Q&A: Bill Nye

Science guy Bill Nye’s secret to a successful vegetable garden, and one conservation measure everyone should take.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Mother Jones: You’re on TV. Is that the best way to get people to go green?

Bill Nye: Television isn’t inherently good or bad. You go to a bookstore, there are how many thousands of books, but how many of those do you want? Five? Television’s the same way. If you’re going to show people stuff, television is the way to go. Words and pictures show things. It’s just unbeatable. But if you want your kids to do sit-ups, television’s not really the best way.

MJ: How much are kids thinking about global warming?

BN: They’re much more involved than parents are; they’re much more serious about it. The analogy I always use is smoking. When I was growing up, there were a lot of anti-smoking messages, and my parents smoked, so I would just never let up on them. You said don’t smoke, don’t smoke, don’t smoke, and here you are smoking. So they quit eventually. If you want grown-ups to recycle, just tell their kids the importance of recycling, and they’ll be all over it.

MJ: Do you think environmental challenges are a reason kids are involved with science nowadays?

BN: We hope so. Twenty or thirty years ago the most prestigious area of science was physics. Earth science was the least prestigious, the least important. Well, that seems to be changing. The climate scientists are the people of the future. Physicists are now involved in really arcane projects, trying to look for invisible particles in Switzerland and so on. So we’ll see. We’re right at that time point. I hope climate science becomes the big thing. And then what I want is electrical engineers to solve the world’s energy problems, energy distribution problems. I want mechanical engineers to make better transportation systems. I want chemical engineers to develop better solar panels, and so on.

MJ: Do Americans have basic scientific literacy?

BN: No.

MJ: So is that part of the reason we’re not getting more involved in climate change?

BN: Oh yeah. We’re the only country in the world that doesn’t consider climate change important. If you go into other parts of the world, climate change is part of everyday discussions everywhere. Here, we have a huge number of voters who don’t believe in evolution. And evolution is not climate change. But evolution is the fundamental idea in all of biology. It makes everything go. It would be like meeting a geologist who doesn’t believe in tectonic plates. It’d be like meeting a geologist who thinks the earth is hollow. There’s no such thing. I mean, the earth’s not hollow. Get over it. So the United States is unique in that way. We’re still the world leader in space exploration. If you want to build a rocket, the United States is pretty good. But if you’re in my business, it just makes you crazy. Or in my case, crazier.

MJ: What’s the single most effective personal conservation measure everyone should take?

BN: You do the lights. This is the real thing: compact fluorescents. It’s not a joke. If it’s a broken record, so be it. Let it keep skipping, or whatever records do.

MJ: Why is it important?

BN: Because electricity is still mostly made from coal. So that’s putting carbon dioxide directly into the atmosphere. So the less electricity you use, the less carbon dioxide you’re producing, even if you live in a place where they have so-called green electricity produced in green fashion, you’re still lowering the world’s use of coal by not using as much. And it’s really hard for most people to understand how much energy is in a kilowatt-hour of electricity. Carlos Sastre, the guy who won the Tour de France this year, he can’t produce a kilowatt for more than a minute or two. So when you leave the hair dryer on, when you leave the oven on, when you lave the iron on, or these things, it’s an unbelievable amount of energy. So if you can cut your electricity use by 20 percent, that’s a chunk of change. It’s to the point where the utilities now are offering people compact fluorescents at less than half the price, a quarter of the price, in order that they won’t have to build another plant.

MJ: Okay, got it, compact fluorescents. What are some other ways to conserve?

BN: Make your windows modern. Double pane and, depending where you live, low emissivity glass. But they’re costly to retrofit into houses. My windows were a little more than $25,000, which, you know, is a lot of freaking money. If you’re trying to raise a family? Twenty-five thousand dollars, my god—people!

MJ: Is there a way to do it on the cheap?

BN: Well, there are plastic systems that work okay, but they’re temporary.

MJ: And if you do spend $25,000 on windows, how much are you saving?

BN: Well that’s the other thing; it’s so far in the future. Even if you were to save $100 a month on heating and cooling, that would be 250 months, that’s 20 years. But what it does, it saves energy right away and it also makes the house quieter, improves the quality of the house. And energy is not getting any cheaper. What it does is it raises the value of your house. If you’re an owner, this gets into this thing: To the right buyer, a house with modern windows is worth more. And if you’ve ever done this, the real cost of these things is in sitting through the remodel, your house is just in turmoil, sawdust everywhere, noise, guys running in and out, paper on the floor, masking tape on everything, and no matter how careful they are, through the magic of contractors, dust gets everywhere. So the person buying your house knows that and will compensate you, it is to be hoped.

MJ: And do the windows make sense for every climate?

BN: Generally yes, because you’re still heating, right? There are engineers who have this evaluated. If everyone in Phoenix had low emissivity windows, everyone in the world would be better off. It’s a very hard idea to get, that if you affect the climate in Phoenix you’re affecting everyone in the whole world because, as we say, we all share the air. And that brings us to the next topic: Why a place like Phoenix or Florida or Texas is not paved in solar hot-water-heater systems is something I’m sure future generations will wonder. “What were you people doing? What the hell were you doing?” And then what would we say? “I don’t know man; we didn’t know what we were doing.”

MJ: Tell me more about solar hot water.

BN: There are many systems, many ways to do it. Sunlight heats up a collector on the roof, which is usually a piece of black metal with tubes running through it, and that water gets hot, and then that water is fed, in general, not directly to your shower or dishwasher, but to a tank. During the course of the day the tank heats up, and then you heat it with a “booster,” let’s say from 100 degrees Fahrenheit to 125 degrees Fahrenheit.

MJ: Now how about food? I understand you’ve replaced part of your lawn with a garden.

BN: The woman who helped me set up my garden figured something out: You plant these flowers in the middle of your vegetables that attract bees, and they pollinate everything, and everything just gets much more productive. People have been doing this for a thousand years. And it’s this interesting thing about this Colony Collapse Disorder. I’ll tell you anecdotally—this is not a scientific study—but I’ve got at least five species of bees back here. I might have six or seven, and I just don’t remember that many different kinds of bees. So apparently what’s happened, the European honey bee was an invasive species to start with, it was an imported species, and so when the European bee declined, for reasons that aren’t understood, these other species have stepped up and are doing the pollinating, and not just bees, but there are these wacky beetles that are flying around here, too. Apparently these species were in the ecosystem in the 1600s but they’ve been crowded out by the honey bee, and they’re making a resurgence.

MJ: What’s your favorite kind of insulation?

BN: Well, I’m all hot right now for the blue-jean insulation. It’s fantastic. So I did this on camera a few weeks ago: We melted a penny on fiber glass insulation, and the fiberglass insulation melts, but the denim, the blue jean insulation, doesn’t melt. It’s treated with boric acid. You know, there’s no shortage of this stuff. Death Valley is made of it.

MJ: That’s cool. How much does it cost?

BN: Well it costs about the same as fiberglass, and it doesn’t have the problems of formaldehyde and stuff that fiberglass does. I mean it’s a hundred—a thousand—times safer than fiberglass.

MJ: I’ve heard that some building materials actually insulate by themselves.

BN: Everybody’s all hot now for this compressed hay. They’re blocks made of vegetable matter. A friend of mine in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is building with that. Adobe is from centuries of trial and error. They got the bricks just the right thickness so that the heat would move through them through the day in which they cool inside, and then in the evening the bricks had enough thermal capacity to keep it heated and keep it warm inside and cold at night. And the thickness and composition of that brick was through centuries of screwing around until they got it just perfectly dialed in. And in New England there’s got to be a perfectly analogous something or other. There’s no reason that now, with our very good science, that we can’t recover that technology. And you know, people get off on this. “Well, you know, the Indians, they knew all this, and they had this spiritual…” Well, yeah, they fooled with it. We can fool with it. We don’t suck at stuff like that. You know, I’m a big fan of science, big fan of engineering. If you measure the thermal conductivity of the adobe and you measure the thermal capacity of the adobe, then you design a brick with the properties that you want.

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