October 21, 2005

An Interview With 'Science Guy' Nye

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All this week, famed television-show host Bill Nye “the Science Guy” ’77 has been staying at the new Carl L. Becker House on West Campus, where he has been eating meals with students and speaking on the newest in the world of science. Yesterday afternoon, Nye spoke with The Sun on hurricanes, his old boss, stem-cell research, women in the sciences, and the “Bill Nye the Science Guy” drinking game.

Sun: So, I assume you’ve been following the hurricanes lately-

Bill Nye ’77: Well, it’s remarkable that this Wilma is the strongest hurricane ever recorded.

Sun: Stronger than Katrina?

BN: Yeah, and stronger than something like Camille, which I grew up with, and there’s another one called Hurricane Betsy when I was a kid.

Sun: Do you think that climate change is fueling these hurricanes?

BN: Yeah, I do. What’s happening is that all the storms are becoming more intense, and so we’re also getting the ones that wouldn’t otherwise make it, so they’re becoming more frequent. If they weren’t getting stronger and more frequent, that would be surprising.

Sun: What have you been up to today?

BN: Well, I went to a big ol’ fancy lunch down at my dormitory…

Sun: In Carl Becker House?

BN: Yeah, Becker. I stayed in Alice Cook House last spring.

Sun: What do you think of them?

BN: They’re awesome. We never had anything like that when I was here.

Sun: Where did you stay when you were a student?

BN: I was in University Hall #1, now called Class of ’17 [Transfer Center]. I was also on North Campus, in High Rise 5. And then I also lived off-campus.

Sun: You come back here quite a bit.

BN: Well, I go from class to class and do lectures. [Yesterday] morning, I did mechanical engineering, fluid mechanics. [Today], I’ll do Astronomy 101, which is a really important class to me, because when I took it, I had Carl Sagan.

Sun: What was it like studying under him?

BN: It was fantastic. The guy was such a compelling lecturer, so passionate, and he would show you stuff you had never seen before. And then a couple of years later, his really well-known show, Cosmos, came out, and it was basically his lectures on television. I own the DVDs now.

Sun: What do you think of Intelligent Design Theory?

BN: It’s horrible. … It’s the creationists, the same four or five authors, who reference each other. … It’s not science because it’s not testable, because they don’t have theories that can shown to be wrong. A good theory has to have a way that it can be shown that it is wrong. And they don’t have it. To rely on the first 16 or 20 verses of Genesis to explain the natural world isn’t smart. … And these people are affecting science education and depriving future generations of a fundamental understanding of the natural world, which would be okay except that we live in a natural world of things that are gonna kill us…

Sun: We’ve talked about evolution, we’ve talked about global warming. The other big scientific issue in the news has been stem-cell research. What do you have to say?

BN: People have to stop and satisfy themselves about what’s a human. Right now, many people believe that life begins at conception, or rather life begins when the sperm fertilizes the egg. … But that’s not sufficient. Fertilized eggs seldom become humans. There’s another vital step, where you have to attach to the uterine wall, and then you have to have these chemical changes, which is called gastrulation. And until you gastrulate, you’re not going to become a person. And I just remind everybody that you look at these lines of stem cells growing in culture, in a version of petri dish, they don’t grow into people. They’ve been growing there since the 1990s. And they’re not people, they’re just cells. … The fertilized egg begins to divide until it becomes a blastocyst, which is a group of about 150 stem cells, which is knocked open to extract the stem cells. And they continue to grow in some form-they’re not dead-and they do not become people.

Sun: Let’s switch gears back to yourself. Bill Nye the Science Guy is no longer on the air, but you have a new show-

BN: Yeah, it’s called the Eyes of Nye. It’s not seen very much. It wasn’t really embraced or supported by public broadcasting. … So, the new show is made for about a third per show of what the old show was made for. And you can tell if you look at it. And the new show covers these politics topics which are important to me: nuclear waste, stem cells, the evolution of sex – which is quite fascinating – and human race. We interviewed people that, by and large, say there’s no such thing as race, that if people whose ancestors are from Asia have sex with people whose ancestors are from Ithaca, they have babies. Everybody’s a human. … even my old boss [laughs].

Sun: Speaking of innate differences, Harvard President Lawrence ignited a furor when he suggested that there might be genetic differences between the brains of men and women that account for women’s’ lower presence in the sciences.

BN: I’m very skeptical of that. Everybody was. One of the keys to the future is raising the standard of living around the world. Science is a human endeavor, science is an idea made up by humans, so, if you’re asking me, half of the scientists should be women. Or 51 percent, whatever the number is. … I’m just very skeptical of the idea that men and women have different aptitudes when it comes to science. … The reductionist process of western science is too good to be messed up by those little differences. Anybody could come to understand it. … men, women, even my old boss.

Sun: I see you have your Cornell bow-tie on. You seem to be a proud alumnus…

BN: Oh my goodness, yeah, very proud. And the campus is better than ever, and the people working here are better than ever, I can’t get over it…

Sun: How else have you seen the school change?

BN: The atmosphere is nicer. It’s less depressing than it was when I was here. It might be hard and miserable for a few people because we’re all crazy and some people don’t fit in, but the professors have much closer relationships with the students than I ever remember. And the students seem to get along better than they ever did. … Then again, I’m not in there taking tests and being under pressure and worrying about getting tuition money together, so my opinion may not be that good.

Sun: How do you think Cornell stacks up against other elite institutions in the sciences?

BN: Well, I’ll tell you, in a certain branch of computational fluid dynamics, we’re as good as anybody. Cornell planetary science is as good as anybody – we’re exploring Mars. The mathematics department seems as good as anybody’s. And another thing: Ezra Cornell, whoever he was, wanted to have women here from the get-go, and the other institutions that we compete with were not that way at all. And I think that tradition of “any person, any study” is still around.

Sun: What sort of advice would you give to the aspiring scientists and engineers here?

BN: I think you’ll have greater job satisfaction if you try to leave the world better than you found it. No one suggests you become a tuned-out idealist not paying attention to anything that goes on around you. But I would suggest that you try to do something you think will improve the world in some way. And we have so many crazy, enormous problems … AIDS, avian flu, giant hurricanes, and global climate change. … And, of course, when things are this precarious, someone’s going to get rich. I just hope that Cornell graduates are part of the process of making the world better.

Sun: On a lighter note, I Googled your name today and came across this [hands Bill a sheet of instructions for the “Bill Nye the Sc
ience Guy Drinking Game”]. Have you seen this?

BN: The drinking game, yeah, this is several years old. I’ve never played, but I see how it would go. … Whenever you hear a specific phrase, you’re supposed to take a drink, I presume, of beer, and I get the impression it’s not non-alcoholic beer. But I’ve never played.

Sun: Thank you so much for your time. Before you go, could you sign the drinking game instructions for me?

BN: Sure thing.

Archived article by Ben Birnbaum
Sun Staff Writer