Bill Nye: From Ebola to Climate Change, Science Illiterate Leaders Endanger Us All
Danger is at hand, and you may have voted for it. Science educator Bill Nye weaves a passionate argument for the importance of science literacy in a country's elected leaders.
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.
Bill Nye: Ebola’s a classic example for me from an evolutionary standpoint of germs and parasites being your real enemy as a big animal, a multicellular organism. Everybody’s terrified of Ebola because you can’t see it and as the saying goes this is not my idea. People aren’t afraid of dying so much as they’re afraid of how they’re going to die. And the Ebola death looks horrible. It’s awful. And what’s making it worse in Africa in particular is scientific illiteracy. People not realizing that these microorganisms get passed from one to another. When I was in South Africa – I guess it’s five years ago a guy told a story – he was from a village, a small village. He was working for the South African Space Agency which they have. And he says it’s going to villages where kids have never seen a magnet and they recommend that you don’t go near that tree because the lightening bird landed on that tree and that means that tree will get struck by lightning and the tree branch will fall on you. And that’s not true by the way. So by having a population of people who don’t really understand germs and how serious they are, the germ gets spread really readily. As far as people freaking out here in the U.S., it’s appropriate. However, the same legislatures when it comes to climate change say well I’m not a scientist. I can’t have an opinion on climate change sure have a lot of opinions about Ebola. There’s a faction of our leaders, elected officials, who continually cuts the budget for the Centers for Disease Control which, to me reflects an ignorance of how serious germs can be.
I remind us all that in 1918 more people died of what was called the Spanish Flu than died from World War I which killed a lot of people. The Spanish Flu killed – the estimates vary but about 50 million people died of the flu. And when you think of the flu you think oh, the flu. You take Theraflu. You take chicken soup. You’ll be fine. What, cannot take penicillin. Ineffective against a virus people. Not going to help you. Penicillin is not going to do anything against Ebola. With that said it’s very reasonable that researchers, diligent researchers will be able to develop a vaccine against Ebola. It’s very reasonable. And so in my opinion we should be supporting that research full bore. But at the same time don’t curtail research in other germs which is going on at the Centers for Disease Control, for example, all the time. That’s not where you save your money Congress. But if you don’t believe in the seriousness of it and you have a mistrust of scientists, if you have a mistrust of engineers, you’re not going to help us out with that, are you. So it’s a very serious concern of mine.
And if everybody were talking about climate change that we were talking about Ebola we’d be working on climate change pretty steadily also. So it’s another lesson. You know, we – on my side of it in the science education world, I mean, this whole thing is so frustrating. The United States used to be the world leader in technology. But when you have this group of leaders, elected officials who are anti-science you’re setting the U.S. back and then ultimately setting the world back. So we should support the health workers that are going to take the risks and go to the hot zone.
We should support African governments and enable to the extent possible science education so that people are more literate about this. It’s a really difficult problem but solvable, solvable problem. I’d like to make another comment that occurred to me as an engineer. Everybody – I saw a story this morning about these home elevators that have ruined people’s lives. Kids have gotten their – these horrible head injuries from home elevators which aren’t subject to the same standards as elevators in commercial buildings. And that’s another thing where if you had extraordinary supervision over children they wouldn’t get in this trouble. On the other hand if the elevators were designed better the kids wouldn’t get in this trouble. And it just shows you how much we need – how much we rely on engineers. I’m sorry, these people who designed the elevators did their best. They didn’t think of the ten year old getting his head trapped in there. But after it happens we can make design changes so it never happens again. When people apparently loaded up their key chains so they’re so heavy that they were able to overcome the detent, the stop, the can’t turn it past park of the ignition switch in these Chevrolet vehicles and people crashed the cars because somebody in the ordering department thought it was okay to have the pin a little shorter than it was last year.
And so the pin didn’t hold the detent as it’s called to stop as strongly and it was able to cause these enormous problems. We rely on engineers to solve these problems and I, as an engineer, we do our best. We anticipate these things. But you can’t anticipate everything and this is part of evolution. Future ignition switches will not have that problem for a number of reasons. First of all some people got seriously injured. And then we have laws to hold corporations accountable for these serious injuries. And then we have systems in the corporation to make changes and enforce it. This is civilization and it’s top down and bottom up at once. And I as an engineer just want to remind people just how many moving parts there are in a car and how well they work. I’m not making excuses. I’m just saying stop and appreciate how complicated these things are and how we all take it for granted and they are all absolutely a result of science literacy. Of having a population of people who understands the significance of science in our everyday lives. And to eschew that or set it aside or not support basic research is not in anybody’s best interest. This is not a controversial statement but somehow I find it very frustrating when stuff like that happens and we all take it for granted. So I’ll start pointing fingers without realizing what’s involved. We can change the world people. We can change the world. Let’s go.
It’s not unusual to hear someone openly say that they can’t do math at all; that they can’t figure out the percentage to tip on a bill. If someone said that chemistry hurts their brain and they can’t even look at an equation, or that they have no idea how a certain part of the human body does what it does, that wouldn’t be too surprising. These are usually light-hearted statements that go down well – many of us would sympathize, nod and say: yeah, me too.
But turn the tables and imagine someone announcing jovially they can’t read words that are over 3 syllables, or that a certain sentence is too beyond them to even try. That wouldn’t be considered funny. En masse, we’d raise our brows and say: Excuse me?
The ignorance involved in both scenarios is comparable, but the shirking of effort when it comes to science and math is so normalized we don’t always catch ourselves.
This is the bee in Bill Nye’s bonnet today. An engineer by origin, he wants science literacy to be a national priority so that people can understand that the daily magic around them every day – all the technology, medicine, and innovation that makes our lives easier, isn't some kind of wizardry – it's cold, hard science. Understanding the way things work, from the basics to a minute level, is so profoundly important to a country’s progress and its citizen's health and daily lives. As an example, Nye looks at the spread of a disease like Ebola in North America compared to Africa; the education levels about how germs are transmitted corresponds directly to the amount of deaths from this terrible illness. Understanding basic concepts like bacteria and hygiene saves lives.
Nye goes on to make an interesting point about some of the U.S.’s elected officials and their fluctuating stance on science. Those who panicked about Ebola – rightly so – and implemented preventative measures take a very different approach when it comes to a crisis such as climate change. Here, the U.S. has failed to make meaningful change and start measures to look out for the future. Nye also points to officials who cut funding to the Center for Disease Control, which demonstrates a serious lack of literacy about the nature of infectious disease. The Spanish Flu of the early 20th century killed an estimated 20-50 million people – even at its most conservative estimate, that’s more than all the deaths in WWI. In Nye’s words, cutting disease research is "not where you save your money, Congress!"
There is also a general mistrust of science among civilians and leaders, and unfortunately shady science practices, such as the sugar industry buying off Harvard scientists to write negative studies focusing on fats while omitting research that would hurt the sugar industry, does a lot of damage to the public perception of scientific method. Those stories make it a little easier to believe scientists can be bought, and therefore that science as a whole can be doubted.
But science largely stands strong, and research by Dan Kahan at Yale University shows that those with the strongest views tend to have the greatest scientific literacy. Kahan asked 1,540 Americans to rate the severity of climate change as a global threat on a scale of zero to ten. Interestingly those that rated it closest to zero or closest to ten had the highest levels of science comprehension.
That middle ground proves to be a dangerous place because the greatest sin in science is to not ask questions, and not challenge conventional wisdom. That’s the whole point of scientific enquiry, but dismissing it or failing to understand it really is a crime, especially when you trace it to the tangible cost of human life from increasing natural disasters and preventable contagions. This idea is perhaps expressed best by Canadian-American physician and Nobel Laureate Charles Huggins, who said: "Nature can refuse to speak but she cannot give a wrong answer." Science, when not corrupt, works as nature's translator. We have to trust it, not be blindly skeptical.
Bill Nye has spent his life promoting science education and while here he is visibly frustrated by this high-level mistrust of science in the U.S., another famous champion of science, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, brings reinforcement in the form of optimism. Tyson recently said to the Wall Street Journal: "Science is being born into public consciousness in a very big way, for the first time. And we’re doing it on the shoulders of those who struggled to get it going in that regard. I look forward to the impact it could have on the 21st century, where we have a next generation of people who only know science literacy as a fundamental part of an educated citizenry."
Bill Nye's most recent book is Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World.
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Every star we can see, including our sun, was born in one of these violent clouds.
This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.
An international team of astronomers has conducted the biggest survey of stellar nurseries to date, charting more than 100,000 star-birthing regions across our corner of the universe.
Stellar nurseries: Outer space is filled with clouds of dust and gas called nebulae. In some of these nebulae, gravity will pull the dust and gas into clumps that eventually get so big, they collapse on themselves — and a star is born.
These star-birthing nebulae are known as stellar nurseries.
The challenge: Stars are a key part of the universe — they lead to the formation of planets and produce the elements needed to create life as we know it. A better understanding of stars, then, means a better understanding of the universe — but there's still a lot we don't know about star formation.
This is partly because it's hard to see what's going on in stellar nurseries — the clouds of dust obscure optical telescopes' view — and also because there are just so many of them that it's hard to know what the average nursery is like.
The survey: The astronomers conducted their survey of stellar nurseries using the massive ALMA telescope array in Chile. Because ALMA is a radio telescope, it captures the radio waves emanating from celestial objects, rather than the light.
"The new thing ... is that we can use ALMA to take pictures of many galaxies, and these pictures are as sharp and detailed as those taken by optical telescopes," Jiayi Sun, an Ohio State University (OSU) researcher, said in a press release.
"This just hasn't been possible before."
Over the course of the five-year survey, the group was able to chart more than 100,000 stellar nurseries across more than 90 nearby galaxies, expanding the amount of available data on the celestial objects tenfold, according to OSU researcher Adam Leroy.
New insights: The survey is already yielding new insights into stellar nurseries, including the fact that they appear to be more diverse than previously thought.
"For a long time, conventional wisdom among astronomers was that all stellar nurseries looked more or less the same," Sun said. "But with this survey we can see that this is really not the case."
"While there are some similarities, the nature and appearance of these nurseries change within and among galaxies," he continued, "just like cities or trees may vary in important ways as you go from place to place across the world."
Astronomers have also learned from the survey that stellar nurseries aren't particularly efficient at producing stars and tend to live for only 10 to 30 million years, which isn't very long on a universal scale.
Looking ahead: Data from the survey is now publicly available, so expect to see other researchers using it to make their own observations about stellar nurseries in the future.
"We have an incredible dataset here that will continue to be useful," Leroy said. "This is really a new view of galaxies and we expect to be learning from it for years to come."
Tiny specks of space debris can move faster than bullets and cause way more damage. Cleaning it up is imperative.
- NASA estimates that more than 500,000 pieces of space trash larger than a marble are currently in orbit. Estimates exceed 128 million pieces when factoring in smaller pieces from collisions. At 17,500 MPH, even a paint chip can cause serious damage.
- To prevent this untrackable space debris from taking out satellites and putting astronauts in danger, scientists have been working on ways to retrieve large objects before they collide and create more problems.
- The team at Clearspace, in collaboration with the European Space Agency, is on a mission to capture one such object using an autonomous spacecraft with claw-like arms. It's an expensive and very tricky mission, but one that could have a major impact on the future of space exploration.
This is the first episode of Just Might Work, an original series by Freethink, focused on surprising solutions to our biggest problems.
Catch more Just Might Work episodes on their channel: https://www.freethink.com/shows/just-might-work
So much for rest in peace.
- Australian scientists found that bodies kept moving for 17 months after being pronounced dead.
- Researchers used photography capture technology in 30-minute intervals every day to capture the movement.
- This study could help better identify time of death.
We're learning more new things about death everyday. Much has been said and theorized about the great divide between life and the Great Beyond. While everyone and every culture has their own philosophies and unique ideas on the subject, we're beginning to learn a lot of new scientific facts about the deceased corporeal form.
An Australian scientist has found that human bodies move for more than a year after being pronounced dead. These findings could have implications for fields as diverse as pathology to criminology.
Dead bodies keep moving
Researcher Alyson Wilson studied and photographed the movements of corpses over a 17 month timeframe. She recently told Agence France Presse about the shocking details of her discovery.
Reportedly, she and her team focused a camera for 17 months at the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER), taking images of a corpse every 30 minutes during the day. For the entire 17 month duration, the corpse continually moved.
"What we found was that the arms were significantly moving, so that arms that started off down beside the body ended up out to the side of the body," Wilson said.
The researchers mostly expected some kind of movement during the very early stages of decomposition, but Wilson further explained that their continual movement completely surprised the team:
"We think the movements relate to the process of decomposition, as the body mummifies and the ligaments dry out."
During one of the studies, arms that had been next to the body eventually ended up akimbo on their side.
The team's subject was one of the bodies stored at the "body farm," which sits on the outskirts of Sydney. (Wilson took a flight every month to check in on the cadaver.)Her findings were recently published in the journal, Forensic Science International: Synergy.
Implications of the study
The researchers believe that understanding these after death movements and decomposition rate could help better estimate the time of death. Police for example could benefit from this as they'd be able to give a timeframe to missing persons and link that up with an unidentified corpse. According to the team:
"Understanding decomposition rates for a human donor in the Australian environment is important for police, forensic anthropologists, and pathologists for the estimation of PMI to assist with the identification of unknown victims, as well as the investigation of criminal activity."
While scientists haven't found any evidence of necromancy. . . the discovery remains a curious new understanding about what happens with the body after we die.
Metal-like materials have been discovered in a very strange place.
- Bristle worms are odd-looking, spiky, segmented worms with super-strong jaws.
- Researchers have discovered that the jaws contain metal.
- It appears that biological processes could one day be used to manufacture metals.
The bristle worm, also known as polychaetes, has been around for an estimated 500 million years. Scientists believe that the super-resilient species has survived five mass extinctions, and there are some 10,000 species of them.
Be glad if you haven't encountered a bristle worm. Getting stung by one is an extremely itchy affair, as people who own saltwater aquariums can tell you after they've accidentally touched a bristle worm that hitchhiked into a tank aboard a live rock.
Bristle worms are typically one to six inches long when found in a tank, but capable of growing up to 24 inches long. All polychaetes have a segmented body, with each segment possessing a pair of legs, or parapodia, with tiny bristles. ("Polychaeate" is Greek for "much hair.") The parapodia and its bristles can shoot outward to snag prey, which is then transferred to a bristle worm's eversible mouth.
The jaws of one bristle worm — Platynereis dumerilii — are super-tough, virtually unbreakable. It turns out, according to a new study from researchers at the Technical University of Vienna, this strength is due to metal atoms.
Metals, not minerals
Fireworm, a type of bristle wormCredit: prilfish / Flickr
This is pretty unusual. The study's senior author Christian Hellmich explains: "The materials that vertebrates are made of are well researched. Bones, for example, are very hierarchically structured: There are organic and mineral parts, tiny structures are combined to form larger structures, which in turn form even larger structures."
The bristle worm jaw, by contrast, replaces the minerals from which other creatures' bones are built with atoms of magnesium and zinc arranged in a super-strong structure. It's this structure that is key. "On its own," he says, "the fact that there are metal atoms in the bristle worm jaw does not explain its excellent material properties."
Just deformable enough
Credit: by-studio / Adobe Stock
What makes conventional metal so strong is not just its atoms but the interactions between the atoms and the ways in which they slide against each other. The sliding allows for a small amount of elastoplastic deformation when pressure is applied, endowing metals with just enough malleability not to break, crack, or shatter.
Co-author Florian Raible of Max Perutz Labs surmises, "The construction principle that has made bristle worm jaws so successful apparently originated about 500 million years ago."
Raible explains, "The metal ions are incorporated directly into the protein chains and then ensure that different protein chains are held together." This leads to the creation of three-dimensional shapes the bristle worm can pack together into a structure that's just malleable enough to withstand a significant amount of force.
"It is precisely this combination," says the study's lead author Luis Zelaya-Lainez, "of high strength and deformability that is normally characteristic of metals.
So the bristle worm jaw is both metal-like and yet not. As Zelaya-Lainez puts it, "Here we are dealing with a completely different material, but interestingly, the metal atoms still provide strength and deformability there, just like in a piece of metal."
Observing the creation of a metal-like material from biological processes is a bit of a surprise and may suggest new approaches to materials development. "Biology could serve as inspiration here," says Hellmich, "for completely new kinds of materials. Perhaps it is even possible to produce high-performance materials in a biological way — much more efficiently and environmentally friendly than we manage today."