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Friday, March 5, 2010

Interview with Bill Nye the Science Guy: 5 Bikes, 150 Bow Ties, Infinite Puns!

Posted by Sarah Mirk on Fri, Mar 5, 2010 at 1:45 PM

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I just got off the phone with Bill Nye the Science Guy! The actual Bill Nye the Science Guy! If he's not a life-long hero of yours, maybe you're not a nerd who watched children's television in the 90s. Bill Nye, in addition to performing for a brief while as a superhero named The Speedwalker, hosted a pop science show from 1993-1997. He'll be in Portland Thursday, March 11, giving a talk in support for the Mt Saint Helens Institute a the First Congregational Church (1126 SW Park).

We talked about volcanoes, climate change, his dad's stint in a prison camp, and most importantly, arts intern Jane's request for his hand in marriage (surprise answer at the end of the interview!).


MERCURY: This is really a thrill. I watched your show a lot growing up.

BILL NYE: And you’re still talking to me!

Yeah, I wasn't scarred for life.

Well, there's still time.

Ha! Okay, first of all. Why did you move to LA from Seattle? How can someone who's concerned about climate change live somewhere so car-centric and smoggy?

It’s where the biz is! It’s where they make television, whoever they are. And it’s not smoggy. In fact, Seattle has a lot of smog. And I’ve been in Portland on a three mountain day where you can see the layer of brown haze.


You're coming up here again next week for a talk in support of the Mt. Saint Helen's called "Volcanoes Change the World and So Can You!" Um... why should humans be more like volcanoes?

Volcanoes affect the earth’s atmosphere and so do humans. Volcanoes serve to cool the world off and we should, too.


Okay, good to know. When I put up a post on my Twitter about interviewing you, I got a huge ecstatic response. I've got a lot of questions here from readers, so I'll just run through them. First off: "How many bow ties do you have and where do you buy them?"

Oh, I don't know. Over 150. Over 150. You go the science teacher convention and they just hand them out. I also buy them from Beau Ties of Vermont.

Kevin asks: "How has being a pop culture star of the 90s affected your role as a scientist?" Wait, are you even a scientist or just a TV host?

Well, I’m a mechanical engineer. I use science to solve problems and make things. I’m a science educator. What do I have to do to be a scientist? Science is the best idea humans have ever had and we've had a lot of ideas. Science is a process, a way we understand the world. It is essential to our survival. No ancient cave person behaved part well unless they were acting scientifically. But these days we have less and less people who are acting scientifically and we have a decreasing fraction of people who understand science. That is a formula for disaster!

Okay. Dinae asks, "What is your favorite dinosaur?"

I’m never going to say my favorite.

Why not? They're all dead. You don't have to be coy about playing favorites.

The ancient dinosaurs are still dead. But their descendants, birds are still with us. Who doesn’t love a velociraptor? But in general, I’d rather be alive than dead and hummingbirds are pretty cool. Don’t make me pick!

Okay, next question. This one if from Brad, our office manager. "Do you follow the classic Copenhagen observer based theory or the Many-Worlds theory of quantum mechanics?"

The Many Worlds theory seems counter-intuitive. But this is why we pursue these things. Last weekend I was in Cambridge in UK and I was giving Stephen Hawking this award. Stephen Hawking solved two or three gigantic problems in astrophysicists but the multi-universe problem is not one of them.

This one is from my brother: "Is there a way to explain global warming that is so simple — perhaps involving a balloon and a tongue depressor or something — it will convince people to stop denying that it's real?"

Would but that there were. Our problem with climate change is it’s so subtle and slow and gigantic, it doesn’t seem possible to most people. It doesn’t seem like you going about your everyday business could influence the climate of an entire planet. And that would be true if there weren’t 7 billion of us. Also, the atmosphere is very thin. It’s only 30 miles. Thirty miles and you’re in space! The data for climate change are overwhelming, the deniers are really a problem. They could end the world! The sea jellys and the cockroaches will still be around, but we'll be gone because of climate change.

A couple people asked about your family. Someone said they heard you were the only non-scientist in your family.

No, my parents weren't scientists but they were very, very supportive of science. My grandfather was an organic chemist. My nephew and his wife are both chemical engineers, so somehow that tradition has slipped through. My father spent those years of his life in prison camp in Japan and China.

A prison camp? During World War II?

My dad was on this little thing called Wake Island and they were bombed on Dec 7, 1941. They defended the island for a couple weeks but they were all captured on Christmas Eve. My dad wrote in his diary that it was the saddest day of his life. He was in camps for 44 months! Longer than any other US forces! It did pretty much suck. After that he wasn’t going to go back to law school. But he came back fascinated with sundials and I was brought up with the sundials culture and now there are two sundials on Mars [which Bill Nye helped design].

That's amazing. Okay, last question, from our arts intern Jane. She says, "Billy Nye is my ideal mate. Please ask him if he will marry me. Also, how many bikes does he have?"

I have five bikes. I have to ask a question about Jane.

Go ahead.

Is she hot?

I think so.

That sounds great.

That’s your only question?! Is she hot?

Well, I think I should meet her.

You can meet her next week at your talk!

Well, I’m very excited to be coming up to Portland and I’m very excited to get people excited about the support the Mount Saint Helen's institute! We have a real volcano in the Pacific NW that is unlike any other in that people were hovering over it when life came back to this supposedly barren landscape. And it’s in your backyard my friends! It’s exciting!

Before I let you go, do you have any volcano puns you want to share?

I wrote a bunch of stuff for the next t-shirt: Tectonic Plates Rock, Mt Saint Helens is Magmalicious, Let’s shed some “dacite” on the issue, Da Lava is Da Bomb!, Welcome to… the subduction zone!; Lava, Tectonics, Lahars, oh my!

Oh boy.

Check out Bill Nye's talk next Thursday, March 11th ! Here's the info:
"Volcanoes Can Change the World and So Can You", First Congregational Church (1126 SW Park), $5 kids, $15 adults. All the proceeds go to the Mount St. Helens Institute, a non-profit that works to promote stewardship of Mount St. Helens and the Pacific Northwest Volcanic landscapes.

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