“To me there has never been a higher source of earthly honor or distinction than that connected with advances in science.”
- Isaac Newton.
With the current state of NASA and dwindling scientific accomplishments of the United States, who can people turn to in the search for hope for the sciences? I think I know someone. You may know him as the “Science Guy,” but Bill Nye is also a nice guy. I should know — I actually met him once. In fact, he even let me ask a few questions — some personal, some random, most of them about science. In case you are not familiar with Mr. Nye’s accomplishments, let me name a few: wrote and produced his own television show (“Bill Nye the Science Guy”), worked as a consultant for NASA, is the current Executive Director of The Planetary Society, and … well, you get the picture. At this point, I feel any more introduction is unnecessary, and so please enjoy NMR’s exclusive interview with William Sanford “Bill” Nye.
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So how are you doing today?
Busy. It’s busy. It’s exciting — there is a lot going on in planetary science today.
I noticed you have a lot of books, a lot of collections.
Most are planetary science. These books go back to 1980. I see over there Louis Friedman’s book on solar sailing. I bought that when I was in engineering school back in the disco era in the 1970s, and and we’re now just trying to get our solar sail flying.
You recently hosted a space station show that was live streamed. What was your experience hosting something for YouTube as opposed to traditional television?
Oh, really it’s very similar, very much the same. I would say one difference — I’m of an age where we used to have videotape, and you had a roll and didn’t have graphics or animations go by. You’d wait for the tape to be rewound, but now it’s almost instant. With that said, it wasn’t that much different. We had animation of spiders jumping, we had animation of bacteria growing, but it was very much like doing any other television show except I’m sure you realize the cameras are getting more and more compact. You can get a lot more stuff on the same space.
You’re very popular on the social media site Reddit.com. Memes are constantly being uploaded to the front page about you. How do you feel about being an internet rock star?
So far I love being an internet rock star — who wouldn’t? The modern word is monetizing. I found that when I go into, for example Starbucks, the price of a soy latte is pretty much the same whether or not you are a new media rockstar. Doesn’t seem to affect the cost of the drink which is appropriate.
You speak at a lot of events and universities. What do you enjoy most about that?
Oh, my favorite part is the question and answer. So I talk, I of course am funny, charming, compelling, thought-provoking, but when people ask me questions, that really is my favorite part. So I look forward to that.
The White House budget forecast released in September says that NASA may lose more than $1.3 billion in funding next year. What are your thoughts on this?
Well, we as a planetary society, this is what we do. We advocate for space exploration, especially planetary space exploration. We acknowledge that cuts have to be made to balance the budget in the United States. With that said, I claim we argue that planetary science is what NASA does best. Nobody else can land a rover on Mars, there’s nobody. Other space agencies, the Russian space agency is 0 for 21 at Mars, Europe is 0 for 1 at Mars. Depending how you reckon, you could say the U.S. is 6 for 7 or is somewhere like 20 for 21 depending on how you count, but landing on Mars is quite difficult, and we do not want to lose that credibility. There are two questions that trouble us all since we are little kids from the time of our youth: Where did we come from, and are we alone? And those two questions drive us all. Are we alone? Are there aliens? Is there somebody else out there? Is this the only place that there is life in the universe? And where did it all start? We discovered the big bang, but what was before that? Is that even a meaningful question? Was there something before the big bang? Is this the only universe? Could there be another? And all these questions, if you want to answer them, you have to explore space, and you have to explore space generally beyond lower earth orbit. And this is a bargain, 309 million a year. Talk about Starbucks, that is one cup of coffee per person — that’s it! And we fund the whole thing, so there is a lot of competing interest but we at The Planetary Society are very concerned about planetary science funding, and we acknowledge that after the budget cuts we think planetary science has the greatest value. Invest.
What can we do to help encourage more funding for space exploration?
You could join us at The Planetary Society, and we give you a voice to the U.S. Congress, the U.S. administration. We have a lot of members assigned in Denmark, Japan, Germany. These are people who don’t live in the U.S. — Argentina — who are concerned about funding for NASA, and as the guy for Argentina said, “If I don’t have you guys, who do I have? If I don’t have NASA, who do we have in space?” And so we have the European Space Agency as well, but NASA spends three times as much as anyone, so they are significant. If you want to do something about it, if you want to preserve space exploration, I ask you join The Planetary Society, planetary.org. And I say this all the time, space brings out the best in us. It raises everybody’s expectations in our society of what’s possible. Everybody believes, “Well, of course we can do this,” because we’ve already been to the moon, or we’ve already got a rover on Mars, or a plutonium battery taking super sharp pictures, discovering sedimentary rocks, rocks that were once wet on the surface of Mars. These missions make everybody expect more and do more, technically, which raises the economy for the United States and for everybody in the world. There’s European instruments all over the Curiosity rover. It’s a worldwide effort.
With Moore’s Law and rapidly moving technological advancements, do you think humans will experience a singularity anytime soon?
Singularity is on our site where there is a machine as smart as a human that can think as fast and as well and the same way as a human. It’s quite reasonable in 30 years. It’s quite reasonable. And just to remind everybody, you have to plug that thing in. There is somebody somewhere shoving coal that you develop one computer or a family of computers that think like a community. If you unplug them, they don’t go anywhere, they don’t do anything as far as I can tell. So everybody, as interesting and significant as that might be, feeding people in the developing world, providing energy for the developing world, clean water for the developing world, these are much more difficult problems to solve. But indeed, if you have a machine as capable as the human brain, maybe it would help you solve these problems, to be sure. But I remind everybody, as soon as you unplug it, the machine is done. It’s not quite the same as creating life from scratch or a robot that does your bidding with no energy. It’s cool to change things, but it may not prove as significant as people think, especially in the short immediate term.