Astrobiology: The Search for Life Begins with Water

Television Host and Science Educator

Bill Nye, scientist, engineer, comedian, author, and inventor, is a man with a mission: to help foster a scientifically literate society, to help people everywhere understand and appreciate the science that makes our world work. Making science entertaining and accessible is something Bill has been doing most of his life.

In Seattle Nye began to combine his love of science with his flair for comedy, when he won the Steve Martin look-alike contest and developed dual careers as an engineer by day and a stand-up comic by night. Nye then quit his day engineering day job and made the transition to a night job as a comedy writer and performer on Seattle’s home-grown ensemble comedy show “Almost Live.” This is where “Bill Nye the Science Guy®” was born. The show appeared before Saturday Night Live and later on Comedy Central, originating at KING-TV, Seattle’s NBC affiliate.

While working on the Science Guy show, Nye won seven national Emmy Awards for writing, performing, and producing. The show won 18 Emmys in five years. In between creating the shows, he wrote five children’s books about science, including his latest title, “Bill Nye’s Great Big Book of Tiny Germs.”

Nye is the host of three currently-running television series. “The 100 Greatest Discoveries” airs on the Science Channel. “The Eyes of Nye” airs on PBS stations across the country.
Bill’s latest project is hosting a show on Planet Green called “Stuff Happens.” It’s about environmentally responsible choices that consumers can make as they go about their day and their shopping. Also, you’ll see Nye in his good-natured rivalry with his neighbor Ed Begley. They compete to see who can save the most energy and produce the smallest carbon footprint. Nye has 4,000 watts of solar power and a solar-boosted hot water system. There’s also the low water use garden and underground watering system. It’s fun for him; he’s an engineer with an energy conservation hobby.

Nye is currently the Executive Director of The Planetary Society, the world’s largest space interest organization.


  • Transcript


Bill Nye: So people are always looking for water in space on other worlds, on other worlds orbiting other stars.  There’s a whole class of scientists or discipline now called Astrobiology—life of other stars, life around other stars.  So we figure there’s so many physical objects in our world, whether you’re a bumblebee or a petunia or—what else could you be?—an ancient dinosaur, a tyrannosaur, you are made of stuff and you walk around and you do things, or you grow toward the light, or you metabolize the seawater you live in.  You’re some living thing.

So there’s always a solvent, as we say in chemistry, there’s always some liquid that dissolves these things.  They’re chemicals, and you could move them around, redistribute them, make use of the chemicals, and then the solvent is largely unchanged.  So astrobiologists have sought solvents, and right now water is the best one anyone can think of.  Now, we haven’t thought of the other solvent on another world that drives life elsewhere, that is so far our problem.  But the other big candidate, for you fans, is liquid ammonia, liquid ammonia.  Okay, we haven’t found anything on the earth or near the earth that seems to live on liquid ammonia, but right now it’s water.  Water seems to be the stuff.  

So we are creating telescopes and system software behind telescopes that will allow us to detect water on another world.  And you would say, how could we possibly do that, dozens, hundreds of light years away?  You’re crazy, you’re squandering our tax dollars, this is madness.  Oh no, my friends.  When light passes through or reflects off of water it has a characteristic signature.  There are spectral lines.  There are constructed and destructed interference patterns in light associated with water that would allow us to determine whether or not they’re water.  

And the other big thing is to look for the surface temperature of the distant planet.  If the surface temperature is around 50, 80, 100 degrees Fahrenheit, then you’re probably onto something.  If you’re millions of degrees Fahrenheit, probably no liquid water, and so on. 

Directed / Produced by 
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd