Bill Nye and the DJ Steve Aoki are always teaching each other new things.
They kicked off their session on the Fast Company Innovation Festival main stage in New York City with a quiz: What’s the atomic number of neon?
“Ten!” Aoki yelled triumphantly. (He’d just learned that fact backstage; Nye keeps a periodic table on his smartphone to quiz his friends.)
Aoki just released his latest album, Neon Future Odyssey, last month, and Nye’s new book on climate change, Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World, comes out today. The pair, who bond over a shared love of science, discussed everything from the Singularity to STEM education and even cowrote a song for Aoki’s next album.
Nye’s new book focuses on the issues posed by climate change. In his view, it’s not just the change itself that’s problematic: It’s the rate of change over the past few decades.
“When I was young, there were less than 350 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere. Last year we broke 400,” Nye says. “When you have more carbon dioxide in the air, we hold in more heat, the ocean gets warmer, and the ocean gets bigger. When the ocean gets bigger, there’s flooding everywhere. Nobody wants to live with six inches of water on the floor. Where are all the people in South Florida, Bangladesh, and Portsmouth going to go?”
He offered a potential solution: using the oceans themselves to reflect energy back into space. He says if large ocean liners could manufacture microbubbles in the water that are usually churned up by tropical storms to create “white water,” they could reflect light and energy from the sun back into space.
“Bubbles persist in the water for hours or days, subtly reflecting more light into space. It’s extraordinary but not crazy to propose a way to manufacture these microbubbles on an industrial scale,” Nye says. It may wind up being too energy-intensive to pull off at scale, but it’s worth a shot.
The subject of the Singularity–creating a computing machine as sophisticated and idiosyncratic as the human brain–is a topic that excites Nye and Aoki. The DJ even has an eponymous song about the phenomenon.
Both predict it will happen in the future, but to potentially mixed results: “There are 2 billion people in the world who have never made a phone call. So when Singularity goes ‘singulating’ in some lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I’m not sure those people will be celebrating,” Nye says, urging the scientifically minded in the audience not to get carried away. “I think there’s a lot more to it than just your brain. When you guys make your Singularity computer machine, you’re going to have to simulate not just the brain, but also the things that get sore when you pull a muscle or when you kiss.”
Creativity and science belong together, Nye says.
Aoki often explores scientific themes in his music.
“From understanding your brain–a massive mystery–to diseases that plague society to climate change,” he says. “This album is not just a neutral space, but a chance to talk about more sophisticated issues than just raging at a festival.”
Songs like Back to Earth, featuring Fall Out Boy, include themes of science and tech. “I was trying to find a way to collaborate the ideas of science that interests me and my music. The best way to do that is not just through music but through music videos. Fusing those ideas with the music made it more fun. It’s great to be able to use it as a tool to discuss something.”
And to prove that culture and science belong together, Nye started writing a science-themed song for Aoki’s next album on stage. Nye calls it Noble Gas, and it’s set to the theme of The Twilight Zone, of course.
“A strange and astonishing but provable fact is that you and I are made of the stuff of the cosmos,” Nye says. “We are made of exploded stars and other rogue drifting-around material. Carbon, oxygen, iron–what’s more fun than that? The Noble Gas song would start with exploding super novae, then lead to us. And that means that the fact that you and I are made of stardust is one of the ways that the universe knows itself.”