What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
“Everybody you ever meet knows something you don’t.” A cab driver told me that, 30 years ago, and I’m reminded of it every single day.
Was there a trip that changed your life?
My parents took me to the New York World’s Fair in 1965, and that intensely optimistic view of the future is still with me. It was the result of technology, and that’s why my current life’s work is to advance space science.
Why do you think we need to reach for the stars?
There are two questions that are deep within us, and if you meet somebody who says he or she has not pondered them, he or she is lying: Where did we come from? And are we alone in the universe? If you want to answer those questions, you have to explore space. Looking at it another way — if we were to stop looking up into the cosmos, what does that say about us? Whatever it is, it’s not good. I’ll contend that our ancestors who did not have that drive to explore, to understand nature, got outcompeted by the ones who did.
You’ve publicly debated creationists. What’s your philosophy about engaging people who willfully deny scientific evidence?
You know that guy is not going to change his mind no matter what happens. Evidence is not that compelling for him. By that I mean evidence of anything. A key question that was posed to us was, “What, if anything, would change your mind, Mr. Nye?” And I went on about “well, if the speed of light is not the speed of light; if you can show that the microwave radiation from the big bang was from something else.” My opponent said nothing would change his mind. Nothing. Evidence doesn’t matter to that guy or his followers.
What do you think the average American needs to understand about science?
The seriousness of climate change. It’s serious, serious business. Do not screw around with it. The fossil fuel industry has been very successful — using the techniques pioneered by the tobacco industry — introducing the idea that scientific uncertainty is equivalent to doubt, which wouldn’t matter if we weren’t all going to die.
What did you learn from your dad, who was a prisoner of war in WWII?
Every freaking thing. My father and mother emphasized two things: Every person is responsible for his or her own actions, and, to the best of your ability, leave the world better than you found it. That’s why I say that sometimes you’ve got to pick up other people’s trash. Just because somebody else filled the atmosphere with carbon dioxide is no reason not to address the problem. We’re all in this together. After you use the paper towel, put it in the trash can. OK, can we all do that?
How can America become a leader in science again?
What we would like to do at the Planetary Society is invest in space exploration. We’d like to send people to Mars and bring them back. If we were to find evidence of life on Mars, it would utterly change the world. We could do it for the price of a cup of coffee from every taxpayer once every 10 or 12 years. It’d be nothing. You ask people on the street, “What fraction of the U.S. federal budget is NASA?” and people say 10 percent. It’s 0.4 percent. I applied to be an astronaut four times — but human space flight is not where the new and extraordinary discoveries are being made.
Does religion play any role in your life?
Not anymore. I was brought up Episcopal and I gave it a shot. I read the Bible twice when I was in my twenties. Then I realized the people who wrote it knew nothing of people in China. They knew nothing of first Americans. They were just playing the hand they were dealt. Also, women are not treated very well in the Bible. It made me skeptical of the whole thing. I gave it a shot, I really did. I’m pretty confident that humans made the whole thing up. Seriously. But when it comes to “is there a God or not?” I’m the first to point out you can’t know. I’m agnostic. You can’t prove there’s a God or not. I accept that. Some people find that very troubling. I find it empowering and cool.