August 28, 2011

Bill Nye ’77 Dedicates Solar Clock and Inspires Cornell Scientists

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Bill Nye ’77, host of the famed PBS program  “Bill Nye: The Science Guy,” spoke at Cornell on Saturday to dedicate a new solar clock that is embedded in the façade of Frank T. Rhodes Hall.

Close to 800 enthusiastic students and teachers greeted Nye, who, at a packed Statler Auditorium, detailed the history of the solar clock and encouraged Cornellians to challenge scientific norms and work toward positive change.

Nye explained that his interest in sundials and solar time dates back to the imprisonment of his father, Ned Nye, in World War II. Ned lived as a prisoner of war for nearly four years, and without access to electricity, he relied on sundials to keep track of time. To demonstrate his life-long interest in the technology, Bill Nye showed Saturday’s crowd a picture of a sundial he built out of a pizza box.

The solar clock was designed to capture and to emit the sun’s rays three minutes before and after the exact time of solar noon, or when the sun is at its highest point.

Prof. Michel Louge, mechanical and aerospace engineering, who hosted a tour of Nye’s clock on Aug. 22, said that solar time differs from “legal time” — the standard that the U.S. government uses — due to events like Daylight Saving Time and the constant rotation of the Earth.

Nye also said that keeping precise time with sundials was incredibly difficult, because of constant changes in the spatial relation between the Earth and the sun.

“The way we have the time on our watches and cellphones — with milliseconds — you try to get that with a sundial, it’s nuts,” Nye said. “The earth’s orbit is an ellipse, the Earth is tilted, the atmosphere is refracting … it’s crazy.”

Although the Electric Time Company of Medfield, Mass., constructed the new clock in Rhodes, Louge said that Nye designed and Cornell engineering students built the “microcontroller” that calculates the exact time of the solar noon.

After Nye’s speech, he led the crowd outside to Hoy Baseball Field to observe the illumination of the clock during solar noon.

“Your fellow students at Cornell made the controller,” Nye said. “A very well-known outdoor clock company said they could not do it — it was beyond their expertise — but the Cornell students made this controller.”

After the dedication speech, Nye exited Hoy Field , shaking hands and hugging several students.

Several students who attended Nye’s lecture and dedication said that his T.V. program was instrumental in shaping their view of science and fostering a passion for learning.

“He was the first exposure to science I ever had,” Kristina Chyn ’14 said. “This is why I’m in CALS.”

Natalie Depew ’14 said that Nye’s show encouraged her to try science experiments at home, and Austin Kang ’15 said it changed his entire view of science.

“For me, science wasn’t that interesting,” Kang said. “I didn’t like science because it seemed kind of distant . . . [Nye’s] videos really made it relevant.”

Prof. Bruce V. Lewenstein, communications, who was mentioned in Nye’s speech Saturday, said that people like Nye play a unique role in advancing the public’s perception of science beyond a stigmatized view of boring academia.

“What people forget is that [Nye] isn’t just being funny about science. Each of his lectures, each of his shows, has very specific learning goals,” Lewenstein said. “He wants kids and adults excited about science, but he also wants them to learn.”

Lewenstein said Nye “has a gift for making jokes while explaining things,” but does not do so simply to be funny.

“He has chosen to use his gift to get people interested in science,” he said, adding that on Saturday, Nye “had some specific points about using the breadth of an institution like Cornell to address real problems in the world.”

For example, Nye addressed the challenge of climate change, telling students that it was going to be up to them to decide the future of the planet.

“These issues are going to get stronger,” Nye said. “And you, as Cornellians, whether you’re an engineer, or a physicist, or a scientist, or an attorney, or a public policy person … you will be involved in this. It’s going to be up to you.”

“You will be able to,” Nye said, “dare I say it? Change the world.”

Original Author: Byron Kittle