For Children with Lots of Questions: The Universe Is Waiting

Our students have delved deeply into science this month, wielding their magnifying glasses for our Scientist-In-Residence program … interrupted by impromptu lessons from Nature about bomb cyclones and the polar vortex. When spring kicked off with another nor’easter, your children may have asked you where all these blizzards are coming from. For a kid-friendly explanation for why storms happen, as well as many other questions, who better than Bill Nye the Science Guy? His beloved PBS series from the early 90’s is now streaming on Netflix, and he has an entire episode about storms. In fact, Bill Nye the Science Guy covers many of the science topics we explore at TCS, such as plants, the food web, the sun and the solar system, ocean life and magnetism.

Nye’s concept for the show was to explain scientific concepts to children with the exuberance of Monty Python. Nye had worked as both an engineer at Boeing and a stand-up comedian, and he combined those talents as a science educator, intercutting field interviews with scientists with silly puns and parody music videos. To demonstrate how the invisible force of gravity works, Nye brought on teenage rock climbers, gymnasts and skateboarders as “gravity specialists,” played clips of the Apollo astronauts bouncing across the moon and even dropped a computer off the roof of a building. Bill Nye the Science Guy won 19 Emmys for its fast pace and dynamism. For those of you who remember Nye’s blue lab coat, trademark bow tie and incandescent level of energy, it will be a nostalgia trip to share the series with your children.

Now 80, Bill Nye is still working tirelessly as an advocate for scientific literacy, starting at a young age, when children spontaneously ask questions about everything they observe. Nye sees kids’ curiosity and interest in the natural world as wonderful traits to encourage, as these become lifelong habits in scientists. (The physicist Richard Feynman famously spent hours mapping the movements of ants in the bathroom of his house at Caltech, figuring out how they created efficient trails to a sugar lump.) Nye also thinks that practicing the scientific method can cultivate an openness to new ideas and a willingness to accept a new paradigm. “Humility strikes me as a facet of scientific thinking. You have to be humble enough to accept contrary evidence to your hypothesis, or to think you don’t know everything about the world.” His hope is that children will find inspiration and excitement in the process of learning how nature works, and be energized by how little we still know. “It’s so exciting that we don’t know. Embrace it, don’t reject it. It’s a huge opportunity.”

On a more serious note, Bill Nye wants to make sure that the next generation is able to recognize and resist the rise of pseudoscience. “There’s a trend right now, which we hope to reverse, that what you believe is somehow every bit as valid as discoveries made through the process of science—and that is anti-science. The whole idea in science is to find things that are objectively true.” He feels it is urgent that children grow up scientifically literate, whatever their future aspirations, because all of us need an ability to weigh evidence to function as citizens. “We want everyone on earth to have a scientific view of the world. This is not to say that everyone should become a full-time professional scientist or researcher. But we want everyone to be literate enough with respect to science that he or she can make good judgments.”

Bill Nye’s quest to have everyone understand the scientific process was shared by the late Stephen Hawking. Hawking, who will be buried in Westminster Abbey near Newton and Darwin, leaves behind an extraordinary legacy as a theoretical physicist. Alongside his contributions to our understanding of black holes, Hawking strove to make the mind-bending hypotheses of cosmologists approachable in his book, A Brief History of Time. It has become the classic guide to the birth of the universe, translated into 35 languages and selling more than 10 million copies. Through his voice synthesizer, he conveyed the optimism that scientists derive from their collective endeavors: “I believe in the possible. I believe, small though we are, insignificant though we may be, we can reach a full understanding of the universe.… We are very, very small, but we are profoundly capable of very, very big things.”

So here’s to big, important, lofty ideas, the kind we are raising our children to ponder.