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Bill Nye to CU: “I want you to change the world”

16 February 2011

Bill Nye the Science Guy at CU's Macky auditorium. (Photo by Holly Zink)

Scientist, educator and comedic TV personality Bill Nye appeared before a sold-out crowd at the University of Colorado’s Macky auditorium Tuesday night with a simple challenge to his audience: fix the world with science.

In a presentation that was equal parts comedy routine and climate science lecture, Nye said the current increase in global temperature “is changing everything. And you guys will have to, like, totally deal.”

Nye is an engineer by training, holds several patents and serves as Executive Director of The Planetary Society, the world’s largest space interest organization. He has built a career making science fun and accessible, especially for children. Nye hosts three currently running television shows about science, including The Eyes of Nye and Stuff Happens. But many of today’s college students know him as Bill Nye the Science Guy, from the Emmy-winning PBS program that aired during the 1990s.

Nye referred to that part of his audience as “the climate generation” — those born after 1988, when James Hansen brought climate science into the Congressional and public spotlight. He predicted that they will feel the effects of global warming “like no one ever before.”

“The world has never had this much CO2 introduced into the atmosphere this fast, ever,” Nye said. “If you take a second, you will see the effects of humans on the atmosphere everywhere you go.”

But even as he reviewed the sobering statistics, Nye quickly moved past the doom-and-gloom typical of climate change presentations. Displaying before and after photos of Argentina’s Upsala glacier, which now more closely resembles a tidal mud flat, Nye challenged his audience to fight back: “I want you guys to do something about this.”

Nor was he shy about aiming the attention of young scientists and engineers at specific, if sometimes theoretical, solutions. In a rapid romp that ranged from nanomaterials to renewable energy to farming practices, Nye explored ideas from the plausible — expansion of solar and wind energy generation — to “so crazy they might just work” — injecting microbubbles into seawater to increase its reflectivity. Throughout, he repeatedly expressed his belief that members of the audience could in fact solve such problems.

“It’s not rocket surgery,” Nye quipped.During a lively question-and-answer session peppered with Star Trek references, audience members probed Nye’s opinions on topics including:

  • Fusion power: “I’m all for it, but it’s a long way off.”
  • Humanism (Nye received the Humanist of the Year award in 2010): “It’s the idea that humans are OK…but I’m not going to ram it down your throat.”
  • Public policy: “Vote!”
  • Education: “We need to teach algebra better.”

Nye punctuated most of his answers with an encouraging “get it done” or “go do it,” reinforcing his optimism that young people can take the initiative to mitigate crises like global warming.

“That is what science is all about,” he said near the end of his prepared remarks. “That is why you go to college.”

As a closing thought, Nye paraphrased his one-time teacher Carl Sagan, who famously described Earth as “pale blue dot.” Nye’s version has it “a speck orbiting a speck in the middle of specklessness.”

“Everybody you’ve ever booked a face with lived right there,” Nye said, pointing to an apparently empty portion of a photo of a starfield, labelled ‘Earth.’ “We can know all of this with the process of science. And this will allow all of you to — dare I say it — change the world.”

The ornate proscenium of Macky auditorium was a far cry from the bubbling laboratories fans would associate with The Science Guy. But despite the setting, and his royal blue tuxedo, Nye’s lanky frame and easy comedic manner helped many audience members recapture the sense of scientific wonder they remembered from childhood.

CU student Jonathan Grell described the event as “an auditorium full of inner children worshipping their science god.”

“It was like watching his TV show as a little kid again,” said fellow student Pete Zuppan.

Diane Yates, an ecological restoration planner, remembered watching The Science Guy with her children, who are now in high school and college. “I had no idea he had so many fans,” she said. “I liked his message, giving a challenge to CU students to change the world.”

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