The students started to chant his name before he entered the room, before the lights had begun to dim in the auditorium. He bounded out onto the stage from the wings, with a loose, spry gait and the boundless energy of a much younger Science Guy. He looks older now—60 years this November—but to the Yellowjackets in Strong Auditorium on Saturday night, he was twenty years younger, the zany, wild-about-science host of an TV show that was last on the air when UR’s current senior class was in preschool.
Bill Nye is a cultural touchstone for ‘90s kids who remember watching his show in science class, but he’s more than just a childhood hero now. In fact, he’s enjoyed a resurgence in recognition and popularity in the last few years. In 2013, he was a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, where he danced the cha-cha to Oingo-Boingo’s “Weird Science.” Despite being voted off the show after three episodes, the stint proved Nye’s status as a man of many talents. In early 2014, he cemented his reputation as a champion of scientific thought when he debated evolution against Ken Ham, the founder of the Creation Museum in Kentucky. Nye is also the CEO of the Planetary Society, a non-governmental advocacy group founded in 1980 by the late astronomer Carl Sagan to encourage and lobby for space exploration. Indeed, Bill Nye seems to be following in Sagan’s footsteps in more ways than one. Along with astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson, Nye is one of the most recognizable voices advocating for scientific skepticism, awareness of climate change and space exploration in America.
One main point of Nye’s speech was the rising level of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere, which recently surpassed 0.04 percent. Although admittedly a small number, even the incremental increase of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses contribute to climate change. July 2015, Nye pointed out, was the hottest month worldwide since records began to be kept in the 1880s.
Nye attributed this to a number of factors, including a growing population, deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels, such as the extraction of oil from the tar sands region in western Canada. Nye also criticized politicians such as Florida governor Rick Scott, who, Nye said, prohibits members of his administration from using the term “climate change.”
“We have a lot of science deniers in the U.S.,” Nye said. He went on to charge the students in attendance to work on problems of alternative energy—not only wind and solar power, but also electrical storage and transmission. He described cutting-edge liquid metal batteries, which can operate at higher temperatures than traditional alkaline batteries and carbon nanotube power lines, allowing for faster and more efficient transmission of electricity. If someone figures out how to implement these technologies, Nye said, they would “…dare I say it—change the world!” This became something of a refrain during the speech, punctuating Nye’s exuberant outbursts on everything from electric cars and carbon taxes to Martian rovers and the Voyager space probes.
Nye had more than just serious topics to discuss, of course, fitting his role as the man who made science fun for a generation of students. During the beginning of his speech, Nye related his family history, including his father’s fascination with sundials and his membership in the North American Sundial Society. Nye lightly mocked the group for their geeky fascination with the archaic timekeeping devices, facetiously commenting that sundial enthusiasts party even harder than accountants. Ned Nye was the inventor of the “sand-dial,” a portable sundial that could be taken to the beach so that the user could avoid getting sand in his or her watch. He turned his invention into a family enterprise that Nye joked made them “dozens of dollars.” He admitted, however, that his father’s hobby had an effect on him; when Nye was consulted on the design of the Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers, he convinced the other engineers to turn a photo-calibration instrument on the rovers into a working “MarsDial.”
After relating the story of how the Planetary Society successfully lobbied for the New Horizons mission to Pluto, Nye also referenced the unpopular decision by the International Astronomical Union to declassify Pluto as a planet. He doesn’t feel sentimental for the former ninth planet in the Solar system, though. “Instead of being the last of the traditional planets, I want Pluto to be the first of a new class of objects—the Plutoids!” Nye exclaimed, to laughter and applause from the audience.
Over the course of the evening’s talk, Nye was nothing if not passionate. You could tell, for instance, that climate change deniers and young-Earth creationists make him hopping mad. Likewise, when he talked about space exploration and the wonders that await the human race on Mars and beyond, his excitement was contagious.
“While we are solving climate change, we have to keep looking up,” Nye said. “We have to keep exploring.”
If we can manage to do that, we might just—dare I say it—change the world.
Passanisi is a member of the class of 2017.