The Science Guy on Science and Uncertainty

Bill Nye
I’m Alan Alda and this is Clear + Vivid.
Bill: 00:25:06 When people my age who have kids are going to have grandkids and the grandkids are going to say, “You mean you let humans drive cars? You let people drive cars? What were you crazy?” “Yes, there were wrecks every day.” “Wasn’t it inefficient?” “Oh, it was so inefficient.” “Well, how many people were in most cars?” “One.” “You had that huge go with one person in it?” “Yeah.” “Wow, that’s weird. I saw that in a movie. I thought it wasn’t real.” “No, that was how we used to…” No, everything will change.
That’s Bill Nye. In the five years it was on the air, his television show, Bill Nye the Science Guy, won 18 Emmys and entertained and educated millions of people—a lot of them young people, but really people of all ages. All his life, Bill’s been passionate about communicating science, so he’s a natural for this show. And when I asked him to be on it, he asked me to be on his. Our studios are right next to each other in New York, so I just went to my next door neighbor for a cup of science.

Alan: 00:00:00 Bill, I love it that you can be on the show today because you’ve been doing this for so long and have been so successful. You have generations of people who have been inspired to go into science by your shows.
Bill: 00:00:13 That’s what they tell me.
Alan: 00:00:14 Isn’t that great?
Bill: 00:00:15 It’s amazing.Z
Can we cut the stuff below in read? I don’t think it works.
Alan: 00:00:16 Having done [inaudible 00:00:17] for 11 years, I have so many people come up to me on the street and say they became a doctor because of what they saw me do. Nobody has said they became an actor because of that.
Bill: 00:00:28 I bet there’s a few people.
Alan: 00:00:29 I know. But at least you’ve got this. What got you into that? What made you go… Because you were an engineer. You were a working engineer, right?
Bill: 00:00:39 Yeah.
Alan: 00:00:40 So how did you go from that into being a TV superstar?
Bill: 00:00:43 Superstar. Yeah, sure I am. Here’s what happened. Two things converged. First of all… Well, as a kid, I really liked bicycles and airplanes. Thought that was great. I got a job at a bike shop. And there was a guy, an older guy, older than I was, a guy at work there who was going to engineering school at Lehigh University. And then he talked about how everything is engineered and there was a radio ad for pianos, where he talked about pianos are engineered, and I thought that was cool.
Bill: 00:01:18 So I went to engineering school and when I was there, the guy who had been my freshman roommate, Dave Lax, he went into material science I would in mechanical engineering, he came hurrying to my house, which we lived very close to each other, in what’s called college town, which is in Ithaca, New York. It’s part of… Right next to the Cornell campus, came running. He says, “You got to see this guy. You got to see this. It’s amazing.” And it was Steve Martin at the boarding house. This was in the early, early days of cable television.
Alan: 00:01:55 The boarding house was what?
Bill: 00:01:57 Is a club a nightclub in San Francisco. It’s a entertainment venue, it’s still in business, the boarding house. It’s not really a boarding house.
Alan: 00:02:08 It’s a club.
Bill: 00:02:09 It’s a stage. Yeah. And so, “You look this guy’s just like you. Look at this. Look at this guy.” So a year later, I was out there in the workforce working a Boeing on 747s, mostly horizontal stabilizer, leading-edge flaps, some nosewheel steering. And they had… Warner Brothers records sponsored a Steve Martin look-alike contest.
Alan: 00:02:35 I have face blindness, but you don’t look anything like Steve Martin today.
Bill: 00:02:38 No, but I was so… My claim, I’d spent so much time thinking about Steve Martin’s bits, his act.
Alan: 00:02:49 That you could do it.
Bill: 00:02:49 That I could do it. And the other thing I’ll claim is… This is a claim, Alan.
Alan: 00:02:56 Yes.
Bill: 00:02:56 And there was… Before there were video recordings everywhere, everybody had a phone and the nightclub where it was held is burned down in Seattle, so, there’s a little evidence but I claim that I understood Steve Martin’s bit better than any of the other contestants. So I won in Seattle, but I did not advance beyond that. I went to the next [crosstalk 00:03:20]
Alan: 00:03:19 You won a Steve Martin look-alike contest.
Bill: 00:03:22 Yes.
Alan: 00:03:23 And from that, you became the star of PVN.
Bill: 00:03:26 No, there’s more. The other thing that happened as an engineer, I was very frustrated with the United States. We produced the Ford Pinto, stopped teaching… Formally, stopped teaching the metric system in schools. And the Chevy Vega took the solar panels off the roof of the White House. I just thought the United States was going backwards.
Alan: 00:03:53 I don’t understand the problem with the Pinto. Would you [crosstalk 00:03:57]
Bill: 00:03:57 Do you remember the Ford Pinto?
Alan: 00:04:00 No, I don’t know about cars. What was the thing?
Bill: 00:04:01 So the Ford Pinto was a infamous notorious car that had an engine in the front, but it was a two-door compact car. So there’s a lot of wasted space in the engine in the front. But the notorious thing was, this car got rear-ended. The gas tank was close enough to the exhaust pipe that a fire would start or explode.
Alan: 00:04:26 They had pictures of them exploding. I remember that now.
Bill: 00:04:28 Yeah. So the notorious thing was memos were discovered within the Ford company that there was a calculation had been done by the legal department that the cost of lawsuits would be lower than the cost of moving the gas tank. And so this is [crosstalk 00:04:50]
Alan: 00:04:50 Just amazing how that calculation is made over and over again.
Bill: 00:04:53 And so cars get rear-ended all the time. And in the old days, there were gas tanks explosions or fires often enough, but this thing just became a symbol of mediocrity.
Alan: 00:05:06 So this was one of the factors that you [crosstalk 00:05:08]
Bill: 00:05:08 Huge factor for me.
Alan: 00:05:09 That made you convinced that America was going downhill?
Bill: 00:05:11 Yeah.
Alan: 00:05:12 So what were you going to do about it?
Bill: 00:05:13 So I was a young guy. I was also in a new town, didn’t know anybody. I was a United Way Big Brother. You know what I mean? And I was a volunteer at the Pacific Science Center, which is still in Seattle. I was very much on Seattle.
Alan: 00:05:29 And it’s a very big operation.
Bill: 00:05:30 Poured liquid nitrogen all day, all weekend smashed flowers in liquid nitrogen. You can pick up a car with this big long I-beam lever thing, even if you’re a little kid. And we did stuff like that. And I was called a science explainer. And I would do… I was okay.
Alan: 00:05:52 Now, did you put a touch of Steve Martin in any of that?
Bill: 00:05:54 So I started doing… People wanted me to do Steve Martin bits at their parties, at big corporate events.
Alan: 00:06:02 This is great. I never knew this.
Bill: 00:06:03 Yeah, so I mean, I’m not as good as Steve Martin, but I would do my best but what happens when you get on stage like that you want to do your own material. And I was doing just wall to wall hilarious jokes about stainless steel.
Alan: 00:06:21 You were writing jokes about material [crosstalk 00:06:24]
Bill: 00:06:23 About engineering. Yeah, that weren’t especially good. But once in a while, I would have a good joke, I can’t think of any now. But then I claim for you comedy historians out there, whoever you are, that after the success of Steve Martin sort of second album, get small and remember when the world blew up, we all came to this planet on the space arc. I wouldn’t believe in anything if it weren’t for my lucky astrology, mood watch and so on. After that, every big city in the US and Canada had a comedy club or two. And so I would go to open mic nights and try to do comedy.
Alan: 00:07:13 About?
Bill: 00:07:15 Just stuff I wrote.
Alan: 00:07:16 About engineering.
Bill: 00:07:17 Showing up for your driver’s license test drunk. Because that way when the cop picks you up, you’ll look more like the picture. So on and so on. Okay, that’s okay, right?
Alan: 00:07:28 That’s pretty good.
Bill: 00:07:29 It’s all right. All right. So the station manager at the NBC affiliate in Seattle. It’s a big… It’s a pretty big… It’s the 13th market, that’s bigger than 14th, decided, “I want to have a comedy show.” [inaudible 00:07:43] Chuck Jones. So along with all these comedy clubs that emerged, it seemed like overnight, instead of being variety show, you know what I mean? Like, here’s a singer, here’s a band, here’s a comedian, instead of that it was all comedians, right? So there was a comedy competition.
Bill: 00:08:05 So he hired the guy who won 1983, ’84, Ross Shafer, who’s still a dear friend of mine and Ross Shafer became the host of a show called Almost Live! which we all agree it is a better name than three hours old. So we would tape it… And first, we’d tape it on one night and aired on another night Thursdays and Sundays but then, as it gained popularity, we would tape it at 8:30 on Saturday night and it would air at 11:30. And this is where the NBC affiliate like the big NBC station in Seattle, Seattle’s in King County. The NBC station is K-I-N-G, King TV.
Bill: 00:08:47 We would air the comedy show, Almost Live! at 11:30 and then Saturday Night Live wouldn’t air till midnight in our market for a while. So I started writing jokes for this show. I started trying to be [crosstalk 00:09:00]
Alan: 00:08:59 Were you on camera at that point?
Bill: 00:09:00 Then everybody who writes is on camera, everybody who’s on camera writes. It was all one thing. And so I quit my day job, October 3rd, 1986, roughly, approximately. And every year I take a moment, I got to remember this. This was the day I quit my full-time job. So I was working part-time as an engineer, so-called contract engineer. This is where… I am so old, Alan. How old are you?
Alan: 00:09:32 How old are you?
Bill: 00:09:33 I’m so old. I used to work on a drawing board. The modern engineer works on a computer screen. And so there’s certain tasks where you only need one of a kind of piece of tooling as it’s called.
Alan: 00:09:46 You make a tool for a specific function.
Bill: 00:09:48 You design a tool for a machinist to make so that we can put the capacitor in the little clamp thing or you can measure the speed of the caliper distance measuring device quickly and so on. So I did that for another 10 years.
Alan: 00:10:06 While you were doing comedy?
Bill: 00:10:07 Yeah. Another… Let’s see. Another six years, I guess full-time. So, eventually then, working on this comedy show, Ross Shafer in a meeting one day, we had to fill six minutes, which on television is a long time.
Alan: 00:10:27 Yeah.
Bill: 00:10:27 If we were to turn these microphones off for six minutes, you’d probably have people turn to another podcast. And the story varies, but it was probably Eddie Vedder, the head singer of Pearl Jam, big band, rock and roll band from Seattle, didn’t show up. He canceled his trip.
Alan: 00:10:47 So how much time did you have to get ready for those six minutes?
Bill: 00:10:50 Four or five days. So, Ross Shafer said, “Bill, why don’t you do that stuff you’re always talking about? You could be… I don’t know. Bill Nye, the Science Guy or something.” Then he closed up his briefcase and left the meeting because he was also the host of the most popular evening drive show on KJR. KJR, the radio station, so old. How old is it? Only has three call letters KJR, it’s still there. It’s still going great.
Alan: 00:11:16 How did you feel? Did you get into a panic when you had six minutes?
Bill: 00:11:21 Well, in the theater as you know in the theater. You take your anxiousness and you turn it into excitement.
Alan: 00:11:28 That’s what I personally do.
Bill: 00:11:30 So another guy who was the head writer, I guess, Jim Sharp. He and I talked about this and we decided to do the household uses of liquid nitrogen since we all have liquid nitrogen around.
Alan: 00:11:43 Yeah, I’ve had mine for years. I don’t know what to do with it.
Bill: 00:11:47 It’s cheaper than gasoline everybody. And if you’ve ever had a wart burned off or whatever that the doctor uses it, stomatologist.
Alan: 00:11:56 So you did six minutes on liquid nitrogen?
Bill: 00:11:58 It was just wall to wall comedy. So we had an onion, you hit it with a knife it shatters like glass, it sounds like glass. The celery that was limp now becomes turgid, looking fresh.
Alan: 00:12:15 This is after you spray with liquid nitrogen.
Bill: 00:12:16 Well, you soak it in liquid… And then the payoff though was marshmallows. Chew marshmallows and steam comes out of your nose and this bear in mind at the Science Center, I did it several times a day on Saturday and Sunday. I mean, you got to put in the hours to get steam to come out of your nose. And that was so funny. So then it became… I was expected to do a science guy bid every couple weeks and really what made it funny was just me talking with the host. That’s what… My claim is what made it funny was me talking with her.
Bill: 00:12:50 So then Tipper Gore, Al Gore’s wife and I know some of you hate Al Gore. That’s not the point. Tipper Gore wanted children’s television to be worthwhile.
Alan: 00:13:04 I remember that.
Bill: 00:13:05 And the children’s television act was [crosstalk 00:13:07]
Alan: 00:13:07 And so she thought of you?
Bill: 00:13:08 Well, after a while, so the children’s television act was going to require TV stations to have three hours of educational programming every week. So when you own a TV station back in the day, everybody, before the electric internet, when you owned a station group, six stations, it’s just a license to print money. I mean, people would buy commercials and Dorothy Bullitt, who owned KING-TV, they like to point out for a while was wealthier than Bill Gates in the Pacific Northwest for quite a while.
Bill: 00:13:44 Anyway, this law came along and along with this, I’ve been working with two people. Just love Jim McCann, Aaron Gottlieb who had left a show called Seattle Today. And Alan, you don’t have to have seen a single episode of Seattle Today to know what happened every morning for people who are watching television at home which is almost all women, homemakers. Today is the marching band from Kitsap High School. The girl who’s written a new cookbook for Pacific Northwest gooey.clams and breast exams every morning, right?
Bill: 00:14:27 So these two people Jim and Aaron and left that show to form their own production company. And they hired me to do a thing for the Washington State Department of Ecology called Fabulous Wetlands. Because Western Washington state where Seattle is and Tacoma, Washington, there’s a lot of wetlands. Wetlands are huge, big deal, and what was happening through uncontrolled development, people were paving over wetlands and destroying habitat and the paved over wetland buildings weren’t especially stable, they would sink. It was just a lot of like, “We got to protect wetlands.”
Bill: 00:15:12 So this was funny. It was their vision with my comedic timing or what have you. And it came out funny and it became sort of a… Not a sort of. It became a template for the Science Guy show.
Alan: 00:15:24 How did the Science Guy show start?
Bill: 00:15:26 So Jim and Aaron ran all over the country, trying to get people interested in this. And they got a guy at the Department of Energy, a guy named Rick Stevens, who was the head of the DOE back in the day. And he strongly believed in education because the Department of Energy has a problem that any technical organization has. And that’s getting people in the pipeline, getting young engineers to come work there. So he’s really believed in elementary science education. So he was going to give money to PB, a Public Broadcasting to do the show because Public Broadcasting had done Fabulous Wetlands that was part of the consortium there. We also did Boating Safety.
Alan: 00:16:11 Another hilarious topic.
Bill: 00:16:12 Oh gosh, there’s nothing funnier than a PFD, your personal flotation device. So we had a guy [crosstalk 00:16:19]
Alan: 00:16:19 It’s not as funny as an acronym as it is. And when you really explain it like that, I can hardly [crosstalk 00:16:26]
Bill: 00:16:25 It’s not a life jacket. It’s a personal flotation device, totally, completely different thing. And you’ve seen these cars because you’re of a certain age. They were cars, they were called Amphicars.
Alan: 00:16:40 They could drive on land and in the water?
Bill: 00:16:42 And into the water. So there’s a club in the Seattle area. There’s a bunch of these guys are people who own these cars and share tips on how to maintain them and where to get spark plugs for 60-year-old cars.
Alan: 00:16:53 I wanted to buy one when they were selling them.
Bill: 00:16:54 You could probably get one, a used one.
Alan: 00:16:57 They seem so good to be able to go off the road and to [inaudible 00:17:01]
Bill: 00:17:03 So the shot, the scene opens with me just driving down the boat ramp and motoring away. And the way it works, this thing is amazing. If you know anything about boats or not, it doesn’t have a rudder.
Alan: 00:17:17 How do you turn it?
Bill: 00:17:18 You turn the front wheels and that’s enough to steer it. It works great. I mean, they steer perfectly. I mean [crosstalk 00:17:24]
Alan: 00:17:23 That’s so great.
Bill: 00:17:24 And the door, you think it would flood but there’s just another little latch. The door has two door latches. It’s kind of primitive, but any way it’s funny. So Jim and Aaron got the Department of Energy interested and then they got the department… I mean, rather the National Science Foundation interested.
Bill: 00:17:42 So then we had enough money to do a pilot, which we did in 1992. And then in the spring of ’93, The William Morris Agency distributed it to enough people that Disney got interested in it to provide it to their syndicated stations so that it would sell. And then after we got to 65 shows then PBS took over because then you can run it five days a week. 65 is a magic number.

Alan: 00:18:13 Yeah, that’s interesting. It’s fun to hear that you had a background in engineering.
Bill: 00:18:23 I still do.
Alan: 00:18:24 You still do have it. That’s true. But I mean, at the time, you had a background in engineering, but you got drawn into science in a way, science journalism, through your interest in comedy.
Bill: 00:18:36 And my interested… Really, I say this all the time, in my interest or whatever you call it in the United States, my patriotism. I was really worried about… I still am worried about the United States losing out to other economies.
Alan: 00:18:50 Tell me, you and I are both in the same business as far as that’s concerned. How do you put it? Why is it so important for the population to know more about science?
Bill: 00:19:04 Well, science is how we feed 7.8 billion people where we used to feed one and a half. It’s through agricultural technology, transportation, food storage, refrigeration, and now what’s everybody’s favorite word logistics, being able to move all this food around is because of science and stuff we take for granted like an electronic podcast, phones, your notepad, there is electronic, my hot tea here is a result of our ability to understand science. It’s amazing. So we want as many people as possible to be scientifically literate.
Alan: 00:19:45 And what if they’re not? Doesn’t science go on anyway?
Bill: 00:19:48 Well, does it? What if everybody thinks that vaccines don’t work?
Alan: 00:19:53 Yeah.
Bill: 00:19:54 What if everybody thinks their opinion about climate change is as good as proven science about climate change? What if everybody’s idea of the effect of burning fossil fuels it’s on people’s health and instead of the science? It’s serious problems.
Alan: 00:20:20 Tell me about climate change in the way you look at it? I think you’ve said… You’ve talked about climate change as a threat multiplier, which it certainly must be.
Bill: 00:20:37 Well, so I quote that from the US military. Well, I mean, but it’s a fine expression. In other words, when you do not have access to clean water, you move and if your farmland is flooded with salt water for enough days or weeks or even months of a year, where you can’t farm there anymore, you leave. And where do you go? And whose resources are you going to exploit? And what battles or wars are you going to get involved in over water? For example.
Bill: 00:21:13 And when in California, you have these very wealthy, or let’s say, well to do communities that are burned down, even those people have to go somewhere… Not even, those people have to go somewhere and that when you burn stuff like that down, you’re burning down, assets, money, resources, capital, it’s very difficult to rebuild. Who pays for that? Let’s say they were insured, the insurance company’s involved are going to reimburse those people and that’s going to raise my insurance rates trying to turn my car.
Bill: 00:21:45 If you’re in Florida, in the city of Miami, to a lesser extent right now Miami Beach, but the city of Miami and your wheels get flooded with salt water at every king tide. Your car starts to rust, insurance company won’t reimburse you for your new exhaust system or whatever. And we’re all going to pay for it.
Alan: 00:22:05 These are really important points and they’re very personal.
Bill: 00:22:09 To me, the whole thing is so personal.
Alan: 00:22:10 Yeah. One thing I notice about them is they’re scary. Some people have said that… And I don’t know if I can represent their point of view well enough. But some people have focused on talking about the climate crisis more in terms of hopeful things we can do rather than scaring them. Well, they do they listen and care as much if you scare them, do you think?
Bill: 00:22:35 I don’t know. It’s so frustrating. It’s the fossil fuel industry, coal, oil, natural gas, that have produced all these false studies or misleading cherry-picked reports to make people think that scientific uncertainty about this issue plus or minus 2% that is to say, which year is going to have the strongest El Nino effect? 2023 or 2022, whatever.
Alan: 00:23:09 And then they use that as an example of scientific uncertainty?
Bill: 00:23:12 I’m using it as an example. But here’s what they do. They say since there’s scientific uncertainty about which month the next El Nino is going to show.
Alan: 00:23:19 Then they don’t know what they’re talking about.
Bill: 00:23:21 Then there’s scientific uncertainty about the whole thing.
Alan: 00:23:22 Yeah.
Bill: 00:23:22 It’s a plus or minus 100%.
Alan: 00:23:24 Right.
Bill: 00:23:25 And that’s wrong.
Alan: 00:23:26 Sure.
Bill: 00:23:26 And so I look at the work of Greta Thunberg, for example. This very young woman who was at the United Nations and was understandably finger-pointing and accusatory. When people my or your age are no longer voting, people her age are going to be voting and they’re not going to put up with this, they’re going to make changes. I am optimistic about the future.
Alan: 00:23:52 So you see the scary consequences of proceeding on the current path, but you’re hopeful that the new generation won’t stand for it?
Bill: 00:24:01 Yeah.
Alan: 00:24:01 Yeah. Well, I hope you’re right.
Bill: 00:24:03 Well, so I think all the time, my grandfather was in World War One. And by all accounts, he rode a horse. He rode a horse around at night, putting chlorine, Clorox, essentially in the canteens to keep people from getting dysentery.
Alan: 00:24:21 Oh, my god.
Bill: 00:24:22 Well, this is the good old days. Yeah. In other words, it sucked.
Alan: 00:24:26 I thought he was putting chlorine and Clorox in the canteens of the enemy.
Bill: 00:24:30 No, you have to… Yeah, moderation. And so this is the family myth. Alright. So 25 years later, when people were conducting World War Two, in which his daughter was involved, my mom was a lieutenant in the Navy in World War Two. My father was a prisoner of war in World War Two. Nobody was riding a horse. Everything changed in 25 years. Everything changed in two decades. So we can do this. Let’s change everything. Come on, people, it’s going to be cool.
Alan: 00:25:04 It’s going to be worse than cool. It’s going to be cold.
Bill: 00:25:06 When people my age who have kids are going to have grandkids and the grandkids are going to say, “You mean you let humans drive cars? You let people drive cars? What were you crazy?” “Yes, there were wrecks every day.” “Wasn’t it inefficient?” “Oh, it was so inefficient.” “Well, how many people were in most cars?” “One.” “You had that huge go with one person in it?” “Yeah.” “Wow, that’s weird. I saw that in a movie. I thought it wasn’t real.” “No, that was how we used to…” No, everything will change.
Alan: 00:25:36 You know what you remind me of? When I was a kid, I read that in Elizabethan times, they threw their garbage out the window. That’s how they got rid of it.
Bill: 00:25:46 And waited for it to rain?
Alan: 00:25:48 Well, they didn’t care what happened to it. And that’s why men walk on the outside of the sidewalk so they get hit with the garbage before the woman. That’s where that practice is supposed to have come from. But what occurred to me later in life, because I always remembered that story with such a vivid image. What occurred to me is that in those few hundred years, we’ve learned how we don’t have to throw garbage out the window. We can put it in our food and our drinking water and in the air. And that’s what we do on the big scale.

Bill: 00:26:17 I see. Yeah. Well, except people have asked me now and, “Bill.” They’ve said, “What is the greatest invention of all time?” And this would be science journalists or technology journalists expecting me to say, “The iPhone camera.”
Alan: 00:26:33 And would you say like Mel Brooks, “It’s liquid pearl.”
Bill: 00:26:37 No, that’s pretty… That’s an older reference, where the pearl would drop slowly in the shampoo.
Alan: 00:26:43 Right.
Bill: 00:26:43 No, the greatest invention, so far, I think it’s been a sewer.
Alan: 00:26:47 Yes.
Bill: 00:26:48 Where it enables you to have dense populations. And when you have cities, you get a lot of stuff done.
Alan: 00:26:55 Right.
Bill: 00:26:56 I say all the time, working at Boeing, you can’t have a bunch of hippies in a garage building a 747, 787. You need a big factory with a bunch of people who can get to work and park their cars and have lunch breaks and sit around over tables and decide how many rivets are going to be and then you need skilled people to rivet it and put it together and then you need to run the wires. It’s a very complicated thing that requires a sewer system. You have to have waste management. That’s a huge… It’s a real thing that we take for granted in the developed world.
Alan: 00:27:30 We take so much for granted. Everybody talks about the invention of the wheel. It seems to me the invention of the axle, made the wheel maybe work.
Bill: 00:27:38 Well, I had a history of technology professor who said, “Inventing wheel is not that hard. If you live where trees fall over. You got a round tree to fall over. It’s maybe not that hard to find out you could put something on top of it and make it roll.”
Alan: 00:27:56 But to take the wheel with you.
Bill: 00:27:58 Well, there you go. So, instead the most significant invention is probably the clock.
Alan: 00:28:04 The clock. Now, tell about that?
Bill: 00:28:06 Well, when you can keep track of time accurately, you can just do all extraordinary things. You can meet at a certain place, you can get certain things done, you can watch… You can do celestial navigation, you can drive around the ocean. You know when you can keep track of time.
Alan: 00:28:24 You know where you are partly because of time, is that so?
Bill: 00:28:27 Well, very much because of time. Without time, computers wouldn’t work, without precise clocks and computers, but revolutionizing civilization clocks were huge. The Aztecs didn’t have wheeled vehicles because the terrain just didn’t lend itself to it.
Alan: 00:28:47 So what did they use? Horses?
Bill: 00:28:50 I don’t know. They ran around. They’d very good roads apparently and you could walk in and be a beast of burden, run.
Alan: 00:29:00 As we talk, I keep being more and more aware that you and I do very much similar work but in different ways. Because you seem to have… From the early days, taken on the responsibility of explaining science yourself to people. And I just ask scientists questions which is different.
Bill: 00:29:20 Coming in a different way. So, the reason I did the Science Guy show for people 10 years old and younger, is we had very compelling studies in the 1990s, 1991, 2, 3 that 10 years old is as old as you can be, to get the so called lifelong passion for science. You invented some can opener, right? Before you were 10.
Alan: 00:29:44 The Lazy Susan for the refrigerator.
Bill: 00:29:46 It’s brilliant.
Alan: 00:29:46 Much more important invention.
Bill: 00:29:49 It needed a railing though from what I heard.
Alan: 00:29:50 It needed an axle.
Bill: 00:29:53 It had an axle, didn’t it?
Alan: 00:29:55 It did, yeah.
Bill: 00:29:56 In the middle.
Alan: 00:29:56 No, it needed not to throw things around the kitchen.
Bill: 00:29:59 Yeah, the slinging catch up.
Alan: 00:30:02 Right.
Bill: 00:30:02 Yeah. So you want to get kids excited about science so that we’ll have more scientists.
Alan: 00:30:08 So what is it about the age of 10? Because it seemed to me that around the age of 11 [crosstalk 00:30:12]
Bill: 00:30:12 There it is.
Alan: 00:30:12 I started asking really deep questions.
Bill: 00:30:15 Well, I used to say, I’ll say it again.
Alan: 00:30:17 Say it again.
Bill: 00:30:18 People who are 10, people in fourth grade, sixth grade, are able to think, to reason like an adult, they just don’t have this huge depth of experience and fact base but you start to reason. And bear in mind, you guys, this thing about 10 years old wasn’t my idea. These are professional educators, psychologists who have studied how you retain information.
Alan: 00:30:47 But did those studies help point you toward aiming your show at 10-year-olds?
Bill: 00:30:51 Yeah, that’s the thing. That’s why we did that.
Alan: 00:30:53 That’s so interesting.
Bill: 00:30:54 So we had a curriculum expert, a woman who taught in the Washington State School. She was very well known and she helped shape each show and another huge insight about the Science Guy show that made it different. You remember Mr. Wizard, Don Herbert. Don Herbert was a great guy.
Alan: 00:31:15 Did you know him?
Bill: 00:31:16 I met him. I didn’t really know him and I’ve spent time with the people who run his organization now, Mr. Wizard Foundation.
Alan: 00:31:29 So what were you going to tell me about Mr. Wizard?
Bill: 00:31:29 Well, he did a classic thing, which was great. I’m describing the Mr. Wizard… Watch Mr. Wizard was the original title. And it was, “Look at this cool thing. Look at this cool thing. Here’s another cool thing. Look at this cool thing. Wow, this is cool.” And so his show jumped around from one compelling science demonstration to another and that was great. And so our pedagogical studies that we had access to indicated that if you came to a show like that with an interest or predisposition in science, you would get a lot out of it what educators call you’d get some lift in your understanding.
Alan: 00:32:16 But it wouldn’t necessarily make you more interested in science if you weren’t already.
Bill: 00:32:20 Exactly. You have crystallized their thoughts.
Alan: 00:32:24 Thank you so much.
Bill: 00:32:26 And then there was another show called Beakman’s World where they did the same idea, “Look at this cool thing. This is cool. This is amazing. Look at this.”
Alan: 00:32:33 How did your show get them more interested than Mr. Wizard did?
Bill: 00:32:37 Well, I don’t know if we got a more interested. We certainly trying to. But the idea is our show, all half hour is about one thing. And the model or the conceit, I think, is a modern expression in theater was that today you’re watching television and there’s a remote control and every button you press trying to get to a different channel, you get to a different channel but that channel is also about today’s topic, dinosaurs. Dinosaurs, dinosaurs, dinosaurs.
Bill: 00:33:12 So we would, “No beat to exceed 45 seconds.” That was an old saying. And we would jump from visual… From scene to scene but every scene was about today’s thing. Dinosaurs and people did not live at the same time. We know dinosaurs lived because we found their fossil bones. That’s it. If you get anything else out of it, potassium argon dating of ancient soils, if you get feathers, cold blooded, warm blooded, if you get sauropod versus vegetarian versus meat eater, if you get all that, that’s great, but we want you to get we found fossil bones, we know they existed, dinosaurs and people didn’t live at the same time, for a half hour.
Bill: 00:33:58 So that turned out to be very successful. As you started, there’s a third generation of people watching this show we made 26 years ago.
Alan: 00:34:06 It’s great.
Bill: 00:34:07 It’s crazy.
Alan: 00:34:08 It is so good. Does it make you feel good when you think about that?
Bill: 00:34:13 It’s amazing. Alan, it’s amazing. And every day I just try to get it. I try to understand the influence of the show. I mean, I was on camera guy. I mean, I had an important role. But all the people we worked with, were just so skilled. Everybody had a sense of humor.
Alan: 00:34:31 How did you go about picking a subject and then refining it, getting it down to an entertaining half hour that you also knew was accurate? You and I had a moment an hour ago, where we both turned up our noses at the expression dumbing it down.
Bill: 00:34:50 I hate that expression.
Alan: 00:34:51 I hate it. I hate the whole idea.
Bill: 00:34:54 It’s just a lack of respect for your audience.
Alan: 00:34:56 Exactly. So how did you solve the problem of being entertaining and accurate at the same time?
Bill: 00:35:04 Well, let me emphasize. It’s a TV show, it’s got to be entertaining first. That’s the first filter. And I got in arguments with these guys and girls at the FCC during this crazy legal action that was proposed having to do with the children’s television act and this and that. That we said to him, the show’s entertaining first, that’s what it is. It’s got to be entertaining or nobody’s going to watch it.
Bill: 00:35:33 Then the other thing we did, the other insight, which really came from Susan, the girl, our curriculum consultant was you have to have what are called learning objectives, and a learning objective as an educator expression. It means something you can test. It’s a very specific phrase. A learning objective is something you can test. So at the end of the show, did the viewer get that dinosaurs and people didn’t live at the same time?
Alan: 00:36:03 Would you have any way of knowing?
Bill: 00:36:04 Well, they did focus, focus, group, group, group, focus, focus, focus, group, group, group, group. But we largely went on having two, three on one, a couple times four learning objectives. But in almost all of the hundred shows, we had three learning objectives. And so every bit, everything that was going to be on the show had to support one of those learning objectives. And there’s this magical thing. It helps you figure out what you’re not going to talk about, what you’re going to leave out.
Alan: 00:36:38 Leaving stuff out seems to be one of the most important parts of communicating something complex.
Bill: 00:36:44 Oh, man, it’s so easy to get in the weeds with anything. And so, I mean, dinosaurs… You meet a kid, these kids today, they’ll tell you 20, 30, 40 species of dinosaurs that you didn’t even know. They hadn’t been discovered when we were kids. And so in that one example, it’s one thing to memorize a bunch of names. It’s another to know, in this case, these learning objectives. We did a show on archeology, we did a show on fossils, two different shows. And so you have different learning objectives and you emphasize those things for a half hour.
Alan: 00:37:30 Did you ever give thought to why it is that an interest in dinosaurs begins, apparently, in our culture at a certain age and ends at a certain age?
Bill: 00:37:42 Space and dinosaurs those are the two things.
Alan: 00:37:45 What is it? Are we recapitulating evolution? I mean, are kids first interested in the single-celled organisms before they get to dinosaurs?
Bill: 00:37:55 No, I think they’re interested in monsters.
Alan: 00:37:59 Oh, it’s monsters.
Bill: 00:37:59 Yeah. I mean, these are real creatures that walked the earth. And everybody imagines what it would be like if you woke up in the land of the lost and there were dinosaurs running around. Could you make it? Could a human survive in such a place with these enormous vicious predators?
Alan: 00:38:16 So their interest in dinosaurs wings with their interest in monsters?
Bill: 00:38:20 I think so. I mean, if you’re asking me, I’m not an expert.
Alan: 00:38:23 I’m asking you.
Bill: 00:38:24 But I still am pretty into dinosaurs.
Alan: 00:38:26 Yeah, well, they’re interesting, aren’t they?
Bill: 00:38:28 They’re amazing.
Alan: 00:38:29 Did you just read the latest stuff that somebody claims to have figured out that after the asteroid hit the Earth, killed off all the big animals, the little ones were the one… Little mammals had a chance to survive, and our mammalian ancestry seems to come from that?
Bill: 00:38:49 Oh, yeah.
Alan: 00:38:50 From little mice and things like that.
Bill: 00:38:51 That’s right. So I talk about this all the time in the world of space, space exploration. When I was in second grade, Mrs. McGonigal read to us from a big book. And there was no good explanation for what happened to the ancient dinosaurs. The dinosaurs had small brains so mice took all the dinosaur food and the dinosaur [crosstalk 00:39:17]
Alan: 00:39:16 That was the current theory.
Bill: 00:39:17 And she was like, “Kids I have to read this to you but I don’t think…”
Alan: 00:39:22 That’s great.
Bill: 00:39:24 Well and then in my lifetime, when I was out in the workforce paying taxes, people looking for oil, found using magnetometers very sensitive compasses found this big crater, underwater off the coast of Mexico [inaudible 00:39:43] And they realized people had been talking about impact craters for a long time. You look at the surface of Mars, a picture of the surface of Mars, it’s just impact, impact, impact the surface of the moon crater, crater, crater, crater, crater.
Bill: 00:39:57 And so people would talk for centuries about what the ancient earth must have been like. It’s presumed it was full of craters and the action of erosion and tectonic movement, buried them or covered them up. I mean, buried them or melted them down. And so they’re hard to notice. However, this crater was discovered and then Lewis and Walter Alvarez found this layer of Iridium atomic number 77 distributed all over the world. And Iridium is quite rare in the earth’s crust, but it’s common enough in an asteroid.
Bill: 00:40:36 Meteorites land on the earth’s surface and geologists love these things. They look at their Iridium. And so this is where this theory that the earth have been hit with a very large impact or gained a lot of traction.
Alan: 00:40:50 That layer of Iridium coincided with the disappearance of the dinosaur?
Bill: 00:40:55 Yeah. Exactly. Well said. Well, important detail picked up upon. So picked up upon? That’s not my best work, is it?
Alan: 00:41:04 Well, as Churchill said that ending a sentence with a preposition is just something up with which I will not put.
Bill: 00:41:11 And you will not put. But it’s a fine. It’s a fine thing. Where are we going to? So all right.
Alan: 00:41:17 Yeah, I think we should use language the way we feel. The way it comes out.
Bill: 00:41:21 That’s from Latin, the preposition at the end thing.
Alan: 00:41:23 That’s right. We’re still ruled by the Latins.
Bill: 00:41:26 Kids.
Alan: 00:41:26 By the Romans.
Bill: 00:41:27 So anyway, this all came together in my lifetime, that the hypothesis about the ancient dinosaur extinction is believed that the debris or the dust from this impact was so massive, how massive was it? That the ejected cone of material, the ejecta was bigger in diameter than the earth.
Alan: 00:41:53 I never heard that. That’s amazing.
Bill: 00:41:55 So the shadow from this stuff persisted for several months.
Alan: 00:41:59 But you know what I don’t get, didn’t that prevent sunlight from hitting the earth in a normal way? Didn’t that eliminate a lot of food?
Bill: 00:42:09 That’s what would have happened in the age of dinosaurs.
Alan: 00:42:10 But what happened to the mice?
Bill: 00:42:12 Well, they’re burrowing, hibernating creatures. And they got away with it.
Alan: 00:42:15 And they got to come out once in a while for lunch?
Bill: 00:42:17 Yeah, well, a dinosaur carcass is just the thing.
Alan: 00:42:23 All right, that satisfies me about that.
Bill: 00:42:25 Sure.
Alan: 00:42:28 I wanted it.
Bill: 00:42:29 So we don’t want the earth to get it with another asteroid. That’s a big thing with me. We have to prepare for that.
Alan: 00:42:34 Yeah, right.
Bill: 00:42:35 We need a space program to get ready for that.
Alan: 00:42:39 Your main audience was 10 and under. Who’s your main audience now?
Bill: 00:42:43 Adults, people like your listeners, I hope. And the big thing for me is climate change, man. We just we got to get to work on that as soon as we can. And the sooner the better. And then the other two things that are really important to me was… Let’s go back to this, the two big questions. Where did we come from? What are we as living things doing here? How the heck did we get here? And then are we alone? Are we the only living things in the cosmos? That would be extraordinary? Wouldn’t that just be almost incredible that we could be the only living things?
Alan: 00:43:20 Given the variety of shapes and morphological existence of things on our planet, I think… Tell me what you think. My guess is that people like us on another planet, that there’s an extremely small chance that we’d find intelligent life that looks like us.
Bill: 00:43:46 Speaking English with the universal translator from Star Trek and so [inaudible 00:43:50]
Alan: 00:43:50 Well, that actually is possible. But one in trillions. Isn’t it more likely that it might look like what we think of as an insect?
Bill: 00:44:02 Sure.
Alan: 00:44:03 Or one of those things you find in the ocean, the jellyfish?
Bill: 00:44:07 Yes. Sea jellies we call them?
Alan: 00:44:09 Yeah.
Bill: 00:44:09 Yeah, sure. This is just endlessly fascinating in the astrobiology bar, whether or not it’s a sea jelly or a squid.
Alan: 00:44:18 And we think we’re the only ones on the planet who are as intelligent as us.
Bill: 00:44:23 It seems like it.
Alan: 00:44:23 There might also be see animals that are more intelligent than us.
Bill: 00:44:27 Al, I’m open-minded, but [crosstalk 00:44:30]
Alan: 00:44:29 You don’t think so?
Bill: 00:44:30 Well, nobody builds libraries and has podcasts and seems [crosstalk 00:44:36]
Alan: 00:44:36 … That’s the deciding factor.
Bill: 00:44:39 But I mean, I know what you mean. There’s all this evidence that octopuses are extraordinarily [crosstalk 00:44:44]
Alan: 00:44:44 Boy, they’re smart.
Bill: 00:44:45 Yeah. And dolphins do a lot of cool things, but it’s not clear that they’re smarter than we are.
Alan: 00:44:52 Right. I guess, I’m overly impressed by what seems to be communication and an emotional life. And that’s really only part of our what our intelligence is. And they don’t seem to… They don’t build buildings.
Bill: 00:45:08 They don’t seem to.
Alan: 00:45:09 No.
Bill: 00:45:09 But maybe they say, “Those humans are so silly.”
Alan: 00:45:12 You look at the… They live on land like dummies.
Bill: 00:45:14 Yeah. Wish they should just float around like us.
Alan: 00:45:16 Yeah.
Bill: 00:45:21 There’s two things I want with space exploration don’t want to get hit with an asteroid. And the other thing I want to look for life on another world and find it while I’m still alive.
Alan: 00:45:32 Yeah, we’re going to be talking soon with a scientist who’s focusing all her work on that, and I’m looking forward to that.
Bill: 00:45:39 Who’s that?
Alan: 00:45:40 Kaltenegger? Is that… Do I have the name right? Yeah. What’s her first name? You know? Lisa Kaltenegger.
Bill: 00:45:48 She’s an astrobiologist?
Alan: 00:45:54 Yeah, Lisa Kaltenegger. She’s at the Carl Sagan Institute. And you have a history with Carl Sagan.
Bill: 00:45:59 Oh, yes.
Alan: 00:45:59 Don’t you?
Bill: 00:46:00 Oh, yeah. So I took one classroom, changed my life.
Alan: 00:46:03 Tell me about that.
Bill: 00:46:04 So speaking of the Science Guy show, so I started doing these bits, these science bits. And then I had another thing on KING-TV on Sunday mornings, called Bill’s Basement. It was about three minute bit. There was a kid’s show called Music Magic, which is run… This guy was a very good pianist, musician, and he would talk about music and scales and stuff. And I would come on and do some science demonstration. Classic, Mr. Wizard style demonstration.
Bill: 00:46:37 And it was going along. Anyway, I went back to my 10th College reunion. And I wrote to Carl Sagan Secretary on paper, a paper letter, you may remember this technology and his assistant said, “Okay, you get 10 minutes with him.” So I went in there and talked to him for a minute about what I was doing. He said, “You should focus on pure science. Don’t do technology. Don’t do engineering.”
Alan: 00:47:07 You were asking for advice on your show?
Bill: 00:47:09 Yeah.
Alan: 00:47:10 And why did he say that?
Bill: 00:47:11 And he said, “Kids resonate to pure science.” That was the verb he used, resonate, like ringing a bell. And I went, “That is pretty cool.” So that was a huge influence on me, that one sentence, those five minutes, maybe three minutes. And when we did the Science Guy show, that’s what we did, pure science. And we did a show on structures which was about… Had some engineering in it but a backbone is a structure.
Alan: 00:47:44 What do you do when someone is talking with you who you don’t know? Who clearly doesn’t get it about science? Do you try to convince them? How do you handle the situation like that?
Bill: 00:47:58 I was going to ask you. You’re the charming interviewer. I say all the time they’re not… Somebody who’s in denial about climate change isn’t going to change his mind in two minutes.
Alan: 00:48:11 Yeah, that’s how I feel.
Bill: 00:48:13 It’s going to take a couple of years.
Alan: 00:48:14 So what do you spend the two minutes doing?
Bill: 00:48:16 Say I try to listen, that’s the first thing. But when they say the hockey stick graph, showing the world getting warmer and extraordinary has been debunked. My reaction to that is, “No, it hasn’t. Who told you that? No, it’s not been debunked. It’s been rebunked, over bunked, super bunked.”
Alan: 00:48:39 Right. So the basic part of your argument is decibels.
Bill: 00:48:43 Well, this is frustrating.
Alan: 00:48:45 Of course, it is. Sure, it is.
Bill: 00:48:47 When they start with that premise.
Alan: 00:48:48 That the thing. The question where did you hear that? Where did you read that? Comes to my lips a lot, because they got it from somewhere.
Bill: 00:48:58 You’re right. And this is the downside of anonymous social media.
Alan: 00:49:02 It really is. Do you have a technique for figuring out what’s baloney on the internet and what isn’t?
Bill: 00:49:11 Funny. Should you… Do you know that Carl Sagan used to use the word baloney. This baloney detector.
Alan: 00:49:16 No, I didn’t know that.
Bill: 00:49:17 Well, he’d just say all the time, the most important skill you can give anybody of any age is so called critical thinking. That’s the current phrase. Is it reasonable? It used to be called logic or ability to reason or something but critical thing, it’s a fine phrase. Is it reasonable? Is it reasonable that the moon of Saturn, Titan has an atmosphere so thick, and so little gravity that you could fly during the space that you could flap your arms and fly?
Bill: 00:49:55 Yeah, could be. That’s reasonable, could be. Is it reasonable that somebody running for US president had a child slavery ring in a pizza parlor near the White House? No, that’s not… No, that’s not reasonable. No. So we all need to evaluate, learn to evaluate these claims in skepticism. By that I mean formal skepticism. Claims are the whole thing. You’re evaluating a claim.
Alan: 00:50:28 Sagan, who I think first said the extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence.
Bill: 00:50:33 Yeah. And if he didn’t say it, he said it with that fabulous. If he wasn’t the first to say it, he was the first to say with that fabulous voice.
Alan: 00:50:40 Yeah, he did have a great voice. But there is so much in the universe that we can’t understand, including some of our most advanced ways of understanding that don’t always conform to ordinary logic, like quantum mechanics.
Bill: 00:50:57 Oh, man.
Alan: 00:50:58 I mean, if you said what’s reasonable and we’re not going to accept it if it’s not reasonable, you’d have to throw out a lot of quantum mechanics.
Bill: 00:51:04 Well, then until you spend time with it, and you can make these extraordinary predictions and have [crosstalk 00:51:10] Mobile phones with 100,000 transistors in them that enables [crosstalk 00:51:14]
Alan: 00:51:14 But it works. There’s no question that it works.
Bill: 00:51:15 Yeah.
Alan: 00:51:16 But is it everyday logical? Not so much.
Bill: 00:51:20 No, not so much. So the double slit experiment remains the electron, I mean, photons, whether there’s two of them, or one of them behave the same way. It’s crazy.
Alan: 00:51:30 Yeah, that kind of stuff is so wonderful to be exposed to whether you understand it or not.
Bill: 00:51:37 So here’s the thing about it, the double slit experiment, quantum electrodynamics. [crosstalk 00:51:43]
Alan: 00:51:43 For somebody who’s listening [crosstalk 00:51:44]
Bill: 00:51:43 Dark Matter. Dark energy.
Alan: 00:51:44 Because you’re just a famous celebrity and they’re not tuned into science to say what the double slit experiment is in 15 seconds.
Bill: 00:51:52 That you have two small openings and you shoot a light beam at two openings, the photons form a pattern on the other side like a rainbow. But then if you can set it up in this crazy, extraordinary way to send only one photon, one packet of energy at a time, it forms the same pattern.
Alan: 00:52:17 So the photon is both a thing and a wave?
Bill: 00:52:20 Like, “Wow, dude.”
Alan: 00:52:22 Yeah.
Bill: 00:52:22 And if you could actually understand that you would change the course of history. But with that said, and there are people who do understand it for crying out loud. But with that said, there are people who are very troubled by the idea that we can’t know so much of the universe.
Alan: 00:52:40 Really? Troubled? It seems like a nice opportunity.
Bill: 00:52:43 Well, that’s the other… The flip side of the same coin. And this is where to me, I spent time with creationists, people that just don’t want to know the truth of nature.
Alan: 00:52:58 You spent a lot of time with them. What do you do when you’re with them?
Bill: 00:53:00 Well, I debated this guy in Kentucky and spent time [crosstalk 00:53:03]
Alan: 00:53:03 How did you do there?
Bill: 00:53:04 Well, I mean, from the head of the debating club, the faculty advisor to the debating club, I won the debate.
Alan: 00:53:15 Just as a debater.
Bill: 00:53:16 But his followers showed up with several million dollars, some fundamentalists in Kentucky showed up with several million dollars and made his… What’s it called his flock, his ministry got quite wealthy for a while but his… Ken Hams, 20-year prospects, I think are quite dim. I think he’s going to go out of business or that organization.

Alan: 00:53:48 So there have been a lot of debates lately on that subject, on the question of the acceptance of science, on religion and atheism versus belief in God. Do you think a debate is helpful with that?
Bill: 00:54:06 Sure.
Alan: 00:54:07 Does it help bring people together? Or does it divide people?
Bill: 00:54:12 I think it depends, right?
Alan: 00:54:15 What would be the most useful outcome?
Bill: 00:54:17 The community, people get together and talk. So my experience has been with creationists or fundamentalists, or people who are influenced largely by Christian evangelism, that once they’re exposed to skeptical thought, or the process of science or the method of science, they abandon their rigid beliefs.
Alan: 00:54:47 It’s okay with me if they have their beliefs as long as they don’t stand in the way of science.
Bill: 00:54:51 Well, okay, so do your kids get vaccinated or not?
Alan: 00:54:55 Yeah, well.
Bill: 00:54:56 All right. This is where it crosses the line because if you say, “I have religious freedom or personal freedom, libertarian style freedom, and I’m not going to get my kids vaccinated.” That affects you and me because the kid gets infected, that germ mutates in the kid. And then that germ infects you and me.
Alan: 00:55:20 Every time this subject comes up, I think about how polygamy has been outlawed, even though it’s a religious tenet.
Bill: 00:55:28 Well, it was. Well, that was with respect.
Alan: 00:55:31 Yes.
Bill: 00:55:32 You’re talking about Joseph Smith?
Alan: 00:55:34 No, there were polygamists past Joseph Smith, and then it got outlawed. There’s a history of outlawing religious practices that seem to go beyond… Can you keep your kid out of the hospital just because you’re [crosstalk 00:55:52]
Bill: 00:55:52 And so on and so on.
Alan: 00:55:53 Yeah.
Bill: 00:55:53 But in this case of vaccination, it affects you and me because of the nature of infectious diseases.
Alan: 00:56:02 Right.
Bill: 00:56:02 Now, in the case of education, it also affects you and me if a kid is brought up scientifically illiterate, doesn’t understand the process of geology, the age of the earth and so on. That affects you and me because that kid, that person when he or she grows up, is not going to be as productive in our society, is not going to… Have much more difficult time in any scientific pursuit or any medical interaction or respecting the facts of actuarial data or what have you, when you start rejecting science writ large, based on some religious thing and you’re uncomfort… Or discomfort with knowing the age of the universe. That’s trouble for all of us. That’s my argument.
Alan: 00:56:47 I agree. I guess, I lean toward the idea, which I think your history embodies as well, which is I want to make the interest in the way nature works be so attractive, so interesting and entertaining that I don’t have to tell people, “You’re going to be punished if you don’t believe this.” Because that’s like conversion by concussion. I want them to go to it because they love it.
Bill: 00:57:17 I love it. You got the wrong guy. The universe is infinitely fascinating to me, I have to say, and that we can understand it at all, Al.
Alan: 00:57:26 I know it, I know.
Bill: 00:57:27 That we can understand our place in the cosmos at all, is amazing. And so in the case of octopuses, they may be really smart by our measures that we can come up with.
Alan: 00:57:42 But they don’t know about the first second of the universe.
Bill: 00:57:44 I don’t think so.
Alan: 00:57:45 Probably not.
Bill: 00:57:46 I don’t think they’ve ponder… I don’t think they’re paralyzed by self doubt.
Alan: 00:57:49 Yeah, I was just proposing that as a possibility.
Bill: 00:57:53 I know. But I mean, given it as an example that we, as a species, seem to be extraordinary. Just out of the ordinary.
Alan: 00:58:02 By us were extraordinary. By an extraordinary being… Let’s say that there’s intelligent life somewhere in the universe, and they’ve persisted way longer than we have. Scientists have told me that the average age of the species is about 2 million years. And we’re only around for a few hundred thousand years.
Bill: 00:58:26 So stay tuned.
Alan: 00:58:27 Yes, stay tuned. If we could make it to several million years, how smart can we get? What are we going to be able to do?
Bill: 00:58:35 Well, that’s the basis of so many time travel premises, time travel science fiction stories. The guy or girl comes back and she’s so much smarter than the 20th century, 21st century people. She is, “What’s wrong with you?”
Alan: 00:58:51 Somebody’s speaking to me. This is so much fun. I’m going over the time.
Bill: 00:58:58 It’s fine. If you’re willing to listen.
Alan: 00:59:00 No, I got to wrap it up. We end our show a little bit like yours where we have seven quick question.
Bill: 00:59:07 Oh, good.
Alan: 00:59:07 For seven quick answers.
Bill: 00:59:09 Seven quick questions. Seven quick answers. Here we go.
Alan: 00:59:11 Okay. What do you wish you really understood?
Bill: 00:59:16 Dark matter and dark energy.
Alan: 00:59:19 You only wish you understood 90%, 95% of the universe?
Bill: 00:59:22 Yeah. What is going on? The universe is accelerating its expansion and there’s got to be a reason for it.
Alan: 00:59:29 How do you tell someone they have their facts wrong?
Bill: 00:59:32 I do my best to listen first. But it’s hard.
Alan: 00:59:37 And then you scream.
Bill: 00:59:40 Be forceful.
Alan: 00:59:43 What’s the strangest question anyone’s ever asked you?
Bill: 00:59:48 Yes. Can I see your driver’s license so you can prove you’re Bill Nye?
Alan: 00:59:52 Are you kidding?
Bill: 00:59:55 No. We’re not living. This is not a totalitarian state where you get ask for my papers.
Alan: 01:00:03 How do you stop a compulsive talker?
Bill: 01:00:06 Oh, man, that’s a great… You’re talking about me?
Alan: 01:00:09 Yeah, you.
Bill: 01:00:09 We’re talking about me.
Alan: 01:00:11 Yeah, how do you do it?
Bill: 01:00:12 Say, “Our time’s up, Bill. We got to go.”
Alan: 01:00:16 No, I mean, I’m talking about you in the terms of how do you do it?
Bill: 01:00:21 It’s difficult as you know, “Call this, go to my website. I’ll read your argument, whatever it is.”
Alan: 01:00:28 Oh, that’s interesting. Get in touch with my website.
Bill: 01:00:31 Yeah.
Alan: 01:00:31 That’s great. How do you like to start up a real conversation with somebody at a dinner party next to you who you never met before?
Bill: 01:00:42 Who invited you? What are you doing here?
Alan: 01:00:44 What are you doing here? Yeah, well, that’s good. Never heard that. What gives you confidence?
Bill: 01:00:57 Well, if I’ve thought about things a lot, I’m confident in that thing, in that subject. Also, I guess you spent time on stage and you turn your nervousness into excitement, which becomes I guess, confidence, “I can do this. I can handle this.”
Alan: 01:01:16 Good. Last question. What book changed your life?
Bill: 01:01:23 Oh, well, just one?
Alan: 01:01:26 Well, pick the one that most changed your life.
Bill: 01:01:33 It might be Cosmos by Carl Sagan. I’m thinking out loud, but I had taken this course before that book came out. And the book was his course. Elements of Style by Strunk and White. That’s it. For sure.
Alan: 01:01:51 Isn’t that interesting.
Bill: 01:01:52 Omit needless words, omit needless words, omit needless words. If only, if only I could omit needless words, Alan, I could be somebody.
Alan: 01:02:02 Well, that’s like the old sketch about fresh fish sold here today. You don’t need to say today you’re selling fish, you don’t need to say fresh, you wouldn’t sell stale fish. Till finally, he cut them all out. Omit. You don’t need to say words because that’s what you’re omitting and saying this a needless you wind up with a blank.
Bill: 01:02:25 A blank.
Alan: 01:02:26 No, but [crosstalk 01:02:26]
Bill: 01:02:26 Waving a fish.
Alan: 01:02:27 That gets back to what we said what you leave out can be the most important decision.
Bill: 01:02:33 Absolutely.
Alan: 01:02:34 Well, I wouldn’t have left anything out of our talk. I really enjoyed talking with you, Bill.
Bill: 01:02:37 Thank you, Alan. It’s just been a delight.
Alan: 01:02:39 Thanks so much for coming in. It was great.
Bill Nye and I both have a passion for making science accessible and entertaining. Or, as I like to say – clear and vivid!
For details about all of Bill’s many projects, including his own podcast called, “Science Rules!” please visit his web site at And check there for his best-selling books, too.
You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram @BillNye

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