If you grew up in the 1990s, you’re probably familiar with Bill Nye. He was the host of the popular PBS series Bill Nye the Science Guy, a TV program that ran for a hundred episodes and introduced kids to a range of science concepts. More recently, he hosted Bill Nye Saves the World, a Netflix series designed to educate the wider public about the importance of science. Now, Nye has a new project: a science-themed podcast called Science Rules, which will launch on May 16th.
Unlike his TV programs, Nye’s new podcast is a bit more interactive. In it, he’ll be taking audience calls to answer various questions about science, and he’ll be accompanied by veteran science journalist Corey S. Powell, and a number of guests to help out each episode on any given topic. The series is described a bit like NPR’s Car Talk, but about science instead.
The Verge spoke with Nye about this new project, science education, and why he’s launching a podcast.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Really, the first question I have is: Why a podcast? What’s the appeal of the format?
We’re just trying to change the world here! I’ve always said that radio is the most visual medium, and podcasting has become extremely popular in the same way talk radio was popular. Listening to people talk is really appealing to consumers.
Why do you think that is? What are you seeing in it that makes it a good vehicle for what you’re trying to do?
Well, it’s radio on demand. It’s no longer appointment radio. We only have so much time for ourselves. If you’re in the car, in the subway train, or on an airplane, you can download a podcast and listen at your leisure. If you’re at home, you can have it on in the background. To me, it’s the modern form of talk radio. As a good friend of mine once said, “The most informed people in the world are the people who listen to talk radio.” I don’t know if their information is good, but they get a lot of it.
Your show is called Science Rules. Can you tell me a bit about that name?
Well, I’ve said “Science Rules” since the 1980s. As Ferris Bueller would have you think, in that time, the expression “such-and-such rules” was popular. It stuck with me. Not only does “science rules” mean “isn’t it the most fabulous thing a human could do,” but science also has rules, which we might describe as the laws of science, and so it’s a pun. The world reached a point of “Hey, Bill. You should have a podcast!” and I said, “Yeah, you’re right!” Now, I have a podcast based on a turn of phrase I’ve used for 30 years.
I’m doing it with Corey Powell, the editor of my general interest books Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation and Everything All at Once: How to Unleash Your Inner Nerd, Tap Into Radical Curiosity, and Solve Any Problem. He is a science writer. He’s very well read about the news of science, and he offers charming commentary.
The show has been described as something similar to NPR’s Car Talk. How have you gone about getting questions from people?
Generally, people have written in. Stitcher has a sophisticated web presence, so when people were alerted that we were recording the podcast, people sent in their questions and called in. So we had live callers with ripped-from-the-day’s questions.
What are some examples of the questions that you’ve gotten?
Well, one example is that we’ve got a measles outbreak going on right now. This is the result of profound ignorance in the populace, this weird rise of libertarianism, and it’s all my fault: science education hasn’t been adequate to explain the use of this 200-plus year technology.
So we did a show about germs. We also have Peg Riley from the University of Massachusetts on, who is a longtime proponent of treating diseases with what she calls bacteriocins, which are the chemicals that bacteria produce to fight other bacteria, and it’s a cool idea. Of course, measles is a virus, but it’s a related idea. The most dangerous thing to you if you’re a large animal — like a human — isn’t other large animals like lions and tigers and bears; it’s germs and parasites! That’s what’s going to kill you. So we need to have awareness of that, so we had an episode about it.
So are you planning to have each episode be a different theme or topic?
Oh, yes. Each episode has a theme, for sure. There are a couple with just Corey and I talking with callers. But even those shows — especially those shows — have a theme.
What has the experience been like so far? Have any of your callers had their minds changed or eyes opened to something that they hadn’t known before?
Well, that’s our dream. Keep in mind that, on a podcast, we can’t tell if they actually have their eyes opened. [Laughs] Our goal is to get people to think differently about what they’re talking about that day. Certainly, it happened. Any time you talk about germs, you get people from traditional science with some detailed questions, and then people who are anti-vaxxers, and so on.
There’s something to be said for talking to the non-experts in the room and not holding up both sides as equal.
I’ve got no time for that, I have to tell you. This tradition in journalism of presenting equal sides has been a — when it comes to climate change — curse. For 30 years, traditional media have presented the two sides of climate change. It’s like presenting the two sides of whether the Earth is round. There are not two sides. There’s the science side, and the anti-science side. The science side and the fossil industry-fueled — pun intended — denial side. If I understand your question, it’s not automatically presenting both sides of every issue — the mainstream science side and the crazy, thoughtless, fact-denying side. That’s not how this podcast goes.
Is there anything else you wanted to add?
Just listen to the show. Turn it up loud! You’ll find that it’s entertaining because it’s often funny, and it’s entertaining because it’s interesting, and it’s interesting, I hope, because it talks about topics that affect each and every one of us.