Bill Nye: What Do Ford Pinto, U.S. Constitution, and CRISPR have in Common?


For almost three decades William Sanford Nye has been inspiring and educating millions of kids around the world. Mechanical engineer by education, Bill Nye the Science Guy is also the CEO of the Planetary Society, an organization empowering humans to advance space science and exploration. He discusses the importance of E-Fests, the need for more engineers, and the diversity in STEM.

Q: You are one of the most recognizable faces in STEM. How did it happen?

BN: I did a show, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and I did that because I was very concerned as a mechanical engineer. I was very concerned about the future of the United States. I was born in the United States, and I’ve travelled the world and met people from all over. But as a citizen of this country I was very concerned: People abandoned the metric system in schools; People were driving Ford Pinto and Chevrolet Vega; Aircrafts made in other parts of the world were being engineered very well, and competing with the one made in the United States. I wanted to affect our future and I’ve realized the most amazing fact, that the kids are the future. So I’ve made the show for the kids, and people liked the show.

Q: Why is it so important to make science and engineering easy for people to understand?

BN: It’s not so much that science and engineering are easy to understand. It’s that they are important. Science, I claim, is the best idea humans have ever had. You observe something, you wonder about it, you design a test to see if your hypothesis about why it happened is true, and you see what happens and compare with what you thought would happen, and you start over. That’s how we change the world and that’s how we have all this technology. After all, it’s a pretty big deal since it’s mentioned in the U.S. Constitution—“the progress of science and useful arts.”

Q: I know that you are big on workforce development. Why are activities like ASME E-Fest so important these days?

BN: You have to get young people involved. You want to get young people excited about science, as well as help students understand that they can participate and be part of the future. And then, if you become an engineer it’s very reasonable to assume that you will easily land a job, and that just really simplifies things.

Q: Why is it important to have diversity and diverse voices in the workforce?

BN: Science is the human idea. You want science to be done by all types of people who live in the world. The world is diverse and humanity is diverse. So you want science and engineering to be populated by a diverse group. This is what the world is now.

Q: How you feel about the state of STEM right now? Do you think we are where we should be?

BN: We always need more engineers, in my opinion. What does everybody talk about? Infrastructure, infrastructure! Where does it come from? Look around—everything that you see around you came out of somebody’s head and that head most likely belonged to an engineer. We want our hardscape, architecture, and transportation systems not only to function very-very well but we want them to look good. That’s why we need science, technology, engineering, art, agriculture, and math.

When I was a kid we had 3 billion people in the world. Pretty soon we are going to have 9 billion people. And in order to feed all those people we are going to need major advances in science and agriculture. So let’s go, let’s get it done!

Q: With all the emerging technologies out there, is there one technology that scares you, or is there anything that makes you apprehensive about the future?

BN: There’s no technology that scares me, except maybe the technology of certain weapons. But this has always been a feature of scientific progress. People are afraid of technologies till they become part of everyday life.

The emerging technology that’s going to be extraordinary is CRISPR, or clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, where you have a protein that can find a place on DNA, clip out a length of DNA, and replace it. It’s going to be world-changing: Not just for all the creepy science-fiction reasons of armies of thoughtless soldiers, but it’s going to be amazing in agriculture. We are going to feed people thanks to such types of emerging technology. I also think, this general fear of genetically modified crops is completely misplaced. Let’s go, let’s feed everybody!   

John G. Falcioni is the Editor-in-Chief of Mechanical Engineering Magazine.

Listen to the complete interview with Bill Nye on ASMETechCast

Recommended for You: Nurturing the Next Generation of Engineers