Nye became the face of science education in the U.S. thanks to his 1990s run as the host of PBS’ “Bill Nye the Science Guy.” He returned to TV this year as host of the Netflix series “Bill Nye Saves the World.” He’s an outspoken advocate on climate change and other environmental issues, and also serves as CEO of the non-profit Planetary Society, the space exploration organization co-founded by Nye’s one-time professor at Cornell University, Carl Sagan.
In advance of Monday’s solar spectacular, Nye spoke with Variety about why eclipses matter, why pirates wore eye patches (maybe), and how a healthy interest in science and space exploration benefits us all.
What does all the excitement stirred up by Monday’s eclipse mean for the scientific community?
It’s a wonderful thing. It’s all about science. What keeps the United States competitive internationally is our ability to innovate, and innovation comes from science. Any time we raise awareness of science we are doing a service to the United States and ultimately to the world. To most people it’s a once in a lifetime event. There are many solar eclipses, but you seldom have it going right across the United States like this where you have an opportunity to get in the path.
Does a pop culture event like this drive kids into pursuing science as a career?
Ask any doctor, let alone an engineer or astrophysicist, when did you know what you wanted to do for a living? It’s usually before people are 10 years old. Maybe it’s 12. It isn’t 17. You want to get people engaged when they’re young. … It’s good for everyone to know and appreciate the cosmos and our place within it. I think about the diligence of our ancestors in figuring out that we’re living on a sphere and that the moon goes around the earth and the earth and the moon together go around the sun. There were no pictures from space, no textbooks to tell them this. It’s really a remarkable thing. To have an eclipse like this is worth celebrating. I’m glad that everybody is talking about it.
Who among the scientific giants of history gets the credit for figuring out how to pinpoint the timing of eclipses?
Copernicus is the first guy as far as we know who wrote it down. He was watching the motion of the moon at sunrise and sunset. He was also observing the other planets that are generally the brightest objects in the night sky. Copernicus reasoned that the best way to make predictions of where these objects were going to be seen was by presuming that they all orbit the sun rather than the other way around. Galileo took a telescope, which had been a military instrument, and pointed it at the night sky. He determined that the moon is not a perfect sphere — it’s lousy with imperfections. During this total eclipse if things go well we will be able to the see the points of light between the mountains and valleys of the moon.
Is it fact or fiction that you can damage your eyes by staring too long at an eclipse?
An eclipse is so fascinating and so cool but if you stare at the sun for 10 minutes you’re going to hurt your eyes. One of my favorite myths is that the reason we have the stereotype of the pirate who wears an eyepatch is because when pirates were navigating the high seas, they didn’t have access to very good navigational instruments. They would use the sun. If you are staring at the sun for a minute or two every day for 20 years, you’re going to screw up your eyes. It’s a cool myth about pirates. I don’t know if it’s true. But if you look at the sun with (protective) glasses, the sun is an amazing thing.
Where will you be for the big event?
In Beatrice, Nebraska, at Homestead National Monument, with the Planetary Society. It’s a big open space. It has a lot of access right from the highway — there will be a lot of people there. We like to say the National Parks are our best outdoor classrooms. Amy Mainzer, the (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) astronomer who looks for asteroids that are going to hit the Earth, will be there. We’ll be going wild.
Where were you back in 1979 for the last big eclipse that was visible in the U.S.?
In Seattle working at Boeing. Looking back I should have driven up to the mountains. I just enjoyed it where I was with a pin hole in a cardboard box. I should have taken the day off. Live and learn.
What’s the biggest lesson the general public can learn from this experience?
When you experience the eclipse you will be in essence a space explorer, and when you become a space explorer you will make discoveries. Space exploration brings out the best in us. … I am hoping we all realize we are one people under one sun. We are all on the Earth together. There’s no place else to go. Let’s all get along, let’s be nicer to each other, and let’s take care of the Earth. I hope the eclipse brings out the best of us because it’s bigger than all of us.
(Pictured: Bill Nye was front and center in April at the March for Science in Washington, D.C.)