Bill Nye urges students to “change the world” at Science and Math Symposium keynote

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“Bill! Bill! Bill! Bill! Bill!”

Chants from the theme of Bill Nye the Science Guy, the hit ‘90s science show, filled the sold-out Titan Student Union Pavilions. Bill Nye himself took the stage Thursday to deliver a much-anticipated keynote to end the two-day Science and Math Symposium.

“Change the world,” he urged the bow tie-clad audience who grew up seeing him on TV explaining science in a way that was understandable and approachable.

“Having a planetary perspective allows you to think about our place in space, and our place in the cosmos differently than any generation before you,” he said.

Putting our planet in perspective, Nye explained that the atmosphere of Mars is 95 percent carbon dioxide and in 1997, the Earth’s atmosphere was .03 percent carbon dioxide.

“Everybody in here was alive when this number changed from .03 to .04. This tiny change in the amount of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere is causing the world’s climates to change,” he said. “And that is the challenge I was you to take on. I want you to, dare I say it–change the world!”

The global population, Nye said, rolled over to 3 billion people when he had just made his way through third grade, and that number has more than doubled since then to nearly 7.2 billion today. The 7 billion people trying to breathe the thin atmosphere is the problem, he said.

“Outer space is closer than Riverside; it’s right there,” he said. “It’s this thinness of the Earth’s atmosphere that has allowed humankind to accidentally change the climate of the planet.”

As if climate change doesn’t cause enough worry, he also ventured into the science of “killer asteroids.”

“We do not want to go the way of the ancient dinosaurs!” he said.

The big-screen solution of nuking asteroids in space is bunk, he said, noting that “we don’t want to send Bruce Willis.” The more likely solution would be to gently nudge an asteroid off-course.

Rockets would take too much fuel, he said. We need lasers. Shooting lasers at an asteroid would cause the debris flying off, the ejecta, to push on the asteroid ever so slightly. Scooting an asteroid just 2 milimeters a second would be enough to change its path and save the planet.

“You guys may be the generation who gets to deal with this problem,” he said. “If we discover an asteroid with our name on it, we only have a few years to get out there and git ‘er done. And you guys are going to have to come up with the best system to do it.”

Bill Nye encourages students to delve into scientific endeavors during his keynote speech at the Cal State Fullerton NSM-ICC symposium Thursday. (Amanda Sharp / Daily Titan)

Behind the scenes

When asked about university funding during a press conference, Nye said Proposition 13, the 1978 voter initiative that drastically cut the amount of money the state of California receives in property taxes, has devastated the economy.

“When you invest in universities, it leads to innovation. And innovation is what keeps the United States in the game,” he said. “People often expect a return in four years, no, it’s more like 20 years. Invest in universities today and in 20 years later those people are captains of industry and change the world.”

He also teased an upcoming cameo in the fifth episode of the Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey revival, hosted by his compatriot, Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

When asked if he plans to revive his television series, Nye said he created a “sizzle reel” for NBC, which has been sent to a focus group.

“But no one’s told me what happened at the focus group, so we’ll find out,” he said. “I’m sure it’s brilliant but maybe they hate it.”


Bobby Wright, the chair of the Natural Science and Mathematics Interclub Council, led the charge to bring Nye to campus, working with the business, community service and sports inter-club councils to secure the $35,000 needed to host Nye’s keynote.

The theme of this year’s symposium was “explorations in citizen science,” and Nye, Wright explained, has been at the forefront of bringing science out of the lab and into the living room.

“As a person who grew up in the ‘90s, I don’t think that many people have made science more accessible to the public than our speaker here today,” Wright said.

Jonathan Leggett, the vice president of Associated Students Inc., said he has been working with Wright since last semester toward Thursday’s keynote.

“It’s nice to finally see this all come together, and it’s even more exciting to see all the students outside lined up since at least noon today and five in the morning when they were getting their tickets, it really shows students are committed,” he said.

Even though he grew up in Afghanistan, Rohullah Latif, the president of ASI, said he still watched him. Nye’s role as an engineer who also communicates science effectively with the public gives a lot back to the science community, he said.

“He’s out there, he’s teaching people that there’s more to science than just sitting in a lab all day and working, there’s more to it–there’s excitement, there’s energy, there’s communication, there’s new innovative ways to doing things that help move the future,” Latif said.

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