Science Rules! So why would anyone turn down a chance to jump on the phone with Bill Nye, the Science Guy?
Exactly. No one would. Which is how I ended up talking with Nye today even though it was in his role as a paid endorser for Gillette razors, of all things. He’s taking part in a Gillette campaign in which celebrities — including actor/director Kevin Smith, Mayim Bialik and the MythBusters guys — offer up their theories on how Superman shaves, as part of a promotion for the upcoming movie, “Man of Steel.”
As Nye explains, it’s a fun scientific exercise. But we also got to talk about lots of other stuff, including his role advocating for stronger U.S. space policy, his thoughts on science education, and the possibility of a return of his classic show, “Bill Nye, The Science Guy.”
Check out Nye’s Superman theory above, and continue reading for excerpts.
Tell me your whole take on this Superman thing, and how you even got into this in the first place with Gillette.
Nye: Well, I got into it because they called me. But to me it’s just a fantastic thought experiment. You have this guy with superpowers, yet he’s living in our earthly world. He’s got a beard and then he doesn’t have a beard. There’s got to be some reason for that. I just am charmed by using conventional machining techniques or manufacturing techniques to let him shave his beard!
I love your solution, because not only does it apply the scientific method, but I think it might employ some technology that dates back to your days at Boeing.
Nye: Oh yeah, absolutely. All the time. I’m a mechanical engineer, and when you go to make things, you either add material, when you mold something. … What’s all the rage — 3D printers! Well, you’re adding material, layer by layer. The other way you make things is you remove material. This is what a whittler does, or a manicurist. These people are involved in the shaping by removal.
So with mechanical engineering, or machining, you can drill with a drill bit, you can mill with a milling bit, you can ream, you can tap, you can sand or you can grind. In the case of drilling, for example, you generally use a drill bit that’s harder than the material you’re drilling. A metal bit goes right through the wood. A steel bit goes right through the aluminum before the aluminum is hardened. In the case of grinding, you don’t have to use something that’s harder than that which you are grinding. The glue that holds the sand on the emory board is no harder than the nail that you’re sanding, that you’re shaping.
The classic example of this: If you’ve got rubber tires running on a concrete road, why does the concrete ever wear out? Why do we ever need to repave road ever? There is an answer. It happens! You’ve observed it, and it has to do with surface roughness, and the fabulous Latin word for this is asperity. The asperity of the surfaces. Imagine you have an icicle and you hit it with a pillow. You’ll break the icicle off. But if you hit the icicle with a feather, the feather is going to bend or fail catastrophically. In the same way, if you have something with a large footprint hitting something with a small footprint — let’s say Superman’s whisker being hit with some fabulous Gillette product — you could easily knock it off.
Another thing about grinding: People take plaque out of arteries using a grinder without damaging the arterial wall. You can take a shell off an egg without damaging the membrane, if you’re careful. This is the nature of grinding. And so it seemed quite reasonable to me that this guy has got some fabulous grinder-shaver, shave-grinder, grind-shaver that does a super job.
What I love about the whole thing is you’re applying conventional techniques to this extraordinary world.
You’re getting paid for this by Gillette, right? I hope?
Nye: I can neither confirm nor deny. Yes. But let me say, I would not have taken this on if I didn’t already use a Gillette Fusion razor. Seriously, if I were into Wilkinson razors and Gillette asked me, I would be reluctant.
A while back in a Reddit AMA, you were asked if you would ever bring The Science Guy back, online. Can you give us an update?
Nye: Well, this is the 20th Anniversary of the Science Guy show, this fall. Disney is creating a 20th Anniversary app, and I hope to do this deal with Nerdist. What we need is a big sponsor, like Northrop Grumman, or Raytheon, or Boeing, or …
Nye: Or Gillette! Yeah! We would do the show now in Internet fashion. I’m imagining it would have a different shape — that is to say, instead of being a half-hour with commercial breaks, it would be short Internet segments that are suitable for rewinding, for going-back-throughing, if I can coin that phrase.
How realistic is it that you could bring “The Science Guy” back in some form?
Nye: Oh, I think it’s very realistic, or I wouldn’t be talking about it. But right now, I’m the CEO of the Planetary Society. This is like a job, where I’m in charge. We have 36,000 members around the world. I’ve been a member ever since I took astronomy from Carl Sagan, or actually a couple years after I graduated — they started the Planetary Society in 1980. I’ve been a member ever since. I spoke at Professor Sagan’s memorial service in Ithaca when he died. Then I got on the board of directors, then I became vice president. Then a couple years ago, I left the room for something and I came back and I was CEO.
So we are working hard to influence space policy — especially at NASA, the world’s largest space agency, to get planetary science funding restored, so that NASA remains the world leader in planetary exploration.
Well, what about commercial space? You’re actually helping to support (asteroid mining company) Planetary Resources’ Kickstarter campaign for a public space telescope.
Nye: I’m not on the board of Planetary Resources or anything, but it’s a cool idea. Find a piece of pure platinum, and you find a way to bring some of that back to Earth. You know, the platinum that’s on the Earth got here from asteroids. The platinum that’s here, in primordial time, when the Earth was molten, generally sank below what is now the crust.
So that idea is pretty cool, but it’s not something that’s easy to do. It’s not like buying a car. Dragging an asteroid to where you can mine it is a pretty difficult business. Is it really cheaper than looking for the platinum that’s already here, or in landfills? I’m not sure. But it’s a pretty cool idea.
OK, so what are the chances that your theory on Superman’s shave is going to win out? Are you pretty confident?
Nye: Well, I’m hopeful. As a guy with all this mechanical engineering training I believe my theory is the most reasonable. Kevin Smith has a big following in comic book land, but my theory is ahead by a substantial fraction. So I’m hoping that trend continues. Let’s change the world! Let’s raise awareness of grinding operations. Let’s raise awareness of machining and how we all rely on engineers!
I don’t know where you are or what room you’re in, talking to me. Maybe you’re in a forest on a cell phone. But everything you can see in general, in our everyday world, got there because engineers designed it. And we need more engineers for a better tomorrow for all humankind.
How can we get more engineers? This is actually a real challenge that not only industry but society is facing right now.
Nye: Well, this is my life’s work. I work all the time to get more people excited about science, and especially engineering.
What about education funding? How do you make that happen?
Nye: First of all, in the big picture, to speak politically, this idea that government is inherently bad, I disagree with that. I just don’t see that that’s a good idea. There’s people who assert that government should be reduced to the smallest thing it can possibly be. And I agree with that, to the extent that a machine should have no parts it doesn’t need. But it should have all the parts it does need. And one of the reasons the United States is nominally the world’s leading technological society, at least in innovation, is because we have public education. We engage everybody in education.
This idea that you don’t need government — education will take care of itself — I really disagree with. One thing that we can do to ensure a better tomorrow is to make public education as good as possible, and that includes especially science, technology, engineering and math. But it’s not that everybody has to be an engineer. What we want is for everybody to appreciate the process of science. We want everyone to appreciate science, to understand its value, so that when it’s time to vote and pay taxes, everybody’s willing to invest in it.