Bill Nye tells Oakland University audience to ‘change the world’

By: Kevin Bunch | Roseville - Eastpointe Eastsider | Published March 18, 2016

 Oakland University students Desiree Quinn, 18, and Val Hallberg, 18 wait in a long line to get books signed by Nye following his speech.

Oakland University students Desiree Quinn, 18, and Val Hallberg, 18 wait in a long line to get books signed by Nye following his speech.

Photo by Donna Agusti


ROCHESTER — “You can change the world,” science educator Bill Nye told a crowd at Oakland University’s O’rena Athletic Center March 14.

Popularly known from his “Bill Nye the Science Guy” educational TV series from the 1990s, Nye was invited to talk as part of the university’s Varner Vitality Lecture Series. For nearly 90 minutes, he talked to attendees about topics ranging from his parents’ background and sundials to the Mars rovers, global warming and renewable energy.

In a lecture that was at times as serious as it was humorous, Nye opened by talking about his father’s fascination with rocks — though he was not a professional geologist — stargazing and sundials, the latter seemingly developed while his father spent 44 months in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during World War II.

“The family myth was that he’d stick a shovel in the dirt and look for the shadow to be at its smallest, because that would be noon,” Nye said.

“He would then tell the guards, ‘Hey, it’s time for lunch.’”

He also highlighted his mother’s time in the U.S. War Department helping break German and Japanese codes during World War II. His dad’s obsession with sundials had an impact on Nye, which in turn had an impact on the Mars rovers Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity.

When Spirit and Opportunity were being designed, Nye said, he had been brought in to help consult. He noticed that a color calibration section on the rovers for their cameras would be perfect for a sundial to help keep track of time on the planet — as well as the north and south orientation when the rovers landed — and the “MarsDial” was born.

Nye segued the talk about rovers into highlighting some of the data that Sojourner discovered in 1997 about the wispy Martian atmosphere — that it is 93 percent carbon dioxide, compared to Earth’s 0.03 percent, or 300 parts per million. Nye said that in 2015, Earth’s number ticked up to 0.04 percent, or 400 parts per million, due to carbon pollution produced by humans.

“This is a tiny change in what seems like a tiny fraction of the Earth’s atmosphere, but oh my friends, it has changed the world,” he said.

Carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, even in those relatively small amounts, is causing the globe to warm up to its highest overall temperatures on record for decades, Nye said. He said one reason is because the Earth’s atmosphere is fairly thin — only about 100 kilometers for the vast majority of gases — and also because the human population has exploded over the past few decades to 7.3 billion. In contrast, Nye said that in 1964 the population was 3 billion.

Adding more and more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere is heating up the planet, Nye said, and he has also been vocal pushing back against those who do not believe it.

“Extraordinary efforts have gone to hide the money used to push climate change denial,” Nye said.

He added that an analysis from the Solutions Project found that Michigan could move 80 percent of its power to renewable sources, like solar and wind, in 15 years, and 100 percent by 2050. The change would result in 90,000 new construction jobs across the state to install wind turbines and photovoltaic cells.

Nye said it sounds “extraordinary,” but that technology changes fast.

“The transportation sector was revolutionized in two decades,” he said. “We can do this. We can change everything.”

Finally, Nye talked about how space exploration helped people discover global warming thanks to probes discovering the hellish conditions on Venus — a greenhouse gas-laden atmosphere with sulfuric acid rain that evaporates before hitting the surface, and air temperatures hot enough to melt lead.

He openly wondered what discoveries about Earth scientists may find exploring Pluto, and if Mars missions will find life, either living or extinct, in the coming years. Nye added that learning more about our place and relevance in the cosmos inspires him, because even if we are insignificant specks in the grander scheme, we are still intelligent enough and capable enough to address the problems we face scientifically.

“You can, dare I say it, change the world,” Nye concluded.

Oakland University Center for Student Activities Director Jean Ann Miller said Nye was the No. 1 choice for a guest lecture by a committee made up of students, faculty and staff, as well as from the people behind the Verner Vitality series.

“We worked with his agent to see if he was available, and sure enough, on Pi Day — March 14 — he was available,” Miller said. “It was a full house.”

Miller said that while she did not grow up on Nye, she found it amazing to see the crowd and the variety of topics he talked about, including his inspirational message for students to make the world a better place.

She added that astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson was also high on the potential speaking list, but since he is already scheduled to be in Detroit March 24, they felt Nye was the better option to pursue.