A Lovely Chat With Bill Nye About The End Of The World

“Was I just too cynical for Bill Nye?” The thought ran through my head after wrapping a lengthy conversation with the beloved TV science educator who radiates can-do and faith in the human race to get out of its own way, a view I do not share and could not fake even if I wanted to. But what Nye is selling — specifically with his latest show, The End Is Nye (which just dropped on Peacock), is more than faith.

“Hope is not a plan,” he tells me when I offer a semi-shruggy answer to a question about avoiding calamity from natural disasters. For Nye, the plan is the plan. Real, science-based approaches to confronting really scary shit, that’s the solution put forth in the show, which introduces — through movie-quality special effects — the many frightening ways the world could end. Now, can we listen to him and others who want to flash the light of science in the dark tunnel of our existence? That’s an open question that we aren’t going to get to the bottom of here (we sort more important things here, like whether his signature bow-tie is a clip-on), but I can admit (as I did in the following interview), that listening to Nye talk does give me more faith in the possibility of solutions.

I didn’t need something else to freak out about and this end-of-the-world stuff definitely makes me nervous. Do you just like to freak people out?

So, there’s a surprising phenomenon that we have embraced. And by we, I mean the producers, Seth MacFarlane, Brannon Braga, the writers, and me. That is, when things are good, people watch romantic comedies. When things are anxiety-producing, we watch anxiety-producing movies and television. It is a surprising result. In a pandemic, people rent Contagion. And so what we have done here in the anxiety-producing world of today is produce six one-hour disaster movies. But the twist, the new thing, is this dual structure where in the second half of the show, we show everything would be great if we just embrace science. We can prepare for these problems and be ready for them and be ready to address them.

I’ve got to tell you, in the pandemic, I watched Cheers all the way through nine times. I didn’t watch Contagion, so I kind of break the theory a little bit.

No wonder you’re so anxious.

Exactly. I should have watched more apocalyptic-themed stuff.

Well, it’s not too late. There’s still plenty of anxiety out there.

And plenty of pandemic out there.

So we didn’t do a pandemic episode because it’s still going on.

We’re all still trying to figure out exactly what the second or positive half of that story is.

In 1918, the Spanish Flu killed 50 million people or whatever the numbers are — an enormous number of people. And this pandemic hasn’t killed nearly as many because we did have a vaccine. In 1918, it took about five years for things to go back to normal, or normal-ish. And so what are we into it? Three years? Two and a half years. Stay tuned.

Nobody can think with that level of perspective though.

I just did! And look, I’m fine.

Well, yeah. But you’re The Science Guy, we’re a bunch of schmucks, so it’s harder for us.

I’m a co-schmuck when it comes to this! We’ll get through it.

Do you think it’s harder for people to grasp the severity of apocalyptic scenarios because we’ve seen it so many times in so many ways on the big screen with these breathtaking, super realistic, special effects (going back more than 20 years)? The Day After Tomorrow shows global warming’s effects nearly instantly, Armageddon, and on and on and on. Independence Day.

Well, when I watch, in your example of Independence Day, I’m not that worried about aliens coming by with the mothership and they start blowing up (landmarks). So, that’s not really my thing. Our six disasters are fact-based and science-based. And so that does two things. First of all, it’s really anxiety-producing. And the other thing is by using real science, real experts, and consultants, the story is much easier to write. There are a lot fewer leaps of faith for the viewer because they’re logical and real.

But you’re co-opting, to some degree, some of the same kinds of special effects and the same kind of imagery.

We had Jeff Oaken, man. The guy who wrote the book or edited the visual effects handbook, he’s the visual effects supervisor. So we have digital effects. It’s the 21st century. You’re going to do a disaster movie, you’re going to need your digital effects. But what’s different, I claim, is this optimistic thing in the second half of the show.

How do you stay optimistic with things like that? Not just where we are with the pandemic or where we are with global warming and that situation, and not just the news and politicians (on both sides of the aisle) that don’t take it seriously, but also the general anti-science thing that is not just political. It’s in the culture, it’s in our bones now, schools where books are getting banned and things of that nature. How do you stay hopeful in a climate like that?

I think it is not sustainable to have a society where lawmakers think, for example, that the earth might be flat. I don’t think you can keep going, the economy won’t sustain and people won’t vote for those people anymore. So I am very optimistic about the future because young people are going to rise up and take over, the science deniers are going to age out and disappear. And then young people who are very concerned about the future, very concerned about the environment and our relationship with it, are going to be running the show and they’re going to make changes. It’s going to be exciting.

Nye Storm

Has your mission statement changed from when you started to when you were more education based to a point where you feel like you need to kind of be a little bit more aggressive in trying to help make that reality true?

Let’s distinguish for a moment between the objective of the show and the mission statement. Let me think about this for a moment. The objective is the same. For the last 30 years, the objective is to change the world. But the mission of the Science Guy show, let’s say, was to get young people excited about science. So in the future, we’d have more scientists and engineers to address the world’s problems and make the world better for everybody. The mission of this show is to raise awareness of our relationship to the universe so that we do something about features of the universe that could kill us all. So the objective is the same, change the world. The mission’s a little different.

Do you ever worry about alienating anybody?

Well, I’ve alienated a lot of people.

Well, yeah.

Let’s put it another way. They’ve alienated themselves. I feel we can stay the course, like in the example of The End Is Nye show, I think there’s something there for everybody. And as Seth MacFarlane says, conservative media are so successful, they have so many viewers because they scare people. So we’re scaring some people and I hope the scared people will come in and enjoy the show.

I’ve seen the hurricane episode. What are the other ones that you guys cover?

So can you think of a classic world-ending disaster? You alluded to a couple of movies.

Well, aliens, I guess.

Aliens isn’t really an issue for us, but an asteroid impact, instead of an asteroid, we have a comet. The nucleus of a comet, which is the same thing, just more fun, in a way. And then we have a series of mistakes that leads to the dust bowl happening again — drought conditions and poor farming practices that lead to a collapse of our agricultural system. Speaking of, part of the reason we’re all able to eat food here in North America is the soils in the Midwest, in the Heartland were put there by a volcano, what nowadays people call a super volcano and what is now under what is now Yellowstone National Park. Well, what if that thing blew up again? And people love to discuss that possibility. What would you do? What exactly would you do about it?

I would die.

What would you do about an incoming comet? What would you do about dust bowl conditions? What would you do about the Pacific tectonic plate moving in a large way the way it did in 1964, except now we have billions of people living around that area instead of a few million?

Again, in all these cases, I would die. I just know that. I’ve accepted that. Others might survive. Why are we so obsessed with endings and cataclysms?

With eschatology, the Bible has a whole end of the world thing, many, many religions have an end of the world thing. And a lot of speculation’s been done about that. And people think people who study this, eschatologists, accept that for millennia, nature has had its way with us. If you lived in a valley and there was a flood and you lost everything, that was just how it went. If you were a First Nations person in North America and guys came from Europe with smallpox and killed everybody, there was nothing you could do about it, or very little you could do about it. If you lived on a sea coast for generations and there was a tsunami that killed everyone, there was hardly anything you could do about it.

But now we have an understanding of nature. We know where these problems come from and how they could emerge. And so we can do something about it. After blue-green algae, we are the only species that are able to affect the ecosystems on an entire planet. That’s us, man. We are in charge now. Humans probably didn’t want to be, but we’re in charge. So let’s act responsibly and change the world.

On a wholesale level, yes, we have a better understanding of these things, but at an individual level, I mean, we’re still at the whim of nature. I mean, is that part of the thing also, that we’re just so self-important that we kind of are shocked when things like floods happen and take us out? Again, it’s nature. To a certain degree, there’s no stopping it.

Well, it depends on what it is. In the case of a comet, that is a preventable natural disaster. With a space program, with diligence, you can prevent a comet from hitting the earth. You really could. Maybe we’ll get a chance someday to do that. In fact, the DART mission is coming up, dual asteroid redirection test, where we’re trying to see if we can steer a spacecraft at like 40 kilometers a second into another rock. We’ll see. And then in the case of volcanoes, there are steps you can take. One of them might be, to get out of the way.

Have you ever been to Mount Vesuvius, near Naples in Italy?

Mountains are not my thing.

It’s rich farmland. And that’s why we have spaghetti. Everything comes ripe at the same time because the wheat and the tomatoes and these huge lemons, everything happens all at once, olives. But if you live on the flanks of a volcano, there’s potential for trouble. So make it so you can get out of the way if it goes off again, in that example.

And then the other one that I really worry about is this coronal mass ejection, the CME, where the sun has this magnetic field churning around, the corona part of the outer layer of the sun shoots off toward us, a piece of it. These big blasts of charged particles, moving through space, create a magnetic field that interacts with Earth’s magnetic field and turns off all the lights everywhere worldwide. Do you run in a circle screaming? No, we protect our electrical infrastructure so that we’re ready for that. You don’t believe me, ask anybody from Texas a year and a half ago where they had this independent grid. We’re not going to get taken down by adjacent states, but then their grid wasn’t robust enough when it kind of got cold. So, that’s a solvable problem. Let’s address this problem. Come on, people.

You’re making me feel more confident about the possibility of solutions. I’m a little less confident in the possibility of humans, but in the solutions and the science, I’m feeling more confident.

Good. Just keep in mind, humans are almost certainly extinction-proof at this point. Not four billion years hence when the sun turns into a red giant or whatever, but right now it’s really hard to kill off all the humans. The question is, how many humans are going to go into the future with a high quality of life? For me, I want as many as possible.

I honestly have to ask, the bow tie, is it ever a clip-on? Do you ever just take a day off?

I’m sorry is it a clip-on? Can you imagine what my world would be like if I wore a clip-on tie? Talk about losing respect. [Bill Nye proceeds to undo his bow tie] I did when I was on Dancing with the Stars. That was an attach-on. But yeah, it’s a real bow tie. Come on. I mean, I’d lose respect, wouldn’t I?

Do people pull at the tie?

People seldom pull at the tie, but once in a while, you’ll get like a TV producer or a nice stylist will come and straighten the tie. That’s not bad. That’s not bad, but I don’t have a mirror, I’m just working over here. [Bill Nye masterfully re-ties his 100% not a clip-on bow tie without looking] There we go.

‘The End Is Nye’ is now available to stream on Peacock