So, to set the scene: the room is completely packed. Googly eyes have been glued to the podium. People line the walls, eagerly scanning the doors for the person they’re here to see, the Nerd Among Nerds: Bill Nye, Science Guy. He will interview, and be interviewed by, Randall Munroe, creator of xkcd and professional stick figure.
The two men are here ostensibly to promote their books: Munroe’s What if?, a series of absurd answers to scientific questions (which is available now!) and Nye’s Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation (which comes out on November 4th!). Finally, the followers see their idol, and a massive chant of “Bill! Bill! Bill!” sweeps the room. The excitement is palpable, and I can say, with confidence, that this is the nerdiest room I have ever been in, or, indeed, shall ever be in. And for 45 minutes, I’m pretty sure it was also the coolest.
The panel started slowly, with Munroe seemingly attempting to start three different questions at once, then pausing awkwardly for a long moment. Nye finally laughed and said, “We had a conference call, and I believe it was agreed that you would start?” Munroe replied that he had too many questions, and decided that bow-tie-related queries could wait, but then immediately changed his mind again.
Munroe: “How do you tie one of those, and how did you learn?”
Nye: “When I was a junior in high school, we had a tradition where the boys waited on the girls during their athletic awards ceremony. So I said, ‘If we’re going to be waiters for the night, let’s dress like waiters!’ My father taught me how to tie [a bow-tie], and so we all dressed up. And now it’s just become a THANG.”
Having broken the ice, the pair moved on to the matter at hand: SCIENCE.
Munroe started the conversation by mentioning the particular difficulties of science education: “having a balance between making things simple and clear enough, and being precise.” Nye agreed. “That’s the dark art. Show, don’t tell, and try not to use the official word for the concept you’re describing until after you’ve described it!” He immediately demonstrated this practice, describing a trait called ‘embodied cognition.’ “If you move towards someone, and then have an interaction with them, you’re more likely to like the person. This is called ‘embodied cognition,’ and you could use that term first, but it’s really distracting. It’s easier to demonstrate that this is why we shake hands, bow toward each other rather than away, why ze fraanch keees on ze cheeeek… you’re more inclined to treat that person with respect after the physical interaction.”
Nye then asked Munroe about his work in his book What If? “You take a question, then pursue it to absurdity with scientific rigor. Yeah?” Munroe laughed and said, “Yeah… you find a question that interests you, and then you…I’m the kind of person, I don’t know about you, but for me…say, someone’s trying to cross a road, and then you hold up math problem? And they stop, and they’re so busy trying to work it out they get hit by a car! And then you hold the sign up again and wait for the next person.” Over the crowd’s laughter, Nye glanced out at us and said, “That is comedy.”
Nye told us about his experience debating the Earth’s age with Ken Ham. “I interacted with a guy in Kentucky—can we use the word interact on TV?—and he really believes that the earth is 6,000 years old. His group, it’s called Answers in Genesis, and they work hard to indoctrinate kids to distrust the evidence of nature. What I’m concerned by is that if we raise a generation of kids who have no critical thinking skills, we won’t have the next iPhone, the next piece of tech, the next prop. That’s why we have Comic-Con. We’re all, it’s safe to say that we’re all, enthusiasts, here, right? We’re brought together with this idea that we can make projections based on scientific method.”
Then Nye asked, “What’s your favorite kind of question?” And Munroe replied, “Well, I got into areas of science that I didn’t know as much about […] I really like the questions that come from little kids, like 5-year-olds. They aren’t trying to ask a question with an interesting answer, they’re asking a straightforward question: ‘I want to build a building that’s a billion stories tall, can I do that?’ And trying to answer that becomes much weirder and more interesting.” Nye thought for a moment, and said, “You’d have to make it out of some extraordinary material.” Munroe laughed and said, “We don’t have it.” To which Nye responded, “You are so narrow minded!”
A detailed discussion of the pros and cons of space elevators ensued, with both men agreeing that “the real problem is when you hit the section that’s right at the moon’s orbit.” Then they turned the room over to what everyone was waiting for, the audience Q&A!
Q: How can we fight scientific ignorance?
Nye: “Watch the Bill Nye show! No, seriously, fighting ignorance is what I’ve dedicated my life to, and it’s why I went to Kentucky—despite the risk of helping that gentleman raise money—to shed light on his viewpoint.”
Munroe: “I’d say read my book, but reading my book is a just more indirect way to watch Bill Nye’s show…”
Q: What has been best way to get through to Creationists?
Nye: “Get to them before they’re ten years old. By the time you’re ten, you’ve pretty much decided what you’ll have lifelong passion for. It’s also much cheaper to teach science at elementary school level than later. And [with adults] you’re not going to get to people the first time. It’ll take months, even years of people being exposed to facts before they’ll start to accept them…oh, and then have them read Randall’s book!”
Q [to Randall Munroe]: You are sole reason that my friend has a room full of playpen balls!
Munroe: “How does he contain them?”
Questioner: “He lined the room with chicken wire, but we still had to stop at two and a half feet. It was like $2000 for all those playpen balls.” [A brief discussion of the surface tension of playpen balls ensues, then the questioner continued.] “Mr. Nye… I’ve waited my whole life to say that! You were an inspiration to me, growing up in fundamentalist home, to go ahead with school, and eventually get a degree in physics. Now I run fightforscience.org, a non-profit to promote science to kids. Do you find that there’s a way, when discussing like the Earth’s age, to stick to absolute matter-at-hand, without devolving into a faith vs. science debate?”
Nye: “Well, what I try to say, and what I said during the debate in Kentucky, is that people are greatly enriched by their religions, but still, the earth cannot possibly be 6,000 years old.”
Q: Do you have any advice for women looking to go further in the sciences, and to get equal pay?
Munroe: “It’s not something the women should do, it’s the people who are paying them who should pay them more. Put more of the onus here on men.”
Nye: “My mom could not get an American Express card in her own name, because she was a woman, she was Mrs. Nye. Even though she was also Dr. Nye. Half the people in the world are women, so half the mathematicians and engineers should be women, too, right?”
Q: I was watching Armageddon, and something bothered me…
Nye: “Oh, math and science were depicted inaccurately in a movie? Look, if you’re deflecting an asteroid that’s headed for Earth, we strongly advise you against blowing it up!”
Munroe: “Well, what if it’s not heading for Earth. Is it OK to blow it up then?”
[Bill Nye nods his assent.]
[The two then discussed different ways to use lasers or tugboat-type ships to pull the asteroid away.]
Munroe: “You’ll have to pull it waaaay farther if you have a billion-story building sticking out…”
Nye: “But the view is so cool!”
Q: When will we get off our asses and colonize the solar system?
Nye: “For me, personally, my favorite planet is Earth. People want to live on Mars, so if you want to do it, I would suggest that you go to Antarctica for a couple years, and if you’re in the Dry Valleys, at noon on a summer day, it’s 20 below […] and no fair if you don’t take enough oxygen tanks for at least a few years because you can’t breathe on freaking mars. Elon Musk wants to die on Mars, but going there to live is a whole other thing. I think it’s many many centuries hence. I think we should go and look for life on other planets, but not live there.”
Q: What will be the next science fiction to become science reality?
Nye: “I have no idea, but it is so, so exciting.”