Humorous TV Personality Bill Nye Serious About Space Exploration

Event Date: 11/8/2018

Most people recognize Bill Nye as the man in the bow tie from the long-running television show, “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” which became popular with young people and made Nye famous.

What many people may not know is that Nye is an Ivy League graduate, a student of famed astronomer Carl Sagan, a trained engineer and an accomplished inventor. He is also CEO of the Planetary Society, a prominent non-governmental organization that advocates space science research and the exploration of other planets.

It is no surprise, then, that Nye was both entertaining and informative during a sold-out Ideas Festival event Nov. 8 at Elliott Hall of Music. Nye’s sense of humor and broad scientific knowledge were on full display during his presentation, which was held as part of Purdue’s 150th anniversary celebration.

Nye, who was accompanied by thumping rap music when he took the stage, joined PhD student moderator Ashwati Das for a wide-ranging, hour-long conversation about space exploration. He greeted Das, a doctoral candidate in the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics, with a fist-bump and a joke.

“Blow it up!” he said. “Talking about exploration and finding evidence of life beyond our planet could take a whole evening. Oh, wait. We have the whole evening!”

Nye’s presentation was designed as a question-and-answer session focused on the search for intelligent life beyond Earth. But the entertainer in Nye proved difficult to corral. Often sprinkling in personal anecdotes and humorous asides, he ultimately talked about many things, including the history of science, the saga of space exploration, innovation, education, sustainability, religion, politics, aliens and SpongeBob SquarePants.

Regardless of the topic, Nye always got a laugh. But he was quite serious about the importance of searching for life beyond Earth and the implications of finding it.

“There are two questions we all ask ourselves and if you meet somebody who says they haven’t asked these questions, they’re lying to your face. Where did we come from? And, are we alone in the universe?” Nye said. “If you want the answers, you have to explore space. I believe that finding life beyond Earth will change everything. If we find it, that means we’re not alone, and that will change the way people feel about life.”

Nye said he believes the best way to search for intelligent life is to continue monitoring for radio waves and optical signals like lasers, looking for patterns and other signs of technological advancement.

“We’ll know it when we hear it,” Nye said. “The likelihood of finding intelligent life may be low, but one way to make sure you never know is to never listen.”

Nye believes mathematics, and not music or other art forms, would be the best way to communicate should contact be made. He does not believe that aliens have already visited Earth, nor does he think we should try to prepare Mars for future habitation because resources there are scarce and, “You’ll notice it right away — there’s nothing to breathe!”

The inhospitable nature of Mars, our nearest planetary neighbor, led Nye to the subject of building a sustainable future on Earth — another Ideas Festival topic.

“The whole idea of living somewhere else when the Earth is used up, it’s charming but it’s not realistic,” he said. “We’ve got to do a better job of taking care of this planet. The Earth’s going to be here no matter what we do. We need to make it sustainable for me! And for the rest of humankind, too.”

Nye’s presentation was one of the most successful Ideas Festival events to date, drawing 5,730 people and packing both balconies at Elliott. Mung Chiang, the John A. Edwardson Dean of the College of Engineering, opened the Nye Ideas Festival event with a call to the audience to join him in embracing the excitement surrounding Purdue’s 150th anniversary celebration.

“As we celebrate the giant leaps resulting from the intellectual risk-taking in the past, in the present and in the future, we celebrate those who do not allow convention to stand in the way of invention,” Chiang said. “Tonight, we want to explore that future together.”

Many attendees were Purdue undergraduates who know Nye through his TV shows and podcasts, like junior Rachel Hohe. A 20-year-old chemistry student from Indianapolis, Hohe was one of several students chosen to ask Nye a question directly.

“Bill Nye was fantastic. It was awesome, talking to him, even for just a second. I’m a huge fan,” Hohe said. “He’s really engaging and he’s incredible with the audience. I’ve watched all his shows and seen his podcasts. That may have helped inspire me to become a scientist.”

The Ideas Festival is a series of events designed to explore the most pressing challenges the world faces in four areas: space exploration; AI, algorithms and automation; health, longevity and quality of life; and building a sustainable economy and planet.

Nye’s appearance was sponsored by the College of Engineering and the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics.



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