Bill Nye on the Rosetta Comet Landing: "We'll make discoveries that nobody's imagined yet."

Bill Nye discusses the Rosetta comet landing, ruminates on the expanse of potential discoveries it could open up, and explains why this current space adventure may one day prevent a major global tragedy. 

To say Bill Nye digs space would be a vast understatement.


The beloved Science Guy recently visited Big Think to discuss this year's major astronomical feat: the Rosetta mission's rendezvous with the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.

Bill makes several interesting points about what the Rosetta mission means in the grand scheme of things. First, there's the simple fact that it's a ridiculously amazing achievement to land anything on a comet. The Rosetta probe, launched ten years ago by the European Space Agency, will have traversed great lengths of space to reach a tiny dirt clod barely kept together by its non-zero gravity. It's a testament to mankind that we will have accomplished this feat.

Second, the Rosetta mission speaks to our primal thirst for adventure. Space is, as Captain Kirk would say, the final frontier. It is the last bastion of untold curiosities known to humanity. Sending Rosetta (and it's lander, Philae) to explore the surface of 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko will lead to new discoveries we never could have fathomed. 

"There’ll be stuff out there that no one’s thought of – something about ice, something about rocks, something about gravity, something about orbital motion, something about iridium – I’m making that up. Something about elements that we don’t think about too much. And you’re going to have an adventure." 

Finally, Nye explains how this current space adventure may one day help prevent a global tragedy. The only preventable astronomical disaster that could one day eradicate humanity is a collision between Earth and an asteroid. Nye sees Rosetta's landing as a prelude to the missions our space agencies must design in order to plan an asteroid landing for the purpose of blowing it off course.

"If there were another one that were going to hit the earth you can see that if you just tried to push it you probably wouldn’t influence it properly. You’d just make it scatter and you might make things worse."

Nye ends the interview with one of his trademark moments of levity. He says he hopes to one day be a part of a civilization that elects not to go the way of the dinosaurs. After all...

"There is no evidence at all that the ancient dinosaurs had a space program and it cost them."

 Bill Nye's latest book is Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation

You can see photos from Rosetta at planetary.org

Images: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM, CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.