Part II of my interview.
Bill Nye the Science Guy and I had breakfast at a diner on Madison Avenue last week. Well, he had breakfast and I just had coffee–it was 11:00 a.m. in New York and he was still on California time. We discussed, among other things, science critics and Ray Kurzweil’s dream of the human machine.
Rick: Is the world of science reevaluating itself in the 21st century?
Bill: It seems like it is because we have this anti-science thing. I think it’s bad for everybody. When you have a problem like global climate change or HIV, you need people who understand how it works to solve it. And, furthermore, you need voters and tax payers who believe there’s a problem.
The idea that science will solve everybody’s problem is a little old fashioned. I remember reading an account of Lou Gehrig. When he was diagnosed with this crazy disease, he thought, “Modern medicine will solve this problem for me.” It turned out to be a pretty intractable problem. Nevertheless, if it is ever solved, it will be a science solution. I cannot accept that there is going to be a faith-based solution to Lou Gehrig’s disease. Not to say that one’s frame of mind doesn’t affect one’s immune system. No question that it does.
Fanatics have been around for a long time. You can claim, “Well, Bill, you’re a science fanatic.” But our claim is that we don’t have all the answers. The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. What we claim to have is a process for finding out the truth about nature. That’s the extent of our claim. If you want to find out what’s going on in nature, here’s how you go about it.
I am very reverent. I am astonished by my place in the universe. And I claim that I have greater reverence for the earth than many, many people who consider themselves deeply religious. I was brought up in a religious tradition, but I am no longer a believer.
Rick: A lot of people believe it is some kind of affront to in any way question the idea of natural selection. But, elegant as it is, it’s really just another scientific theory, and it’s completely open to challenge.
Bill: Scientists challenge Darwin all the time. You read about these entomologists, trying to figure out what the heck are the bees doing. They are willing to die for the queen when their own genes aren’t at risk! Similarly, my claim is that when the Yankees get eliminated from the World Series, Yankees fans in New York still root for an American League team–even if it’s Boston! Because Boston is in their league, even if they have nothing to do with them. They can feel it. I find that just astonishing.
The thing that’s so creepy about evolution–and fascinates me–is that not only are your size and shape, how many fingers you have, and your hair color determined by your genes, so, also, are your feelings to a large extent.
Rick: What do you say to Ray Kurzweil whose new book, The Singularity is Near, contends that humans will leapfrog their own biology through technical innovation, thus curing all disease, by 2045?
Bill: OK, I’ll meet him Botswana in 2045 and we’ll see how that’s working.
Rick: He also writes about spiritual machines.
Bill: A human brain develops not only by its genetic programming, but by what happens to it in its environment. This changes the way your brain works. With so many human brains running around experiencing so many different environments, I’d be surprised if the line between humanity and machines becomes blurry. On the other hand, the human brain is finite, it only has so many cells. It’s very possible you could make a machine like a human. But it’s gotta have some energy source. And that’s where the colossus takes over the world!
(Stay tuned for the next and final episode of My California-Time Breakfast with Bill Nye the Science Guy or Pee Wee Meets Bullwinkle!)