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Words of Wisdom from the Science Guy

By Gregg Sangillo

Bill Nye wearing his AU Eagle hat. Credit: AU Photo Collective photographer Anna Moneymaker.

Bill Nye wearing his AU Eagle hat. Credit: AU Photo Collective photographer Anna Moneymaker.

Even a Martian from outer space might have known that someone famous was coming to American University on Tuesday night. Students waited in a long line outside Bender Arena beforehand, and there was an aura of excitement surrounding the entire event. Inside the fully-packed arena, even a whiff of the celebrity scientist set off loud cheers from the crowd. Event coordinators cleverly played science-related songs, such as Coldplay’s “The Scientist” and Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive.”

When Bill Nye the Science Guy took the stage, he lived up to the hype. He made an impassioned case for science and knowledge, weaving insights about the universe with his own personal experiences. The Kennedy Political Union and the College of Arts and Sciences presented the event, along with co-sponsors Women in Science and Students for the Exploration and Development of Space.

Sparks of Curiosity

Nye talked about his fascinating family history. During the Pearl Harbor and Wake Island attacks, Japanese soldiers captured Nye’s father and took him to China. “They were in a prisoner-of-war camp for the duration of the war. If you get a chance to be prisoners of war, don’t do it,” Nye joked. “According to my mom, these guys just disappeared. Nobody knew what happened to them.” While he languished in China, Nye’s mother worked on the Enigma code (made famous by the movie The Imitation Game).

Around this time, Nye’s father developed a fondness for sundials. After the war ended, he wrote a book about the subject and became a lifetime member of the North American Sundial Society. Like his father, Nye took an interest in sundials. And, more generally, he developed a curious mind.

Nye relayed some of his own childhood memories attending a Washington, D.C. elementary school. In third grade, he was flabbergasted when a teacher told him that there were more stars in the sky than grains of sand on the beach. Now, he explained, “there are about a thousand times more stars that we can see than grains of sand on the Earth.” The teacher, it turned out, had underestimated the scope of the universe.

Science, Reality and Denial

Nye used an image to show differences between Earth and Mars. While Mars is about 95 percent carbon dioxide, Earth is .04 percent. Yet, he said, most people in the room were alive when that number was still .03 percent. “This tiny change, in what seems like a tiny fraction of the Earth’s atmosphere, is changing everything for you and future generations,” he said.

He ridiculed politicians who continue to deny the science of climate change. “When faced with the crisis of climate change, you could run in circles screaming,” he said, mimicking a person doing exactly that. “But that has proven to be ineffective.”

Even in a coal state with 30,000 jobs at risk, Nye argued that you could create even more positions in the renewable energy sector. “You would have 140,000 new jobs that cannot be outsourced. You cannot send the rigging of electrical transmission lines to China, because they have to be here.”

The transformation of the entire energy economy sounds extremely difficult. Yet Nye drew historic parallels, noting how much warfare changed from World War I to World War II. He called upon AU students to make the technological changes necessary to tackle climate change. “I want you guys to be the next great generation. I want you to, dare I say it, change the world,” he said.

He also discussed his spirited defense of evolutionary theory at the Creation Museum in Kentucky. He interacted with someone who “seems to believe that the Earth is 6,000 years old, which it isn’t,” Nye said, noting that the debate has had more than 5.1 million views online.

Yet he wondered why that many people—in such a technologically advanced society—are conflicted on this subject. “You’re telling me there are five million people who don’t accept evolution as the fundamental idea in all of life science? Dude, this could be a very serious problem,” he said.

Life on Mars?

Nye also spoke passionately about space travel and discovery. He took a course in college with legendary astronomer Carl Sagan, who co-founded the Planetary Society in 1980. Nye would later join the Planetary Society and—following the success of his TV show—become a board member. He is now the CEO.

“Space exploration brings out the best in us. It’s inherently optimistic,” he stated.

Among other things, he mentioned potential discoveries from the Curiosity rover on Mars. “If we discover evidence of life on another world, it will utterly change this one,” he said. “It will change the way everybody feels about being alive.”

Standing Ovation

Nye’s presentation was replete with pictures, images, and info-graphics. With such a boisterous crowd, it felt more like a rock concert than a typical college lecture. At the end of the evening, a student posed a question: What are you most passionate about at the moment?

“Science! The best idea we’ve ever had! Carry on, Eagles!” he said to rapturous applause. As he said good night, the crowd chanted, “Bill! Bill! Bill! Bill!”