The first time I met Bill Nye, then the “Science Guy” and host of the eponymous PBS show, I was seven years old. Nye was going to sign my copy of Big Blue Ocean—a children’s book he co-wrote with colleague Ian Saunders—at the Camden Aquarium in New Jersey, and I was so excited I planned my outfit the night before. Thanks to my dedicated parents, I was first in line to meet my childhood hero.
The second time I met Bill Nye, it was 18 years later at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. Nye was in town to celebrate the winners of ExploraVision, the world’s largest science fair, and had agreed to sit down with me for 30 minutes. I had already been pondering a question that no one else in the world would be more qualified to answer, so I put it to him: In today’s chaotic, overwhelming news cycle, how do you keep a childlike sense of wonder and optimism alive?
Like many millennials, I grew up on Bill Nye the Science Guy. Back then, Nye was unabashedly dorky in the best way: He wore a lab coat and bowtie, and laughed at his own puns. His enthusiasm explaining concepts made watching the show feel like a personal experience. Like Nye was so happy that you were here, and that photosynthesis, volcanoes, space, matter, or whatever he was talking about was the best thing he had ever heard, and he couldn’t wait to share it with a friend.
Bill Nye Saves the World, which launched on Netflix in Dec. 2017, shares some of that enthusiasm, but is more subdued. It seems like it wants to be cool enough for an older audience—probably the same people who enjoyed Science Guy as kids and are now grown up. The topics of the new show are more complicated, and are sometimes politicized, including issues like global water shortages, addiction, and sexuality and gender.
The dichotomy of these two shows demonstrate my dilemma: Optimism and a sense of wonder feel like scarce resources in the 21st century. The current US president has made it clear he is anti-science, and his rise to power seems to have coincided with a similar trend of vocal flat-Earthers, anti-vaxxers, and bogus wellness gurus. Additionally, the news is full of anxious uncertainty, what with geopolitical tensions and threats of nuclear war, violent conflicts over land disputes, a trade war that could greatly disrupt markets and national alliances, and new records for global warming set practically every month.
Nye walked into a small, windowless meeting room of the press club on Friday morning. He wore his signature bowtie, but had swapped out the lab coat for a sports jacket. It was a muggy summer DC day, but Nye seemed lively. He was excited to be back in his home town, he said—he was going to a Nationals game that night! He boasted that he was a fan when DC’s home team was the Senators. When I didn’t recognize the name, he took out his phone to show me pictures of seats in the new Nats stadium that are memorialized for players on the old Senators teams who hit impressive home runs. I felt encouraged: Here was someone who, at his core, was just genuinely excited and eager to share.
When I finally got to it, Nye disagreed with the premise of my question. Curiosity about science never really dies, he told me. “Everybody is curious. Our ancestors who weren’t curious never really were our ancestors; they got out-competed by the curious people,” he said. It was curiosity that drove Ptolemy to study the stars and eventually develop the theory that the sun revolved around the Earth, and it was curiosity that eventually led Copernicus to challenge him centuries later and suggest it was actually the other way around. Copernicus’ theory ended up being right, which is why humans all over have been able to use the stars to navigate the trackless oceans that cover the world.
Curiosity, though, isn’t enough on its own. “You have to be optimistic or you’re not going to get anything done,” Nye said. As a pair, they’re a powerful force. “This idea that you can figure something out is the essence of science,” he told me as he reclined back in his chair. When Bill Nye speaks, he often does so with his whole body—leaning forward or backward, gesturing for emphasis. It made the empty meeting room feel fuller.
It’s this scientific mindset, Nye argues, that has led to truly positive change. Nye brought up the fact that the people who wrote the US Constitution considered themselves natural philosophers—1700s-speak for “scientists,” he said. “They went about designing a government in a scientific way. They were optimistic; they were nerds. It’s very admirable.”
And one of the most scientific aspects about the constitutional framework? It was built to change as needed.
Scientists recognize that everything is knowable. “Which is very different from ‘you know everything,’” Nye clarified. When those natural philosophers wrote the constitution and the bill of rights, they allowed for some wiggle room to update the laws and principles as needed; they knew they couldn’t predict the future and the needs of generations to come.
In a way, scientists do the same. Years of careful experimentation have set the current standards for what we know to be true about the natural world. And yet, scientists constantly demand to know more about the environment, planet, and universe they inhabit, and so they are (mostly) comfortable with making way for new ideas. If rigorous testing overturns current conventional wisdom, scientists will set new standards, and tweak their current hypotheses. Although change isn’t always easy to accept it’s how we make progress, and to them, it’s a never-ending quest.
Nye is optimistic that our culture will revert to a more pro-science stance, and that science will continue to improve our lives. Why? Because being anti-science will result in, well, failures. “When it comes to a government, you’re not going to be able to compete economically if you deny science or don’t embrace science,” Nye said. “If you try to stay healthy by not vaccinating your population…more of your people will get sick and you’ll be less productive. If you don’t embrace farming as a scientific process, you will fall behind other countries.” Nye believes that though we may stumble along the way, we’re all going to figure out that we need science—in our education systems, in our governments, and in our mindsets—to thrive.
After we had been talking for a while, Nye checked his phone for the first time. He cheekily told me that he had to send the world’s most important email, and because he had spoken so earnestly before, I believed him. Rather than making fun of me, he politely told me he was kidding—he just needed to do a few things before his next set of meetings and eventual celebration of the students. In the final minute of our interview, I asked him what his favorite part of his job was.
He grinned. “When you’re in love, you want to tell the world.”