Scientist-comedian Bill Nye, most commonly known as "the Science Guy," taught physics, chemistry and biology on television to a generation of children in the mid-1990s. Today, he is a science advocate for an entire nation.
"If our country does not focus on early childhood science education, we will fall behind," said Nye in a recent phone interview with Alaska Dispatch News. "What keeps the United States in the game is the ability to innovate. Without that, we are in trouble."
Nye rose to fame when he assumed the persona of "the Science Guy" in 1993, starring in 100 episodes of the eponymous program on PBS Kids and in syndication. Highly acclaimed, the program won 19 Emmys during its five-year run.
After the show ended, Nye became a high-profile advocate not only for science education, but also for important geopolitical issues. Of late, Nye has spoken out frequently on two controversial topics: climate change and evolution. When tackling either issue, Nye takes the position of the scientist: trust the evidence and question everything else.
Nye recently took on Christian author Ken Ham in a well-publicized debate about evolution and creationism at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. On Monday, Nye will share his thoughts on those issues and more at West High School in Anchorage.
Alaska Dispatch News: When did you know you were a scientist?
Bill Nye: As a young child, I became fascinated by the way bumblebees flew. I would watch them come and go from my mother's azalea bushes. You know we only figured out during my lifetime how bumblebees fly? Their wings spin 360 degrees around the long axis!
ADN: That is counterintuitive.
Nye: I have spoken to the bees about it, and they are generally unresponsive.
ADN: How can the United States produce more scientifically-minded high school graduates?
Nye: Start early. We have to emphasize elementary science in elementary school. People get their passion for whatever it is they are going to do early in life, whether it's science, storytelling, accounting or something else. If you love numbers, you love them before you are 10 years old.
ADN: What reactions have you received since your much-publicized debate against celebrity creationist Ken Ham in Kentucky?
Nye: Everywhere I go, people shake my hand. I was in Kentucky a few days ago, and someone came up to me apologizing, "not all of us in Kentucky are this way."
ADN: What has to happen before the debate about climate change becomes less about politics and more about science?
Nye: The United States has to get out front on climate change. If we make changes, everybody else will -- China, India, everyone. Then we can have more alternatives to coal-powered plants, stop tax breaks that incentivize families to buy SUVs when compact cars will do, and encourage urban development so that people live closer to where they work.
ADN: As a scientist and entertainer, which sci-fi book, TV show or movie do you think does the best job of predicting the future of technological progress?
Nye: They are all set so far in the future that it's impossible to tell. When I was in school, nobody thought of the Internet, let alone could have appreciated the power of it. But if I had to choose, I thought that "Gattaca" was really cool science fiction. The girls kiss a guy, then go to the DNA measurement place to see if he has good genes. I thought that was very reasonable. Something like that could actually happen.
ADN: What is your proudest achievement?
Nye: When we were writing "Bill Nye The Science Guy," we wrote down our objective in our governing document. It said "Objective: change the world." And I think we did. I am still amazed at how many people tell me "I became an engineer because of your show, I went to medical school because of your show." I am very proud of the show's influence.
ADN: Besides national economic ruin, why is it important for a person to understand science?
Nye: Science is how we know nature. It is how we discovered that we are part of the universe. Literally, at an elemental level, we are made of stardust. And that's pretty cool.
When: Monday, Oct. 20
Where: West Anchorage High School Auditorium
Tickets: $10 for UAA students, $20 for UAA staff and faculty or teachers/students from other schools, and $25 for the general public; uaatix.com