Bill Nye The Science Guy shares why staying curious is the key to living a successful life in a beautiful world.
“Science is the process and the body of knowledge that enables us humans to know nature. So far, it’s the best idea we’ve ever had.”
Read that again. It may take a minute for your brain to catch its nuance, and when it does, it’s pretty powerful. Science—that intellectual discipline of studying, observing, and experimenting on the earth’s behaviors—is the key to helping us understand the secrets to our wild and crazy world and, more importantly, why that matters to us human beings.
Science discovered that California’s White Mountain and Sequoia National Park are home to some of the oldest trees on record, dating over 5,000 years. Why should that matter? Trees fight climate change and help to maintain our freshwater supply. Science also learned that the Salar de Uyuni in Southern Bolivia is our largest salt flat that holds half of our lithium reserves in the world—that’s the stuff that powers up our rechargeable batteries, mobile phones, cameras, and electric vehicles. The Amazon rainforest plays an essential role in regulating the world’s oxygen and carbon cycles because it produces six percent of the world’s oxygen and has long been thought to act as a “carbon sink,” meaning it readily absorbs large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Guess who figured that one out? Scientists.
Science is the secret to life, and that’s why this quote is so potent. Because it reminds us that without curiosity and a desire to learn, we human beings wouldn’t survive in the world we live in or enjoy it as much as we do. The person who said it is someone who’s built a 30-year career based on that fact, along with an ever-inquisitive mind. He’s Bill Nye. He of the jaunty necktie and affectionate title of Science Guy, Bill is a scientist, engineer, comedian, author, and inventor. A “man with a mission” whose goal is to build a scientifically literate society, helping regular people like you (and us) appreciate that science makes our world work. He’s done this through wit and humour (he’s also a comedian) and a friendliness that makes all that science-talk accessible. He makes people want to know everything they have never understood or couldn’t be bothered to. And that’s important because the more we know about the forests we hike, the sky we see, and the water we use, the more we’ll be able to keep this globe, and ourselves, ticking. “You’ve heard people say this before, but it’s real: The more you’re curious about the world, the more you realize what you don’t know,” says Nye. “I’d claim that some of our ancestors weren’t curious; they didn’t look over the next hill to see what was beyond the horizon. Those ancestors got wiped out by the curious people, so now, the curious people are the ones who are still running around creating more curious people, and that’s good. That’s very good.”
Nye references his youth when he was coming of age in the space program and rockets. Physics was an early obsession, but when he looks to today, it’s the world of genetics that is blowing his mind—and with good reason, because it raises all sorts of questions critical to human health and well-being. “Is it ethical to tinker with human genes? The question will be whether it’s ethical not to,” he says. “If you know a family that has a catastrophic heart condition that they inherit, it may very soon be that it may not be considered ethical to let that gene persist.”
Admittedly, that feels like scary territory, but isn’t everything difficult when we don’t understand it until we do? Nye’s greatest strength, beyond his zinger jokes (which help bring levity to such serious conversations), is in his ability to open our minds to think differently. There’s just so much growth potential when we do. “The longest journey starts but with a single step,” he says. “When it comes to science education and the natural world, half of what you learn about the cosmos and nature, you learn outside of the classroom.” In other words, we need to step outside of our comfort zones and our literal doors, to educate ourselves and simply look around.
So, how do we do it? He says something that really couldn’t be simpler: observe. “Most people were brought up with this super-formal scientific method, where you had to commit to this sequence of rigorous steps, experiments, and reports to understand why something, anything, exists ultimately,” he says. “In my opinion, that’s too much work. To me, it all starts with something far more singular: observing something you notice.” Nye suggests an excellent thing to get in the habit of doing it every time you step outside your home, look up. Really. That’s it. Look up at the sky. He says we’d be amazed at how little people think about that or do it. We tend to take it for granted, and sometimes there’s a lot to be learned from just looking at the sky: How many clouds are up there? How blue is it? Sometimes the atmosphere has a haze, which is for an environmental reason; sometimes, it’s crystal blue. “That’s a great start—observe,” he says. “It’s an easy thing to say but a hard habit to form.” For Nye, the world outside our doors holds thousands, if not millions, of fascinating things that are there, waiting to be discovered.
In one of Nye’s published books, Everything All at Once, the cover jacket has a line that speaks volumes (not unlike that earlier quote we opened this whole story with), and it goes something like this: “How thinking like a nerd is key to changing yourself and the world.” The word “nerd” has long had a bad rap, with an even worse Oxford Dictionary description. But if you ask Nye, it’s got an opposite (and positive) effect. “Using the terminology “nerd” in the modern sense is where you’re academic and thoughtful about everything,” he says. “And to me, nerds get into the details and the trivia, and the big thing about being a nerd is a willingness to learn and explore and try stuff. How do you not feel motivated to learn?!” He says again, and it warrants repeating, that we have to look around, whether we identify as an established nerd or one in the making. “This thing about how to get people excited to understand the natural world and learn, listen, I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and I still don’t have the full answer, but I’ll go back to this again: The longest journey starts with a first step. Do a crossword puzzle, and there will be a word there that you don’t know, and I hope that will get you thinking.”
Is he hopeful? For the future and humanity? Hell, yes. “I’m very optimistic because young people will be running the show. I’m not abdicating responsibility because I’m of a certain age, but I’m really excited about the young people coming along and making changes. That’s good, that’s really good.” And part of that, he says, is to raise the standard of living for women and girls. Why? Because of the 1 billion most impoverished people in the world, 70 percent are female. “The giant idea—if you’ve got one idea or one thing to reach for now—is to work towards bettering the quality of life for the female population, and when you do that, everyone’s life is better.”
So, nerds? What do you think? It’s time to unite. The world can’t wait for us forever.