For many ’90s kids, the name Bill Nye is synonymous with some of the most fun science classes, during which the teacher would dim the lights and pop in a VHS tape with an episode of Bill Nye the Science Guy. Originally trained as an engineer, the charismatic scientist is best known for his iconic science education show that was not only a welcome change of pace in many science classrooms but also opened many young students’ eyes to the potential of science.
Bill Nye has remained relevant for his continued appearances and lectures as one of the coolest scientists out there and, recently, for a debate with creationist Ken Ham, continuing his career-long project of advocating for science literacy, particularly amongst children and youth. Nye will be in Convocation Hall at U of T on October 1 to participate in a radio show hosted by The Planetary Society about the Canadian Space Agency.
In an exclusive interview with The Varsity, Nye shared his thoughts on space exploration and the Canadian space program, discussed his college experience, and offered some advice to current students.
The Varsity: My most memorable moments as a kid in science class were watching your show, Bill Nye the Science Guy. Can you tell me what initially inspired you to pursue science education?
Bill Nye: I volunteered at the Pacific Science Centre in Seattle, and I really liked it, that was really fun. I really enjoyed teaching or showing people science demonstrations. And then I was working for a company that was obsessed — obsessed I tell you — with making money. And you can do that if you are making paper towels or something, but you can’t do that if you are making a new product — a navigation system for a business jet, in this case. So I decided that those guys didn’t know what they were doing; I decided to quit my job. [I] just didn’t think it was the most productive use of my time. So I decided to affect people like you, so that in the future we have more scientists for a better world for all human kind.
TV: Why is pushing for science and engineering education important to you?
BN: It’s the key to the future; [it is] what keeps Canada in the game economically. You export a tremendous amount of wood and lumber and oil right now, but what gives you national pride is the [Canadian] Space Agency. So I carry a five dollar bill with me all the time, because here you have the International Space Station flying above us all. So I just think that’s wonderful. Now what you want to do is innovation — that’s going to be be the key to the future. Not everybody is going to be buying oil and natural gas, not everybody is going to be buying lumber forever, so in order to have economic success in the future, you have to have innovation, and the key to that is science and engineering.
TV: You are in Toronto next week on October 1 to talk about space exploration. Could you comment on what we can expect at the radio show?
BN: We are going to be at The International Astronautical Congress. We are bringing international awareness of space to Toronto. I hope you, as a Canadian, are very proud of the Canadian Space Agency, [which] has found little niches to be a participant in so many missions. [It] has instruments, hardware, and ground services tracking so many missions around the world. It’s really something to be proud of.
TV: And what first got you started to be interested in space exploration?
BN: My dad had a very old telescope that had belonged to his scout master…and I remember looking at the moon, and just realizing that it’s covered with craters, it’s just amazing. It’s amazing…you know it’s in my lifetime [that] people discovered the ancient dinosaurs who were killed probably, or finished off probably by an asteroid, so you don’t want the earth to get hit with another asteroid, you want to avoid that.
TV: If had the chance to go into space to a different planet, would you do it?
BN: Oh yeah, well, especially if I get to come back. When people [are] talking now about going to Mars one way and never coming home, [there] is no appeal for me. Mars is a very hostile place — very, very, cold — absolutely nothing to eat, and nothing to breathe, you can’t breathe, so it’s not like the pioneers going from Hudson’s Bay to Vancouver, shooting stuff and eating the whole way across in the summer time just having fun. No, you can’t breathe, you can’t eat, you can’t keep warm. However, if I could go there with a raw camera and look for signs of life, look for fossil microbes… I would do that in a heartbeat.
TV: What was your favourite part of being a university student studying science?
BN: I can’t tell you my favourite part; that would get me in trouble. No, I took astronomy from Carl Sagan, and by the time I got to be a senior in engineering school, I had focused on what I wanted to do, which was control systems and hydraulics, fluid mechanics. And so I was having fun at that point. Some of the other stuff didn’t appeal to me as much — I took foreign policy, psychology, history, but my favourite thing was physics.
TV: You are wearing a bow tie today like you usually do in public. Could you comment on this choice over a conventional tie?
BN: Well they don’t fall into your flask, they don’t slip into your soup, and they are very practical — you know, when you lean over they don’t fall down. You can be a little bit dressed up, and if you are going to wear a tuxedo, you generally wear a bow tie. I think a better or more interesting question is: why doesn’t everybody else wear one?
TV: What would be the one piece of advice you would give students here at the University of Toronto?
BN: Follow your passion — I know people tell you that, but I’m not kidding. You will find your way to something that you really enjoy if you just keep looking, and you’ll be surprised [to see that] you can change the world. So my advice is: pursue that — leave the world better than you found it, and everybody’s responsible for his or her own actions, and sometimes…you [have to] pick up other people’s trash, that’s just how it goes. I know, I don’t like it either!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.