Bill Nye is all about harnessing power these days: the power of the Sun, the power of human exploration, the power of climate change, and the power of the people.
“Science is the best idea humans have ever had,” said Mr. Nye. A bold claim but not an entirely unexpected one from Bill Nye “The Science Guy.”
He may have begun his career as the whacky teacher kids loved to watch, but nowadays Nye is a brighter and louder firecracker for “controversial” science. “Controversial” in quotations not because what he says is scientifically controversial, but because it is politically.
In the last decade, Nye has become an ardent crusader for The Planetary Society – which celebrated its 35th anniversary over the weekend – and for climate change action. To delve deeper, “The Science Guy” sat down with IFLScience to talk climate change, the next generation, and space exploration.
The Power of Climate Change
His new book Unstoppable tackles that very topic. “It’s the most important book ever written,” he said in a deadpan voice, before cracking a smile and getting serious. “My premise is that climate change is the most serious problem we have and it’s daunting. Part of the reason that there are so many deniers being heard is because the problem seems intractable.”
If that’s the excuse, Nye has decided to do what he does best: Make it understandable. He packages it direct, simple, and alarming: “Climate change is coming, and it is coming right at you.”
Although this sounds like a phrase a pessimist would throw around, at its heart the book is optimistic – a call to the public to help because he believes, “If we just agreed to get to work on this problem, we would solve it.”
That’s not to say it’s going to be easy. There are definite hurdles to combating climate change, not the least of which is political. And just because you can diagnose the problem, doesn’t mean you can treat it. There is the problem of harnessing vast amounts of energy, inventing transportation that is both eco-friendly and wallet-friendly, mitigating agricultural contributions to global warming, and so on.
However, his passion for climate change action has also shined over into his work for interplanetary space. One example of that is the LightSail project – a small spacecraft that hitched a ride on a rocket, was lifted into low-Earth orbit, and then propelled along by photons from the Sun.
The Power of the People
If we can harness the power of the Sun on Earth, why not also harness it in space? That was the question first proposed by Carl Sagan, founder of The Planetary Society, and continued by dedicated professionals within the organization.
The LightSail project was a long time coming, to say the least. Packed and ready to use for almost two years, the spacecraft's solar sails stayed stored away until earlier this year. The Kickstarter fund for LightSail garnered more than 23,000 backers who contributed over $1 million dollars (£650,000) toward the solar sailing endeavor – a powerful statement by the public, who will help launch the primary mission in 2016.
“Seeing if it would deploy was a really big question, and will the cameras work and will the telemetry work,” said Nye, referring to the test flight in June 2015. “So we used it as a test flight to show that this would work.”
The purpose of LightSail is to use the Sun’s rays to glide through space in a similar way to how seafarers once harnessed the power of the wind to sail the seas. Of course, the Sun isn’t pushing the spacecraft with the same amount of force as an ocean blasted by gusts of wind.
Instead, the force of photons from the sun pushing on the spacecraft is about the same as the force of a housefly sitting on one’s hand. For a few glorious weeks, the spacecraft sailed by the light of the Sun.
Image: On June 8, 2015, LightSail took this image of its deployed solar sails. Credit: The Planetary Society
The Power of Human Exploration
Earth may be a spinning lump in the universe, but it’s not a specimen that scientists can pick up with tweezers and study in the lab.
“Keep in mind, climate change was really discovered on Venus,” said Nye. “Don’t want to be Venus. Don’t want to be Mars. And you wouldn’t know that if you didn’t explore Venus and Mars.”
At its essence, it is a study of comparisons. To understand life on Earth, sometimes you have to explore what life off Earth is like. That proved in part to be the case with Venus, Mars and the burgeoning climate change revelation.
In the 1950s and 1960s, these two planets appeared to be similar to Earth. That is, until scientists learned of their vastly different atmospheres. Venus was actually a hot planetary furnace, spurred on by the greenhouse effect. Mars, on the other hand, could stiffen limbs in a cold freeze. We quickly learned as Earthlings that the atmosphere and climate is a delicate thing to mess with – and it just so happens, we are messing around with ours.
Nye, however, is not messing around... at least, not when it comes to climate change action and getting humans – not just robots – to Mars. He’s recently been an outspoken advocate of a human-driven Mars mission, rather than a solely robotic one.
“From a scientific standpoint, if you had humans in the vicinity of Mars, they will be able to tele-operate robots on the surface,” said Nye. “In the bigger picture, if humans were out there, they would be explorers. And when you explore, two things happen: You make discoveries, which you can do with robots, but you will also have an adventure, and there’s no substitute for that. What gets people excited is when humans are in space.”
Image: The strata at the base of Mount Sharp on Mars. The image was taken by NASA's Curiosity rover. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
The Planetary Society recently released a report on “Humans Orbiting Mars” by 2033, demonstrating a possible means to get to Mars quicker and within the same budget as other, longer-term plans (after adjusting for inflation).
But, of course, there are other plans churning out there too, one of which is Mars One – the highly publicized, highly criticized goal of Bas Lansdorp to create a human settlement on the Red Planet, with the first crewed mission to start in 2026.
Nye had a few choice words for this initiative: “Mars One is absolutely not viable. Hair-brained, you can’t do it. He wants to do it for $4 billion dollars, which you can’t do.”
“If you want to try it, go to Antarctica for a couple years and don’t even breathe the air. Take your own air for two years and see how much fun it is,” he added. “I think people are a little confused by the model, or the story, of European settlers coming across North America. Much more analogous is the scientific base we have in Antarctica, where there are a couple hundred people there all the time. Not thousands of people having babies and raising crops and stuff. It’s a bitterly cold, hostile place. But scientifically of great importance.”
So what does this all mean for space exploration?
“We have to keep exploring space. It is not a question of pursuing this technology or that technology, improving the lives of these people or those people. You want to do everything all at once. If we did not keep looking up and out, what would that say about us?”
He paused for a moment and added: “We are made of stardust. There are some other rogue dust, but mostly stardust. And we can understand that. So you and I are at least one way the universe knows itself. That is moving. It fills me with reverence.”