The Best Idea We’ve Had So Far

The following is adapted from Bill Nye’s speech in acceptance of the 2010 Humanist of the Year Award, presented at the 69th Annual Conference of the American Humanist Association in San Jose, California.

First of all, thank you very much for this award. It’s physically beautiful but, of course, spiritually (can I say spiritually here?) it makes you feel good.

I was very excited to do this talk tonight until just a few minutes ago. Someone came up to me and said, “Is Bill Nye your real name?” And I said, “It’s William Nye.” Everything was going fine but then he said, “Why did you change it?” And this gets into the notion of critical thinking skills and questioning things.

We all have a tendency, in skepticism and to a degree in science education, to find ourselves, dare I say, preaching to the choir. (Did I lose you with that reference? I know many of you have never seen this, but in church, they have a preacher and…) Incidentally, we may assume that the choir is already converted, but we don’t really know that. The choir might just be there singing because they like to sing, but the hope is that they’ll go along. So let’s just say that we have great success in preaching to the choir and it makes us feel good, but we have to do more. We have to reach out.

Now when I say “we,” I’m talking about people who embrace science. In the United States there’s a unique situation where we have, certainly nominally, the most technically advanced society in the world. You can get into fistfights in the space exploration bar about this but the United States still has a very large technological lead in many things, and yet we have this wacky, very influential sector of society that doesn’t believe in evolution. And for me, as a science educator, it’s very troubling. I know this isn’t news to you, choir members, but I believe that the way to solve this problem is by coming up with stories.

People respond to stories. People respond to a beginning, middle, and end that involves a hero who’s had some trouble and then resolves it, and so on. There was a story I was told as a young man. I don’t know if it’s a true story but it always made an impression on me. My grandfather was in the rotary—I’m sure he would’ve been a humanist if he’d known about organized humanism—and they had a convention in Philadelphia. In those days, you rented a tuxedo for such things and he didn’t know how to tie the bowtie. So he went to the hotel room down the hall, knocked on the door, and said, “Excuse me. Can you help me tie this tie?” The guy said, “Sure. Lie down on the bed.” So the story goes my grandfather lay on the bed and the guy tied a perfect bowtie knot. Then my grandfather, a skeptic, said, “Thank you. But why did I have to lie down on the bed?” And the guy explained, “I’m an undertaker.” Even if it’s not a true story, it’s a good story. It’s a good joke. So what we’ve got to do is come up with stories that explain why we believe what we believe, or, if you will, don’t believe in what we don’t believe.

I was brought up in the Episcopal Church and I was very unsatisfied. I used to be one of the speakers and would get up in front of the microphone at the pulpit. (I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that. They have it in church, the pulpit). I would read from this big, thick book that was in arcane English. I liked that part but the rest of it really didn’t make any sense.

For me it’s very much analogous to the ancient dinosaurs. I’m so old, I remember when there wasn’t really any satisfactory explanation for their disappearance. One yarn was that their brains were too small and they were stupid, and so other animals ate them. Come on, if you’re a Tyrannosaurus rex, you’re going to kick some butt. You don’t really need to worry about the small things, do you? (Except, of course, diseases and parasites.) So, anyway, I was very troubled by the lack of explanation for the ancient dinosaurs. It was quite a revelation when people discovered the massive meteor crater under the Yucatan Peninsula and later theorized that its impact caused the dinosaurs’ extinction. Even if it wasn’t the whole story, it was a pretty good one. And then the layer of iridium was discovered around the world and associated with this meteoric multiple-object impact which resolved a huge problem. I’m also so old I remember when it was still kind of a wacky theory that Africa would fit into South America in some fashion, even though the fossil evidence was pretty compelling and the stratigraphy, the layers of geological deposits, were very well associated. But now plate tectonics is the underlying idea in all of geology. Now, it all fits together and everybody says, “Oh, yes, of course. Silly us, yes.”

And so I often wonder what else it is that we’re just completely missing that will integrate all sorts of our current scientific ideas. But we don’t have to know the whole answer right now. What I like to call the PB&J—the passion, beauty, and joy—is in the pursuit of it, right? That’s what we love about science. It is, absolutely, to me, the best idea humans have had. Science. I’ll even say science is the best idea we’ve had so far. It could change, right? Got a better idea? Bring it on.

The big unsatisfying thing for me is when you have a bumper sticker that says, “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.” It doesn’t settle it for me. I was giving a talk in Texas a couple of years ago—this still circulates on the web—at McLennan University, which is a very interesting college near Waco and Crawford. I’d pointed out that it seems reasonable to me that whoever wrote Genesis, as translated into English, where God made the sun to light the earth and the moon to light the night, probably didn’t have the whole story. Because, first of all, the moon doesn’t always light the night. And even ancient Greeks realized that the moon was an object that reflected sunlight. So this woman in the audience picked her kids up by the wrists and dragged them out of the room, shouting, “I believe in God! Bill Nye, you are evil!” That may be, but the moon doesn’t give off its own light. I’m sorry. There’s nothing I can do there. And we all laugh at that, but what we have to do is find the story that is more compelling. And I think we can find that if, instead of focusing on the truth, we focus on the pursuit of it. We focus on the scientific method, the way to find the truth. And by the way, when you were in astronomy class with Carl Sagan, every day there was a story. Every day there was some process by which somebody or some group of individuals had made a discovery.

As you may know, I’m involved in planetary exploration, and I’m on the board of the Planetary Society. I’m also the vice president, which is something that happens when you leave the room. You come back and they say, “Hey, Bill, you’re vice president!” [Nye was named executive director of the Planetary Society in September.] But the thing that’s so wonderful is that seeing a picture of Mars is now routine, and soon Japanese spacecraft are going to take very exciting pictures of Venus. I hope we’re all alive in 2015 when we bring back the first pictures of Pluto. These won’t just be the accomplishments of an individual, but of a society that thought this was a worthy pursuit.

Quite often, people pose a very reasonable question, “Well, how can you be exploring space when there’s so much to do here on Earth?” Well, my friends, think how the world would be if we thought the moon gave off its own light, if we thought Earth was the center of the solar system, if we thought that Earth was the only planet that had moons, had a satellite. How would the world be if we didn’t have that Apollo 17 picture from space? How would it be if we didn’t have a global positioning system? How would it be if we didn’t have the Internet? (By the stars, you can’t be serious!) It is also through such exploration that we have made what I think is the most important discovery facing humankind, and that’s climate change.

Let me say that if you like to worry about things, you’re living at a great time. We’ve got the economy, we’ve got human immunodeficiency virus, we’ve got people who are going to acquire nuclear material who aren’t familiar with the great traditions of treaties, and so on. But what we really have, if you like to worry, is we have climate change. Climate change is going to affect the world in ways that are truly hard to imagine. And it’s this hard-to-imagine nature that’s costing us so dearly in time. We’re losing valuable time because of disbelief in the scientific method.

I say to climate skeptics, “If you don’t believe in climate change, why not?” And as near as I can tell, disbelievers are mostly people who grew up in wide-open spaces. People who grew up when there were a lot fewer people in the world. I remember back in 1965 my family went to the World’s Fair in New York City. Now, my father was the guy who would pull the car over and drive real slowly to take pictures of the odometer as it turned over from 99,999 to 100,000. So when we got there I remember this very large board had just changed from 2,999,999,999 people in the world to 3 billion. That was in 1965. Now, we’re about 6.8 billion. By the end of next year, we’ll be at 6.9 billion. And that’s really the problem. Having that many people living on what’s proven to be a very small planet is really going to be troublesome. And what we know about the trouble associated with climate change comes from space exploration.

By comparing the planets, we know that Venus is considerably hotter than Mercury even though it’s almost twice as far from the sun (for you inverse-square buffs that should be a quarter as hot but it’s quite a bit hotter). It’s so hot on Venus you could melt lead. It’s so hot on Venus that all the oxygen has been cooked away, all the water vapor has been cooked away, and they, if there are any living forms, have sulfuric acid rain. So, surface melting lead and sulfuric acid rain, that’s tough. By any sort of western cultural reckoning, Venus really is like hell. And so if we keep growing and consuming as we have been, we very well may be headed in that direction.

It is through science, and the discovery of scientific processes, that I came to be a skeptic and came to really embrace critical thinking. I came to embrace the idea that you probably only get one shot at life, so, roughly, don’t blow it.

I remember as a kid standing on the beach and I recalled our third-grade teacher, Mrs. Cochrane, had told us that there were more stars in the sky than grains of sand on the beach. I didn’t articulate it this way but I remember thinking at the time, “Mrs. Cochrane, are you high?” I mean, if you stand in Delaware, it’s 1,500 nautical miles in each direction. There’s nothing but sand. When you dig down, you shuffle your feet, there’s more sand. When the tide goes out, there’s sand. It’s a sand festival. Sand, sand, sand. And yes, Mrs. Chochrane said, there are more stars than all of that.

It doesn’t take you long to then think, I really am not that different from a grain of sand. I am insignificant. If you look out at this so-called trackless ocean, if you go out there even a few nautical miles, you disappear. You have no idea where you are—am I near Delaware, am I near Papua New Guinea? You can’t really tell unless you’re very experienced. So I remember thinking, I’m just another speck of sand. And Earth, really, in the cosmic scheme of things, is another speck, and our sun—an unremarkable star, nothing special—is another speck. And the galaxy is a speck. I’m a speck on a speck orbiting a speck among other specks amongst still other specks in the middle of specklessness! I am insignificant! I suck.

But then, my friends, with our brains we can imagine all of this. It is with our brains that we can know our place in the universe. We can know our place in space, and that does not suck. That is worthy of respect. That is what’s so great. That is what’s so wonderful about humans.

[What follows are Bill Nye’s responses to questions posed by audience members at the Humanist of the Year banquet on June 5, 2010.]

Bill Nye addressing global warming deniers and people who don’t believe in modern science:

Climate change can be too big for people to grasp and the tendency toward denial is almost completely generational. It’s also one thing to be in, say, Southern California with electric lights, clean water, and fabulous food—whereas if you’re born in Central Africa, your view of the world is quite different. I was there with kids who had never seen a magnet. It’s really something to watch a kid discover magnetism. So I guess what I always say is, try to share the passion, beauty, and joy of science. We can know the climate of Venus, we can know the climate of Earth—isn’t that cool? Don’t you want to do something about it?

And let no crisis not be an opportunity. The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, for example, shows how much we rely on technology and raises awareness as to how much is at stake when you’re working with such high pressures, so far away, in such a cold, corrosive environment. (It’s much, much easier to explore the surface of the moon than the bottom of the ocean.) Things went wrong on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig on April 20, mostly due to lack of regulation. The batteries were dead and the accumulator tanks didn’t have enough pressure in them. So when you don’t maintain the oil well, stuff happens.

I say to people, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys. Don’t let them grow up to be doctors and lawyers. Let them grow up to be engineer! That’s what we need—people to solve these huge problems.

…on pursuing alternative energy:

With three or four thousand offshore oil rigs around the world and about 800,000 oil wells, many of my science colleagues say what we need to address climate change is nuclear power. And really, it seems like a reasonable idea. You dig up this nuclear material, you get some energy out of it, and then you put it back in the ground. But when we get to have 10,000 or 20,000 or 40,000 nuclear power plants, there are going to be accidents akin to this oil well explosion and the consequences are just huge. We really need to think about that. And I remind everybody, we have five times the energy in wind in North Dakota than we use in the United States. There’s still the problem of getting the energy from there to New York City or wherever. It’s not an easy thing, but it sure seems like an opportunity to pursue renewable energy much more aggressively.

…when asked to give the president a recommendation for dealing with population control:

Make sure girls get a good education. Putting two rovers on Mars that can drive around six years past their warranty, making discoveries with a few dozen people working in Ithaca, New York, and a few dozen people working in Pasadena, California—that’s child’s play compared to, say, feeding people in Somalia. Raising women’s standard of living is the key to lowering Earth’s population. That is a difficult, difficult problem, but one that we should undertake.

…on SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) and whether he shares a fear of space aliens with Stephen Hawking:

There are two questions that make us all crazy at some point (and if you haven’t thought of these two questions, brace yourselves): Where did we come from? That’s what many religions claim to know. And then, are we alone? In space exploration you seek to answer both. So I think SETI is a worthy thing for us humans to do. If we were to discover evidence of life elsewhere it would change the world. It would be like Galileo or Copernicus. It gets me when people ask, why are you guys doing that? Why are you sending a mission to Pluto? What are you going to find? We don’t know—that’s why we’re going!

In February the Planetary Society presented Stephen Hawking with the Cosmos Award (named after Carl Sagan). We all went to Cambridge and hung out, it was great. Regarding Hawking’s fear that aliens will receive our signal and come here and eat us—I can only say that it’s too late, my friend, because Gilligan’s Island has been beaming from Earth at the speed of light since it was broadcast. I’m sorry.

…when asked for some final words of wisdom on spreading appreciation for science:

The wise words would be, what’s more fun than science? Also, when you meet somebody who’s anti-science ask yourself, is he just anti-you or anti-me or anti-something else? It’s very easy to think you have a little more knowledge than someone else. I got a lot of e-mail during the Gulf oil spill and one, that I later answered, started out, “Well, these so-called engineers clearly have no idea how to clean up an oil spill.” I wrote back, “I strongly recommend that you not call the people who have been working day and night on this the last forty days idiots because it’s very likely that they won’t listen to the rest of what you have to say.” We all have a tendency to dismiss people who believe other things, who are outsiders, or who speak other languages. I constantly have to fight the urge to say, “You don’t know what you’re talking about! That’s crazy!” My advice is just try to listen and see if you can figure out what it is that makes a person not want to believe in climate change, not want to accept that Venus is like Earth only a little different, not want to question things.

I always think of the famous Children’s Christmas Lectures at London’s Royal Institution initiated by Michael Faraday. One year he put a magnet through a coil and it moved a compass needle in another coil. This was a new thing, the magnetic field, because it wasn’t apparent to the naked eye. In the version of the story I was told as a kid it was the Queen of England who came up to Faraday afterwards (it was really just an anonymous civilian) and said, “But Mr. Faraday, of what use is it?” And he supposedly replied, “Madam, of what use is a newborn babe?” Incidentally, every single thing in this room owes its existence to that discovery, which we nominally call Faraday’s Law, because it’s the generation of electricity.

So try asking instead of telling. Ask people, “What is it about science that you don’t like?” So often people think it’s over their heads but it’s not. Everybody knows what a magnet is in our society. Everybody knows wires. Everybody knows electricity. Everybody likes to drive their car. In short, everybody loves science and the way to reveal that is through the passion, beauty, and joy of science: the PB&J. Thank you all very much.