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‘Science Guy’ Bill Nye’s New Mission

Mar 30, 2017

Bill Nye quit his day job 30 years ago to crusade for a more scientifically literate society. He started as the “Science Guy” on PBS, teaching kids about science through often wacky experiments while wearing his trademark bow tie and lab coat. He’s now on to a new chapter: host of a series on Netflix (nflx) called Bill Nye Saves the World, which premieres April 21. On the show, he will counter the rising tide of science deniers, fake news, and just about anything else.

FORTUNE: Why did you choose Netflix instead of a traditional TV network?
NYE: Although I should be king of the forest and be paid millions and millions of dollars, I’m not king of the forest—and so you take the opportunities that are available.

How big a danger is fake science and science denial?
Science denial is a big concern right now. Carl Sagan wrote about this 40 years ago—that if you had a society that is increasingly dependent on technology and you have fewer and fewer people who know how it all works, that’s a formula for a disaster. If we have people who refuse to get vaccinated, they become petri dishes for mutating germs. Soon we are going to have 9 or 10 billion people in the world, and those people are going to have to eat, they are going to have to get along, and they all are going to want clean water. And that depends on science—depends on technology that’s derived from science. So if you have people who don’t accept the process by which we create all this wonderful stuff, you’re going to have trouble.

Regarding the matter of people wanting clean water, I’m guessing you’re not a fan of current efforts to pare down environmental regulations?
I’ve pondered this continually. The new head of the Environmental Protection Agency, by any reasonable assessment, really, doesn’t want to protect the environment. There is also a perception that any regulation is inherently bad. It’s just an arbitrary claim that we’re going to eliminate two regulations for every one. Regulations of what? Of the Securities and Exchange Commission, of coal-fired power plant emissions, of which side of the street you drive on—we have to have that rule. I remember when you really couldn’t see the mountains in Los Angeles. Now you go, “Wow, those mountains are beautiful.” There was this uproar over how government regulation is bad, but it turned out to be good for the air.

On the Netflix show, you’re also exploring topics like videogames and sex. How do they fit in?
Societal issues can be approached from a scientific point of view. Videogames is a classic. There are people who believe that videogames are bad—that violent videogames make somebody violent. So we had a panel of experts: We have a woman who runs a recovery clinic for people who are believed to be addicted to video­gaming, we have a guy from a scientific institute who says that is absolutely not true, and we have a woman who makes an extraordinary living playing videogames. Generally my point of view is that people have been playing games for at least 5,000 years. That is why we did a show on it. We did a show on climate change, a couple of shows on space exploration, and we did a show on vaccinations—and pseudoscience and alternative medicine.

Model Karlie Kloss and Nye in an episode from his new show. Eddy Chen — Netflix 

Is there a media outlet that you would refuse to go on to talk about science?
No. I’m a lion’s den guy.

I hear you are speaking at the March for Science in Washington D.C. as the Honorary Co-Chair on Earth Day (April 22).

I believe marches for causes can be effective. I am old enough to remember my hometown of Washington, D.C. being overrun a few times protesting the Vietnam War. I rode my bike downtown and joined the crowd for a few of the early Earth Days. The war was ended on account of the protests. The Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts resulted from these demonstrations. The March for Science has the potential to remind us all, voters and taxpayers especially, of the great value of science to our society. Our public health, our food system, our space program, and the Internet all owe their existence and remarkable capabilities to the innovations made by our technically trained, scientifically literate citizens. Currently, there is an antiscience, anti-expert movement afoot in the U.S. and around the world. We will use our feet to remind our leaders that science drives our economy and is a key to our future. May the facts be with you!

Would you be willing to take a space flight with companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX or Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic?
I applied to be an astronaut four times. I understand completely that space travel is risky, but I’m not going to go on the first flight.

What do you think is the most exciting field of ­research or recent discovery or study?
Right now it’s Crispr—the modifying of genes. By way of example, my family has this gene repeat that leads to a condition called ataxia—you walk like you’re drunk. My sister is just a couple years older than I am, and she uses a walker, and it affected my parents’ marriage. So it would be really exciting if we could introduce something to modify your genes so you didn’t have defects—let alone make it so you could regrow a new liver or even a piece of bone.

Do you have any advice for children who dream of being scientists?
My advice to you is learn algebra. Algebra is the single most reliable indicator of whether or not you will pursue a career in math and science. It’s not clear that it’s cause and effect, but algebra not only enables you to think abstractly about numbers, it enables you to think abstractly about all sorts of things. And here’s what I say: It sucked for me too! You just have to practice.

A version of this article appears in the April 1, 2017 issue of Fortune with the headline "Saving Science."

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