April 7, 2005

'Science Guy' Outlines Scientific Innovations

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Consider the following: A 30-meter-wide mirror traveling through space that could reach speeds up to 100,000 miles per hour using only the momentum of photons from the sun to propel itself. If all goes well, this mirror will be launched into an orbit around earth by the end of May this year. Sound impossible? Not so, said Bill Nye ’77, “the science guy” in his lecture last night to a packed Statler auditorium.

“It’s a vision. This is something that people who worked at Cornell for a long time, and people who have worked in space science for a long time have dreamed of,” Nye said.

Cosmos 1, as the mirror has been termed, is actually a 100-kilogram spacecraft that will be launched from a Russian submarine in May. Upon reaching a certain orbit, the spacecraft will release eight solar sail blades, each 15 meters long, that are made of a variety of reflective surfaces such as aluminum. Presumably, these sails will gain momentum and gradually accelerate as they are endlessly pelted by photons from the sun and other light sources such as lasers. Unlike chemically powered rockets which stop accelerating after they run out of fuel, Cosmos 1 constantly accelerates and can reach much faster speeds than chemical rockets at dramatically lower costs. “Why are [we] doing this? Well, it’s the future. If this thing works, it will be the way to travel in space. … This thing, if it works, will be visionary,” Nye said.

For over an hour, Nye explored several fields of cutting-edge science, explaining a number of complex and advanced concepts while at the same time making his audience laugh throughout the lecture.

Nye also discussed the potential of buckyballs, which are carbon molecules structured like the pattern on a soccer ball. He envisioned a world full of carbon structures made from these buckyballs, which are up to 10,000 times stronger than steel and one-sixth as heavy. Nye gave the example that bridges could be made entirely of buckyballs, which would enable the bridge to span longer distances and be much stronger than bridges built with steel today.

Nye spoke briefly on the issue of cloning, specifically differentiating between reproductive cloning and therapeutic cloning. Therapeutic cloning, he said, was the growing of stem cells to help develop treatment for people who, for example, have permanently damaged their spinal cords.

“Reproductive cloning [is] where the mad genius creates armies of … storm troopers to take over the world,” Nye said.

Nye then moved on to talk about recent anthropologic discoveries about the different skin colors in the human race.

“There are no races of humans. There’s one: the human race. Nobody’s any different. We’re all the same, and I hope … over the next century … people will figure that out. We have much more in common than we are different,” Nye said. “We’re just dealing with the ultraviolet [differently].”

Nye also referred to the work the University is doing on Mars with the two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity.

“This is part of our legacy. … This is something to be proud of. When we make a robot or two and take it to another planet, and get these spooky pictures, and we use these instruments … I don’t have to tell you that that means there was water on Mars,” Nye said.

Nye summed up his lecture by quoting his third grade teacher, who said that there are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on the beach.

“I am just this one guy. I am a speck. And the earth … is really just another speck. And the sun, big and powerful as it might be … is a speck. … The galaxy is just another speck. I am a speck, living on a speck, … which is a speck in the middle of specklessness. And then you can think. You can imagine … all of that is yours. If you stop and understand it, and commit to it and believe, … that is empowering. That should make you feel good. That is worthy of respect,” Nye said. “So when you look at the pale blue dot [the earth], just remember: that’s all we have. But also remember that … each one of you … can use that to change the world. And that, my friends, I hope is your destiny as Cornellians.”

The audience that attended last night’s lecture consisted not only of Cornellians but also of several dozen elementary school students from the local area. One girl declared during the question and answer session that Nye should reinstate his show, Bill Nye the Science Guy, but Nye cited various pending disagreements with Disney that he hoped to resolve within the next year.

“Anytime Bill Nye comes he’s an exciting speaker. What strikes me is that not only are his jokes funny but he has a big point to make,” said Prof. Bruce Lewenstein, communication, coordinator of the lecture. “It was a real lecture, and he had a point: [to inspire] students to make the next round [of discoveries]. It’s Bill Nye the comic versus Professor Bill Nye.”

Patrick Yu ’06, a mechanical engineering major like Nye, enjoyed the lecture.

“It was inspiring to hear him talk about the solar sails project, having a small spacecraft explode into big sails to explore the skies. It matched up with what I was learning in my [spacecraft engineering] class.”

Archived article by Julie Geng
Sun Senior Writer