Bill Nye the Science Guy on Solar Sailing, STEM and Science-Deniers

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Bill Nye, "The Science Guy," poses for a photograph with 3D glasses at the the opening of the IMAX film titled "Magnificent Desolation Walking on the Moon 3D" at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., September 21, 2005. Chris Kleponis/Reuters

To those who grew up in the 1990s, Bill Nye the Science Guy was a television staple and its star a fount of scientific discovery. Today, Nye continues working in a similar vein, albeit offscreen, as CEO of the Planetary Society, a nonprofit that “sponsors projects that will seed innovative space technologies, nurtures creative young minds, and is a vital advocate for our future in space.”

On Tuesday, Nye launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds needed for the Planetary Society’s LightSail project, which aims to make the long sought after idea of solar sailing a reality. More than $4 million had already been “raised by our 40,000 plus members around the world who just think it’s cool,” Nye says. These are scientists, enthusiasts and advocates “who just want to participate in space exploration, and who want to advance space science and exploration so that we’ll all learn more about the cosmos and what I like to call our place within it, our place in space.”

The Planetary Society will launch a test flight of LightSail on Wednesday, May 20, in preparation for its primary solar sailing mission in 2016. Ahead of LightSail’s test run, Newsweek spoke on the phone with Nye about solar sailing, STEM, the search for life on Mars and science deniers. Edited excerpts follow.

When did you first hear about the idea of solar sailing? Do you remember what your initial reaction was?

Well I first heard about it I think in 1976 when I was in engineering school and it sounded like the coolest thing in the world. I liked sailboats growing up and everybody loves outer space so I thought this was the most wonderful combination possible. We’re sailing on light, there’s no fuel. It’s romantic; it’s like people sailing on a lake or the ocean where you have no means of propulsion except the wind, except what nature provides.

Solar sailing is not a new idea, and several attempts have been madeby NASA, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency and others. How did this most recent attempt with LightSail come about?

Solar sailing has been around in a sense since it was first talked about in the 1920s before anybody could put a rocket in space. [In recent years], NASA evolved, or embraced, or the community created the CubeSat, the cubical satellite. It’s a very small spacecraft; they’re literally smaller than a shoebox. And it was reasoned that if you were diligent in your engineering you could get [solar sails] to fit into one of these little CubeSats. So the idea was rekindled. Lou [Friedman] got the thing going [but then] he retired and I took over. We hired the right people and now we’re going to fly!

Other than the LightSail, what do you think is the most exciting thing coming up in planetary science in the next 10 or 20 or 30 years?

What we want to do is search for life on Mars and Europa. If we were to discover life on another world, it would change the course of human history. It would be like Copernicus showing that the Earth goes around the sun instead of the other way around. It would be like Galileo showing that the moon is not a perfect circle; it’s another world full of craters.

Wouldn’t it be just something else to find Martian microbes, for cryin’ out loud? Do they have DNA? Just think what it would mean to biology, just think what it would mean to medicine if we found something like that. It’s world changing. Just think of the profound effect it would have on, let’s say, religions who have well-established creation myths.

When do you think we might make it to Mars?

The Planetary Society hired people to do analysis—and not just analysis of the technical components, but much more important in my opinion, of the finances, of the funding of what would be possible—and we are convinced that we can put humans in orbit around Mars in 2033 and this will enable landing humans on Mars a few years later, for example in 2039. It would be an adventure! It would engage everyone on Earth, everyone on Earth would be excited [and] would follow the mission.

What's the one thing you thought scientists would have figured out by now that hasn’t been yet?

I certainly thought we would make a lot more progress with respect to climate change. I wrote about climate change in 1993 in a book for kids and hardly anything’s been done about it. And I’m also surprised that we still have such a large population of science deniers in the United States.

You are such a well-known figure, especially for kids who grew up in the ’90s…

Is that one of you?

That may be one of me.… What’s the most memorable thing you’ve ever heard from a kid either in person or in a letter to “the science guy”?

Well, it’s moving. Every day, every single day, somebody comes up to me and says the reason I’m an engineer, the reason I got a master’s in physics, the reason I’m a biologist studying genomes is because I watched your show. It’s amazing to me. Let alone everybody who says my favorite day in class was when they would open the VCR and watch Bill Nye. I try to understand the impact of the show but I don’t think I quite grasp it, I don’t think I quite get it. It’s amazing, it’s moving, it’s wonderful and terrifying. Because you feel like you’re responsible for something.

There’s a big conversation that’s been going on about getting kids interested in STEM fields.

[Sings] STEM STEM STEM STEM STEM STEM STEM STEM...

What do you think is the best way to spur an interest or help kids discover an interest in science?

The first thing is if we had a robust investment in science, if we had a robust space program—I strongly believe we do not need to run around all day yelling STEM and singing songs—it would just happen. It would be organic. It would be in our society. This is what we do: We pursue scientific discoveries and the practical applications of it emerge. We do basic research and it changes the world. You don’t have to insist that everybody learn [sings] STEM STEM STEM STEM.

With that said, science and technology education is a great thing. What we need are three things (and I told the president of the United States this recently when I sat with him on Air Force One):

1. Science every day in every grade.

2. Hands-on science, with hands-on activities every week. That might include growing plants, observing fish, marking the motion of the sun on a sundial.

3. Algebra for all. Algebra is the single most reliable indicator of whether or not a person will pursue a career in math and science. It’s not obvious or currently provable that it is cause and effect, but it is the most reliable indicator. It is reasoned that being able to think abstractly about numbers enables you to think abstractly about all sorts of things. And so what we want to do is start algebra earlier at lower stakes so that students are not under as much pressure.

Science every day in every grade, hands-on activities and algebra for all. Those are Uncle Bill’s three keys to success.

What about bringing more women into the fieldwhat do you think is the best way to encourage girls to pursue STEM fields?

Apparently if there’s a story, if there’s a reason to learn the algebra, if there’s a reason to learn the science or do the hands-on activity, girls excel. When there’s a story associated with the activity, girls embrace it and put simply kick ass. This is something that was historically not done. Talk about a solvable problem!

When did you first become interested in science?

I think it was before I was 4 years old. I used to spend hours watching bees. I grew up in the Washington, D.C. area and my mom was very fond of our azalea bushes and they were very well-suited to attract the bumble bee. Man, I spent hours, hours watching them. I was in Washington a couple weeks ago and the azalea bushes were going and bumble bees were bumbling and it really brought back memories.

Anyway so then I read in “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” in the Washington Post that according to aerodynamic theory bees cannot fly. Even as a little kid, [I thought] wait a minute, bees are flying! The problem is not with the bees, the problem is with you, you and your theory, Mr. Grownup! What’s wrong with you? Why would you even print such a stupid thing? And that had a big effect on me. Not everything grownups tell you is true, and science is a process. Whatever people used think about aerodynamics must not be complete, or the bees would not be doing what they were doing.

What else do you want to add that I didn’t ask about?

We have to be optimistic about the future or we’re not going to do anything about it. Climate change is very serious. Everybody’s running around, waving arms about the 2016 election. And I just want to remind everybody who’s voting, everybody who is running for office, everybody who is watching people run for office, [of] Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution: “Congress shall promote the progress of science and the useful arts.”

So if you have people running for office who don’t believe in science, who deny science, who don’t believe in engineering, who don’t want to fund repairs for the national train system to keep people from getting killed in a derailment, just really question whether or not those people are on your side.