bill nye's guide to saving the world
The beloved television star talks climate change, extraterrestrial life, and the code-breaking, bra-burning women who raised him.
Photography Katie McCurdy
A few months back, Stephanie LaCava sat down with Bill Nye at Fairway cafe on the Upper West Side. The beloved American television presenter is perhaps best known for the 90s series Bill Nye the Science Guy and has since found new audiences with programming on Netflix and a documentary about his work. Next month, his book Everything All at Once will be released in paperback.
Nye arrived by bicycle, and after sitting down, promptly ordered a bagel with cream cheese. He spoke about about family (Nye’s mother was recruited to help break codes during WWII); his work as CEO of The Planetary Society and, of course, climate change.
You’ve said that space exploration is important because it will bring out the best in people. Can you explain that to me?
There are two questions we all ask, and if people say they don’t ask them, they are lying: One, where do we all come from? And two, are we alone? There are billions of stars in this galaxy, and in turn, there are billions of galaxies. Johnny Carson’s version of Carl Sagan, there are billions of billions. Are we the only sentient, self-aware creature that wanders the cosmos?
If you want to answer these, you have to explore space. For example, the James Webb space telescope is now on schedule for 2021. It is nine billion dollars, instead of the predicted four billion. It’s going over budget, and is taking all this time. It’s taking all this time because it’s such a difficult problem that people are trying to solve — trying to look at atmospheres of the planets, but the technology that will emerge from that will no doubt enrich our lives.
I think of Hedy Lamarr…
Love Hedy Lamarr! So, speaking of my mother, Hedy Lamarr worked on something similar! To my recollection, she worked on the predecessor to Walsh Code, where you not only look at the bit, but at the beginning and end of the bit. I’m not an expert on cryptography.
Furthermore, if you want to go to the International Space station, you have to go there on a Russian rocket — you can’t go there on a U.S. rocket. And, in a sense, you don’t need to. This is all the trouble we may or may not be having with Russia. Somebody really does buy a lot of rockets, and rocket engines, from Russia. People get along in ways that they might otherwise not have gotten along. Think of the diplomacy that results from astronauts from a dozen countries from all around the world, all working together.
And what do you make of someone like Jeff Bezos, or Elon Musk, placing intellectual and investment capital in space or other sorts of technology, when it could be going somewhere else…
Your phone depends on spacecraft. When the weather report is off 15 minutes, people start complaining, because we get all this weather information, communications, data transfers, from satellites. We depend on space.
Would you argue that it is a smart move to be putting that much capital into space versus other humanitarian causes?
It’s not one or the other. Sure, one can argue that, but I’ll make this classic rebuttal: It’s not this versus that. It’s everything, all at once. Should we refurbish the baseball stadium, or pay teacher salaries, a zero-sum, as it’s called — this or that. But that’s not what it is. You have to do everything, all at once.
You are a huge advocate of evidence-based, dialectic thinking. And people would say that the current administration is more anti-science.
I would say so. And am I astonished by that? Yes. Because the reason you invest and finance science is for the economy. It keeps you economically competitive. And the other thing that everybody loves about investment in science is weapons. If you want to have cool, new weapons, you’ve got to invest in science.
Did you ever think that you would be up against such a virulent culture of anti-scientific thinking?
No — I never thought you’d have mainstream musicians and performers claiming that the earth is flat. But it won’t last. It’s inconsistent with the universe. You can’t say the Earth is flat — that’s just not sustainable. It’s wrong.
Would you say the same is true regarding climate change?
Yeah! On CBS — mainstream TV — this morning they mentioned climate change. It’s huge.
What did you think of the New York Times Magazine story, last weekend, that Nathaniel Rich wrote.
I didn’t see it — I was on vacation.
(Later, I receive an email from Nye’s publicity representative: “Bill read the article you mentioned in the Times Magazine and here were his quick thoughts: ‘I read most of the NYT piece. It may have been 1989. In similar fashion, I’ve often said it was the election of 2000. Hate him or love him: the world would be very different if Al Gore had become President of the world’s most influential government. Climate change would have been a high priority.’”)
Climate change is happening, and humans are causing it. For people your age, this question is especially important: how many hundreds of millions of people do you want it to affect before you do something about it? I will almost certainly be dead before it’s a huge problem. But the longer we screw around without doing anything about it, the worse it will be.
I mentioned once that climate change deniers are going to age out — now the raving conservatives will say that Bill Nye wants to kill climate change deniers. I claim that everybody you’ve ever met is going to die, and if those guys think they’re not going to die, I’m pretty sure that they’re wrong about that. I offered Joe Bastardi, and I offered Mark Morano — who used to be a high-profile climate denier… he’s still around, but not as high-profile as he was) — each two $10,000 bets: that 2016 would be the hottest year on record, and that 2010-2020 would be the hottest decade on record. And neither one of them would take either bet. And I based that $10,000 on when Mitt Romney offered Rick Perry the same amount about his investments in Asia [during a 2011 debate]. I figured that that’s where conservatives start: $10,000. And neither one of them took the bet. You see — they know what’s going on.
Do you have any favorite Internet sites, news sources, online magazines, anything you’d recommend we look it?
I read IFLS [I Fucking Love Science], I read SpaceNews and Jeff Foust, as well as CNN, the mainstream media. And this morning I spent some time watching Fox — and was wondering, What else do you guys have besides “The other side sucks?” What else do you talk about? Do you talk about the trial, about how the president’s campaign manager was this crazy, thieving embezzler doing business with our political enemies? It’s all about the other side — Fox has got nothing else right now.
I noticed that since the beginning you’ve always made a conscious effort to present diversity in your actors and players even early in your programming.
I was born of a certain ancestry, with English as my first language in the world’s most influential economy. The privilege is overwhelming. I went to public school in the city of Washington, when an infamous, notorious mayor named Marion Barry took over. And I went to school with people who clearly had nothing like the privileges that I had, and it had a deep effect on me.
And then there was my mother: I remember her slamming the phone down and using the D word — damn — because she could not get an American Express credit card, even though at that point she had a Master’s degree and went on to get a doctorate. She was working as a bureaucrat at the time. When you read Code Girls, you’ll learn that after the war, after having this important job — in which [the code girls] changed the world, were trusted with international secrets — the women were expected to just go off and be housewives. She and my father’s mother were strong feminists, and I was brought up with that. My great-grandmother, whom I never met, marched in the suffragette era, in 1913; I wasn’t there. And my mother marched in one of the equal rights amendment parades — I think it was August of 1973. She always said that she threw her bra in the fire. By the time I got home, there was no evidence of that.
Bill Nye's upcoming book "Everything All at Once: How to Unleash Your Inner Nerd, Tap Into Radical Curiosity, and Solve Any Problem" is available for pre-order via Amazon.
Photographer: Katie McCurdy
Stylist: Shibon Kennedy
Grooming: Dana Boyer @ Art Department
Photographers assistant: Meghan Marin
Photographed in NYC at Be Electric Studios