye tours viewers through many of the professional – and sometimes very personal – rivalries that pushed innovators like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, the Wright Brothers, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and more to their greatest achievements. "American Genius" is scheduled to premiere on the National Geographic Channel on June 1.
In a conversation with Not Impossible Now, Nye reveals his thoughts on the rich rewards to be reaped all around when two competitors clash, his thoughts on and aspirations for the current state of science and technology, and even his very own professional rival – without whom there may never have been a Science Guy.
NIN: What intrigued you about being a part of "American Genius?"
Bill Nye: Oh, come on – everybody looks up to inventors! And then, I'm involved with that and with "Star Talk," Neil's show. I have a couple patents, and the thing that really drives you forward to be an inventor and have an idea that you think the world needs. But the guys, the people that are covered on this show are the real deal.
The notion of rivalry's very predominant. Have you seen a ton of that in your experience?
Nye: Well, when I worked in aerospace, there was a lot of rivalry. I mean, it wouldn't be about patentable inventions – well, actually, that's not true. They would be about patentable inventions. But there would be rivalries about the best approach to flight controls, through controlling an airplane in turbulence or what have you, the best approach to saving weight in the wing structure. It was very competitive, very competitive. And, "That guy's an idiot! He doesn't know what he's doing!" There was a lot of that.
In your opinion, is the rivalry aspect a positive thing for science and invention?
Nye: I've got to say, it doesn't matter whether it's positive or negative, it's human nature. It's going to be there no matter what. I don't think you can declare it or legislate it out of the situation. It's always going to be there. It's just human nature. And I absolutely do not think it's just man versus man. It's inventor versus inventor. Inventrix versus inventrix, yeah.
I spoke with Neil deGrasse Tyson about this interesting period in the 70s and 80s, where there was this really nice convergence of pop culture and interest in science.
Nye: Oh, that was Carl Sagan.
And, I think, from pop culture "Star Wars," as well as the space shuttle program. We're kind of back in a place like that mainstream interest in science again. How do you feel about that kind of coming back around, and do you have any thoughts on why that's happening now?
Nye: Well, right now, I think science is once again proving to be hip. The economic effects of science are enormous. What keeps the United States in the game is our ability to innovate. We don't manufacture things in the U.S. the way we once did. Certainly not when I was a kid, and certainly when my father was a kid. And so people realize the economic value, and that's why very few people in this room don't know the acronym, STEM. STEM, STEM, STEM! [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math] But Carl Sagan started the Planetary Society – and I'm now the CEO of the Planetary Society – because he felt that public interest in space exploration in this case was very high, but government support of it was not especially high. And we're at that same point right now. People realize the economic benefit of it, and so we have to invest in it. So it's exciting.
I mean, it's my understanding, although this is not a National Geographic show, that "The Big Bang Theory" is the most popular show on television. Not just the most popular sitcom some weeks, the most popular show. So that indicates that people just think it's cool to be, if you will, "geeky." That's a heck of a sentence: cool to be geeky. Think it's intriguing, and they want to be part of the movement to embrace science as a way to understand nature. And I will say science is the best idea that humans have ever had. And so we want everybody to be engaged in it in some way.
Tell me about that feeling that you have when you see an advancement in technology directly help change a person's life?
Nye: Well, I know a lot of people that are still alive because of medical science. I've met many, many people that I would never have met without aerospace, without airplane science, aeronautics. And it's very reasonable that in our lifetime, we will find life on Mars or evidence of life on Mars, and that will change the world. The world will never be the same. It will be like Copernicus or Galileo.
People will discover more about the cosmos and our place within it and it changes humankind, and don't tell me it doesn't. Everybody has a cell phone that relies on satellites. I have an app that tells you when it's going to rain: "In 18 minutes from now, it will rain." And those data come from space. So what we take for granted – you don't know what big thing is going to be the next big thing, but it's always exciting. And plus, we feed seven billion people. We used to only feed one and a half. It's remarkable.
Is there a current scientific territory or advancement that you are especially excited about?
Nye: Well, in technology or science, climate change is the biggest problem human kind is going to face, and in my opinion, there's no one solution to that. It's going to take new forms of regulation in government that people are reluctant to embrace, but it's especially going to require or support, or accidently, to feed nourish and nurture new technologies.
Whoever invents the next better battery, the next electrical storage system – that person or group of people is just going to get crazy rich or has the opportunity to get rich. Whoever embraces or whoever comes up with a way to de‑salinate water, make seawater into potable water, that person or group of people has the potential to get astonishingly rich. Whoever invents the solar panel, instead of being 15 or 20 or even 30 percent efficient, is 80 percent efficient, that person's going to get ... Whoever invents the better transmission line, carbon, nanotube transmission line, is going to get rich, crazy rich. So we need an investment in that to save human kind from itself. The Earth's going to be here no matter what we do [laughs].
If you had unlimited resources, is there something you'd love to dedicate yourself to making not impossible?
Nye: Well, we'd love to get humans on Mars. Now, I think that people who want to colonize Mars have not thought it through. Mars is far, far, far more hostile a place than the dry valleys of Antarctica, which you can visit because you can breathe. But on Mars, you can't breathe, and you will notice that. If you go there, you'll pick up on that immediately! But the reason I want to do that is to find life.
And then the other thing, I would love to come up with a way to take the plastic out of the ocean. We've turned certain parts of the sea into this mush of undigestible, organic plastics that are just deadly to sea life. And we depend on sea life. If you live in Oklahoma – a lot of my family lives in Kansas City – during this time of year, about two‑thirds of the oxygen you breathe comes from the sea. In other words, you live in the middle of a continent, you've got to have ocean life to breathe. So if I were the [singing] "king of the forest,…" I'd find ways.
And then ultimately, I guess in the biggest of pictures, you'd want to find a way to educate girls and women so that you raise their standard of living, so that the human population declines manageably, so there are fewer humans burning and breathing the atmosphere, and the future, the more resources for the people that are living. This is a tall order.
Outside of the classroom, what was the big or favorite pop culture influence on you, in terms of your interest in science?
Nye: Well, there's two. I mean, I had "Mr. Wizard," Don Herbert. And one day, I had lunch with him at a science convention – that was cool! And Don Herbert sent this country to the moon. I was real young when he was on, but my older brother was his audience, for example.
And then "Star Trek" was a huge influence on me, the original "Star Trek," because it carried with it this optimistic view of the future that material problems will be solved. People are exploring just for the sake of exploring. Seeing what's out there. And of course, there's a big lesson, a moral lesson. In like any good story, whether it's science fiction or archery, it's about people. Stories about people. And the original "Star Trek," especially, appealed to me tremendously in that way.
The other thing, by the way, today, as we record, 11 people were injured and 12 people were murdered in Paris, I think, basically, for religious grounds. And in the original "Star Trek," with one exception, there was no religion, which I think, was more the better. People don't agree on which religion's the best. That much I've picked up.
Did you ever get a chance to meet some of your heroes and talk about their influence on you, and are people doing that to you now?
Nye: Oh, people do it to me all the time. It's very gratifying. As I say, every day, I don't get it. I try to grasp the influence of "The Science Guy" show. I try to appreciate it...but it's been huge. Millions of young people watched my show. And I put my heart in soul into it – and I've published this online, it was in the "Quarterly Box": I wrote this document originally in 1992. It was finalized in 1993, and I know that because it's at the bottom of the page. It says, "93." We didn't think that you'd need four digits to specify years back then. The year 2000 was so far in the future! Anyway, it says right there at the top, "Change the world." That's the objective. "Change the world." So we'll see what happens when these kids, these people who watched my show come of age.
I mean, I put my heart and soul into it because I was very troubled. This was when Ford Pinto was being manufactured, when people weren't going to go to the Moon anymore, just going into lower Earth orbit. And people were wearing leisure suits on purpose. And it was really just a little bit of a downer time for me as an engineer. And even then, and I remember very well, the President of the United States, who many consider a world leader, this guy, Ronald Reagan, said, "Nope. No metric system. No, we're not going to participate." And I just remember thinking, as a kid, "That's really not very forward-thinking. There're a lot of people in the world who don't live in the US. In fact, almost everyone in the world doesn't live in the US."
So I just remember thinking, "I've got to do something." I was working for people who were obsessed or fascinated with making a profit every quarter, every three months. Yeah, you've got to make a profit every quarter, cool. But you cannot do that if you're going to invent or design a new navigation system for businesses as if they're as big as the existing one. You can't just – you guys don't know what you're doing. So I quit my job. October 3rd, 1986, approximately.
Nye: It worked out. But, man, when I quit, I didn't know it would.
Finally, have you ever had a professional rival yourself, and what was the effect on you?
Nye: Yeah, I had "Beakman's World," and it pushed me. It definitely pushed me. So I interviewed this guy, Mark Waxman – who, as I understand it, died from smoking many years later – but they approached me about being a writer for the show. And they wanted to get my ideas for demonstrations for the show. And after a few minutes on the phone, I realized, you know, "I've got to beat these guys." And we pushed each other. "Beakman's World" and "The Science Guy" show. So it's funny you should say that. I don't think anybody's ever asked that before.
Top photo courtesy of Bill Nye’s Facebook page