“Brain Storm”, the latest episode of Stargate Atlantis, guest-stars Dave Foley, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye. Also known as the “Science Guy”, Nye has shown many people the fun and entertaining side to science. His show, Bill Nye the Science Guy ran for four years on PBS and majorly influenced me in an interest in physics and astronomy. Thanks to SCI FI, I recently had a chance to speak with him about his appearance on Stargate and a whole range of other topics. While this may not read as funny, trust me when I say he had me laughing the entire conversation. Note: there are some mild spoilers below so you may want to read this after you watch the episode.
PCZ: How did you get involved with doing an episode of Stargate Atlantis?
BN: Robert Picardo is on the advisory board of The Planetary Society. I have been a member of The Planetary Society since 1980. Now I’m the vice president and he and I have become really good friends. So he asked me if I’d be interested and he asked them [the producers] if they’d be interested and we converged. It turns out that Stargate-ians are all big Bill Nye fans. It’s cool.
PCZ: Most of the time on a show like Stargate, a fictional show, it’s usually…
BN: Fictional, what?!? Are you kidding? That’s not real?
PCZ: You tell me, how real is it?
BN: I’ll just tell you, [on the episode I’m in] the world almost ends, man. It takes us like fifty-four minutes to keep the world from ending. We really had to focus.
PCZ: When they came to you was it always that you were going to be yourself and have such a large role in the episode? Usually they bring the guest star through as themselves for a few minutes, they make a few jokes and then go away. But you keep showing up and you help save the day.
BN: I know, yeah. They let me ad-lib a couple of lines. “I can do math, I’m an engineer!” “It’s a convolution integral,” or something like that. I don’t know if that made it in.
PCZ: Did you get to make up some of the science or help keep the science real?
BN: Well, I mean I made a couple of suggestions. The whole plutoid thing, did that make it in?
PCZ: Yes it did.
BN: Oh good, I made that up or expressed that. Did the public service announcement make it in? The PSA about the importance of science-fiction and imagination and stuff?
PCZ: I just saw a rough cut of the episode and it wasn’t included.
BN: It’ll be after the show. Let me just say it was the most fun [being in the episode]. Oh man, the big thing for me I got to just be an actor. Normally, you know, I’m a producer too. I bring the beakers and I develop the demonstration, a lot of extra dinking around. But in this thing I was just acting.
PCZ: That’s easier, right?
BN: Well, it’s easier if that’s all your doing, if you only have one role. I mean it’s gotta be harder to be the player-coach than the player.
PCZ: Had you watched Stargate before?
BN: Yeah. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t a religious, never-miss-it guy, but I watched it many times.
PCZ: So how does it hold up as far as plausible science or real science?
BN: Oh, that’s another thing about this episode for me. It’s just a cool idea. You know, we all want as engineers and physicists the second law of thermodynamics to not be true. We want somehow to be able to move heat from one place to another without the enormous physics penalty that we have. I don’t know if you know what I mean, but if you’re gonna move heat around there’s this thing called the Carnot efficiency that just crushes your smokes, as we say. It makes it really difficult. Your dream ever since you’re a little kid is that that is really not true, that there is some physics way around that which is not perfectly analogous, but reminiscent of the idea that time isn’t always going one way. If you could go through a wormhole wouldn’t that be great to end up at another part of the universe at another time? Wouldn’t that just be a wonderful thing? And so that’s the premise of Stargate.
“If you could go through a wormhole wouldn’t that be great to end up at another part of the universe at another time? Wouldn’t that just be a wonderful thing?”
So, this guy has a way around the second law of thermodynamics. It’s wonderful, it’s a great idea as far as science-fiction goes. It’s really good and that was another thing that really really appealed to me. Also, and I’ve said this a hundred times, but [episode writer and director] Martin Gero is really good he’s going to go somewhere huge I think.
PCZ: Do you think a show like Stargate fits in well with your idea of combining entertainment and science to get people interested in it?
BN: Well, there’s a couple of things about Stargate includes a hopeful view of the future. It’s inherently optimistic that we will solve the world’s problems and we will have the wonderful luxury of cruising all over the place and as we do everybody will get along. I mean there’s wraiths and they’re trouble, sure. We’re trying to talk them out of it with that genetic modification. I don’t know if that’s going to get resolved. I don’t want to frighten your readers, but the wraith could be a problem for a long time.
At any rate, at any wraith, I love the optimist quality of science-fiction. For somebody my age this goes back to Star Trek where if we just played our cards right things would be better. So Stargate Atlantis has this inherently optimistic thing. The great thing about Stargate Atlantis is just the vulnerability of every character. Every character just has so much trouble. Rodney! Dude! And Keller, she’s just so vulnerable so fragile, yet she’s tough, you know?
PCZ: You and Neil deGrasse Tyson just get to tear Rodney apart in front of his date.
BN: Well, we did our best. Hey, did the whistle come out? They walk away and I whistle? There was a lot of ambiance and I’m not sure I was whistling very strongly.
PCZ: Yes, that made it in. Was that another ad lib?
BN: Oh yeah. The way it was [originally] written was that it didn’t quite point out that Neil is very happily married, so he’s not going to hit on her. So I had to sort of slip that in.
PCZ: That was a nice little line there as well.
BN: Neil’s wife is something, she’s quite charming and brilliant. They met in astrophysics grad school for crying out loud! He’s the real deal that Neil. He almost always includes his middle name, it’s his thing. Neil deGrasse Tyson. It’s his deal, who am I to judge? I think the fewer names the better.
PCZ: Bill Nye is very concise and it’s right to the point.
BN: It’s right there and you’re done.
PCZ: When you do a role where you’re yourself are you playing exactly yourself or is it more of an exaggerated version?
BN: Well, the guy on camera is a little more wound up than I am. I don’t drop as many things on my feet as the Science Guy does. The Science Guy’s a lot of trouble. He’s always getting hit in the head with an anvil. The world was ending people!
BN: Yes! The world’s ending, ok?!?
PCZ: You still maintained your cool. I thought you kept everyone focused.
BN: Well, [quoting himself from the episode] “I can do math, I’m an engineer! Now, Rodney, this epsilon is a function of time! The convolution integral is not a constant here. I’ve been telling you all this for hours, man! At least 50 minutes I’ve been telling you this!” And Dave Foley was great, he was cracking me up.
PCZ: Between you, Dave Foley and David Hewlett how did you keep it straight?
BN: Dave Hewlett, man that guy. He works hard I tell ya. He’s a good guy.
PCZ: This episode is all based in one building. Did you get to go see the Stargate?
BN: No I didn’t have time, too much going on. We hope we are going to be back. This Stargate is going to get canceled, but there will be derivative products and I hope we get sucked into that.
PCZ: There’ll be another series as well.
BN: Exactly. Like Star Trek just reinvent it all the time. So we are hopeful that we get sucked into that. We, the royal we for I, me, Bill. I want to get sucked back into the vortex. It was so much fun and I’m wearing a tuxedo, come on! In downtown Vancouver, down by Robson Street, walking around in the evening. And I bought a pair of shoes there that I wore on camera all week.
PCZ: You kind of had the James Bond thing going on there.
BN: Sure I did, sure I did. And that was my tie and Neil’s tie, we both brought our ties. When you’re playing yourself you can pull that off. That tie is custom made. I was at a science museum in London a couple of weeks ago and I bought a tie at the Science Center and it’s a straight tie and I send it to this company in Vermont called Beau Ties. Get it? Beau Ties will make a straight tie into a bow tie for thirty bucks. I’ve had two dozen ties made into a bow tie. The one with the planets on it started out as a straight tie and Neil owns another version of that tie from the same company, but he uses it as a straight tie. But we look good I mean, come on, you’re standing around in a tuxedo for four days. What’s not to love about that? Neil, he’s a busy guy. He’s on the NASA board and the National Advisory Council, so he was only there for a day.
“But we look good I mean, come on, you’re standing around in a tuxedo for four days. What’s not to love about that?”
PCZ: And you supported his downgrading Pluto from planet status?
BN: Absolutely, because there’s very good, as we say, pedagogical reasons for that. Pluto is different from the other planets and that is a great thing to know if you’re a kid, if you’re anybody. It’s good to understand that Pluto is inherently not like the planets in what I like to call the Main Plane. The Main Plane is the plane of the ecliptic and Pluto is trans-Neptunian and is closely related to what I like to call the ultra-Neptunian objects. Trans-Neptunian would cross the orbit of Pluto, ultra-Neptunian would be beyond the orbit of Pluto. These objects are form the earliest, earliest days of the solar system and contain water, rockiness and they’re kooky and crazy. If you took Pluto near the sun it would evaporate, it would have a tail. Is a planet supposed to do that? I mean it seems like a planet should be more robust. Although it has enough gravity to be a ball it doesn’t have enough gravity to clear things out of it’s orbit. I mean, the moon is a much bigger object than Pluto. Pluto and Cheron are a doublet, a pair, and the pairs are very common. In certain orbital sectors thirty percent of the objects are in pairs, binaries.
PCZ: I’m learning all kinds of things from this interview.
BN: I give you this because I was just at the DPS, the Division for Planetary Science meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Ithaca at Cornell. Didn’t see you there, it’s really a party. Well, it was fun for me, but, hey, I like [New York] hot dogs.
PCZ: Are you still in competition with Ed Begley Jr. ?
BN: Oh, yes my friend! Ed Begley – what is it now punk? What’s in right now and I’m looking right out at it is the subterranean lawn watering system. Instead of pipes coming up with sprinklers and spraying through the air these have these patented shaped tubes with these very small holes drilled in them and water comes from underneath. Now I just put it in on Saturday and we’ll see if it works. I think it’ll work. I looked at the data, I looked at their test site where they’ve installed it at other houses. It looks like it’s perfect, but one test is worth a thousand expert opinions.
PCZ: So he has no chance still?
BN: Oh he has a chance, but, I mean, come on. He’s falling farther and farther behind.
PCZ: Look who he’s up against, come on!
BN: Yes, exactly. Right now I am still surprised at how cool my house is inside today. Here in southern California we’re having the Santa Ana winds, where air sloshes back from the great basin. The great basin is another name for Nevada and, this is physics and astonishing, the air falls downhill so fast it gets warm. Have you ever pumped up a bike tire and the bottom of the bike pump gets warm? The vibrational energy of all the air molecules that are, if you will, two feet long when you start the pump end up six inches long when you get to the bottom. Compress all that energy, it gets warm. So these winds fall downhill so fast they compress and get warm and dry the land out. Then when you get a fire set by a wrecked car or lightning or something you really get a fire. But my house is quite cool because of these new energy efficient windows. Ed has a few of them, but he hasn’t replaced them all, has he? How do I know that? That’s right, Charlie the window guy. Charlie the window guy complaining to me that Begley hasn’t finished. Hey man, i finished. And shot the lid. That’s right, shot the lid. I sprayed granular beads that are evacuated in this silver spray paint on the underside of the roof. It’s a radiant barrier and all these things are conspiring to make the house so much better.
The trouble with the windows and the insulation and all that stuff is these are the low hanging fruit, this is not sexy. So you replaced the windows, big deal. Ed and I both have solar panels. I have a solar hot water system that I claim was better than his, but he has a new one and I don’t know if I’m still keeping up with him on that. His is three years younger. But my electric bill is seven dollars a month and my gas bill is less than ten. It depends on how much cooking I do. Traditionally, environmentalists want you to do less; they want you to drive less, they want you to wear dirty clothes…I tell you what, just don’t eat! But that’s not what people want. People are not going to embrace that, you’ve got to come up with ways to do more with less. I have a section of my lawn called the wabe, which is from “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carol. A wabe is a triangle piece of grass around my sundial. If I can maintain that just as green with a tenth of the water I used this time last year that will, if I may, kick ass.
PCZ: You invented a sundial that’s being used on the mars rover, is that correct?
BN: Well, I didn’t invent it, but I was a big part of it, I claim. I was the guy who suggested it in this one meeting. I wasn’t the first guy to suggest it be a sundial, I was the first guy to point out that there is no symmetry problem because we’ll be near the equator.
By the way let take a look right now. Twenty-three cents is my average cost per day for energy, the last sixty days is fourteen dollars. I just opened the bill because I was talking to you. And I remind you I am on the grid, I do not live off the grid. There’s a connection charge of seven dollars a month. This is from the Department of Water and Power from August 1st to the 6th of October, so two months. And I’m one guy, I don’t have a family. I travel a lot, I’m not here a lot, but the other thing is I have all these energy conserving systems in place.
PCZ: Well, that’s all the time I have for now.
BN: It was great talking to you and enjoy the show.
PCZ: I will and thank you very much for your time.
Thank you very much to Bill Nye for his time. Catch the “Brain Storm” episode of Stargate Atlantis November 21st at 9:00PM on SCI FI.
[Editor’s note – as pointed out by reader Psyberian, this interview originally contained the phrase “thermal dynamics” instead of “thermodynamics.” This was an unfortunate mis-transcribing accident (Mr. Nye did indeed pronounce it correctly) for which the writier humbly apologizes to Mr. Nye and all our readers. Sorry!]