Bill Nye, the science educator known to many for his PBS show “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” encouraged a large crowd at CEMEX Auditorium to follow their curiosity and “change the world” Friday night.
Nye emerged on stage to cries of “Bill! Bill! ”, a reference to the theme song of his children’s show, as he joined moderator and Vice President of Education for the Department of Emergency Medicine Michael Gisondi for an hour-long question and answer period. During an evening highlighted by messages about the challenges and importance of science communication, Nye made jokes about technology and shared anecdotes about his misadventures as an up-and-coming stand-up comedian.
In the open-ended question portion of the evening, Nye advised students on how to strengthen science communication in a politically polarized society. He stressed the need to engage “the other side” in an open dialogue. Although those with “extraordinary beliefs” can deny the science anytime they hear it, Nye said, consistent efforts to change their views can pay off.
“Listen to the other side and quietly demystify it,” Nye said.
Nye has previously been frowned upon for his efforts to follow this same mantra, with his high-profile debate with young Earth creationist Ken Ham being criticized by some for giving creationists a platform. On Friday, Nye expressed hope that her debate with Ham would help sway those with creationist beliefs, noting that the Youtube video of her debate with Ham has received millions of views.
The self-proclaimed “Science Guy” opened the evening by tracing his winding journey from boy scout to mechanical engineer. But his comedy debut came when he won a regional Steve Martin lookalike contest. After years of aspirations in science, his decision to leave the profession ultimately ended in disappointment with a growing culture of mediocrity in engineering. Nye told an anecdote about the design of the Ford Pinto, whose faulty fuel tank design caused it to burst into flames in rear-end collisions. The car embodies the mediocrity that drove him off the field.
His debut as a “Science Guy”, he said, came completely by coincidence. After a guest failed to show up for a Seattle comedy show called “Almost Live!”, Nye was tasked by one of the show’s co-hosts to fill in six minutes of screen time. The result, Nye said, was a bit about home uses of liquid nitrogen. The name “Bill Nye the Science Guy” was an offhand remark by one of the show’s other co-hosts, Nye said.
Nye also told his Stanford audience that interns working on his PBS show would receive a “Rules of the Road” document outlining production guidelines. At the top of the document, he said, was written the purpose of the show: “To change the world.” Nye implored the students to seize the opportunity to make an impact.
“The world has never been so weird,” Nye said. “But it’s also, frankly, never been so cool.”
Nye encouraged students to engage in segments of the field that captivate them. He promoted the Planetary Society, a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing space exploration, of which he is the chief executive. According to Nye, space research has never been more important, especially when it comes to planetary defense against asteroids, which he pointed out could lead to a complete “erasure” of human civilization.
“This is the most exciting era of space exploration since the Apollo missions,” Nye said.
Many people take for granted the ubiquity of “space assets” in our daily lives, Nye added, citing the success of Ukrainian fighters as an example of the importance of space-related technology. Ukraine managed to avoid being overwhelmed in part thanks to assets like GPS that help track opposing Russian forces, Nye said.
“The discoveries we make in space change the world,” he said.
Nye left the crowd of Stanford students and educators with a message about the importance of resilience in life and in science. Responding to a student who asked Nye if he had ever “forgotten how [he] loved science, proclaiming that she had just failed mid-term physics, Nye reflected on how he too had once failed a major exam as an undergraduate student at Cornell University. But more than four decades into a career that took him from budding engineer to comedian, to TV star to educator, Nye said he’s realized how much his early academic struggles ultimately had. little importance.
“Learn from this and move on,” urged Nye. “There’s nothing cooler than science.”