Bill Nye Wants to Save the World and Make You Less Stupid, Too

The Science Guy talks about his new Netflix show, saluting Buzz Aldrin and why going to Mars is potentially easier than we think.

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Apr 25 2017, 9:57am

If you've ever wanted to see Brooklyn rapper Desiigner, supermodel Karlie Kloss, and someone dressed as a giant panda explain how climate change affects your daily life, then Bill Nye Saves the World is very much up your alley. The 61-year-old science educator (affectionately known to millions as the "Science Guy") has a new show on Netflix, nearly 20 years after the daytime TV show that introduced him to a legion of 90s kids, Bill Nye the Science Guy. But he's quick to note in the opening minutes of the show's first episode that it's not explicitly for kids, instead targeting "you grown-up kids all over the world" as a potential audience.

Bill Nye Saves the World indeed tackles issues that are on the minds of inquisitive adults and the ill-informed alike—from gender and sexuality, to vaccines, to conspiracies ranging from chemtrails to crop circles. Even if Nye doesn't end up, uh, saving the world with his new show, he's at the least taking a stab at making it more well-informed, which is an admirable and ambitious goal for anyone with a platform to have.

We talked with Nye about the show's aims, saluting Buzz Aldrin at New York Fashion Week (really), and how climate change is scarier than 9/11. During our conversation, he asked if he should put his phone "on stun," which is above all else an indication that trying to save the world doesn't mean you have to lose your sense of humor.

VICE: When this interview was confirmed, I was looking forward to talk about climate change with you. Yesterday, it was 70 degrees here in New York—today, there's 12 inches of snow.
Bill Nye: Nothing to worry about. It's just a little climate change. It's fine.

In the past, educational TV has traditionally been geared toward children.
Well, science TV shows are popular. Discovery Channel, National Geographic, Science Channel—those TV channels didn't exist before. [Educational TV] was just public broadcasting. When Bill Nye the Science Guy was on, there was a rule from the Federal Communications Commission that you had to have three hours of educational programming a week, so we were at the right place at the right time. People love to hate the Gores. But that was because of Tipper Gore. Now, people want to watch [educational TV] just because they want to watch it.

It's very obvious, though, that there are more people than ever who really don't know anything about science.
Or don't know enough. It's not that everybody has to be a scientist, but we want them to be scientifically literate—just to have an appreciation for it.

Was that in the back of your mind when you decided to do this show?
Well, who doesn't want to have his or her own talk show? It's a talk show with a scientific perspective about issues that affect all of us in society. For the first 13 episodes, we chose issues that have a scientific aspect to them—climate change, vaccines, human sexuality. Those all are informed by the process of science. I hope we get renewed. I don't know if we will.

I saw a clip from the show where you were conducting an experiment. When I watched you on TV as a child, it was one of the only places outside of the classroom where you could see someone conduct a science experiment. Now, there's YouTube.
The trouble is, you can fake those demonstrations. If you watched popcorn get popped with cellphones—phones don't pop popcorn. Sorry. There was one where a human slingshot throws a guy across most of a football field, and he lands in a tank of water. It didn't really happen. Sorry. The skill we want to imbue in students—and everybody in society—is what I call 'filtering,' where you have to learn to think critically about stuff that you see online or read. That's part of the mission of the show: to save the world.

There's a notion that being on Netflix, and being untethered from broadcast TV, means you have more creative freedom. What does that mean for you?
We have no commercial breaks. The show can have a more organic quality, and it can be as long as it needs to be. That's big fun. It's about the same as making a regular television show, except it's officially rated PG-13 rather than G. The topics that are discussed might have a little more sophistication or experience from the audience.

Would you say it's still kid-friendly?
Well, yeah. It's PG-13—it's "kid-fascinating." People of all ages want to talk about sex. For Bill Nye the Science Guy, we talked a lot about having a show about sex. It never happened, but we did a show about flowers, which was basically the sex show with different nouns—eggs and pollen, instead of eggs and sperm. Pretty much the same show, really.

Over the past few years, it seems like there's been a resurgence of interest in who you are and what you do.
That's because I'm so interesting. I don't know, though. People who watched the show came of age, I guess.

It's interesting, because America's always had a fickle relationship with science.
Everybody likes space exploration, and everybody still talks about landing on the moon. People still have tremendous respect for astronauts, but everyone runs around terrified of genetically modified foods. Forty acres of land was intended to raise food for a family of four with a little bit of surplus. Now, 40 acres raises food for more than 100 people. That's through science.

Sometimes it seems like we don't talk enough about global warming and climate change just because there's so much other shit that's going on right now.
The trouble with climate change is, viscerally, it takes too long. It's in slow-motion. Its a problem far more serious, in the biggest picture, than 9/11—but because it happens so slowly, people don't need to take it as seriously in the short term. But we're trying to get people excited about it! And addressing climate change is going to be all about science and technology.

I saw pictures of you and Buzz Aldrin walking the runway at New York Fashion Week. How did that happen?
A couple of years ago, I met Nick Graham, the designer who invented Joe Boxer. We started talking about making a line of bow ties, and then he asked me to be in his fashion show. It was cool, big fun. He wanted to have a space theme, and we got Buzz Aldrin to show up.

When you're doing something like that, do you have mentally prepare for it in a different way than when you're working with science?
It's a performance. You're a performer. I actually did quite a bit of talking at that show. The high point, for me, was saluting Buzz Aldrin. It was cool, because he just saluted back—it's deeply wired in his military soul. I've spent a lot of time with Buzz over the years. I'm the CEO of the Planetary Society, which advances space science and exploration. Buzz Aldrin is a big part of the history of space, and he's a big advocate [of going back]. He has a slogan: "Get your ass to Mars." That's one of his big things. He wants to go be on the moon.

Do you think that's going to happen in our lifetime?
What we're doing is advocating to the incoming people at NASA and the administration writ large that if they want to leave a positive, great legacy—and who doesn't want to leave a great legacy?—they need to advance Mars exploration. That involves robotic exploration, the Mars sample return mission, looking for a suitable landing site, working out the arrangements that have to be made with the Planetary Protection Office, and getting people in orbit around Mars. In 2033, you can do that without increasing the NASA budget. You could do it in 2028 if you threw a little money at the problem. We're talking about orbiting first and landing in subsequent years, which is how we explored the moon. Apollo 8 orbited the moon before people landed and walked there.

Right now, there's no business case for going to Mars—you're not going to go to Mars and sell stuff. You might sell a few tickets to people who claim they don't want to come back, but that's a very small market. You can do it without increasing the NASA budget if you just decided to commit to it—as well as by retiring NASA's current enormous commitment to the Space Station in 2024, when the contracts run out. Somebody else can fund the Space Station's happy microgravity experiments, and meanwhile the federally funded missions would go out to Mars.

Follow Larry Fitzmaurice on Twitter.

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