Everyone has an inner nerd just waiting to be awakened by the right passion. In Everything All at Once, Bill Nye will help you find yours. With his call to arms, he wants you to examine every detail of the most difficult problems that look unsolvable—that is, until you find the solution. Bill shows you how to develop critical thinking skills and create change, using his “everything all at once” approach that leaves no stone unturned.
Whether addressing climate change, the future of our society as a whole, or personal success, or stripping away the mystery of fire walking, there are certain strategies that get results: looking at the world with relentless curiosity, being driven by a desire for a better future, and being willing to take the actions needed to make change happen. He shares how he came to create this approach—starting with his Boy Scout training (it turns out that a practical understanding of science and engineering is immensely helpful in a capsizing canoe) and moving through the lessons he learned as a full-time engineer at Boeing, a stand-up comedian, CEO of The Planetary Society, and, of course, as Bill Nye The Science Guy.
This is the story of how Bill Nye became Bill Nye and how he became a champion of change and an advocate of science. It’s how he became The Science Guy. Bill teaches us that we have the power to make real change. Join him in... dare we say it... changing the world.
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About the Author
Corey S. Powell is the science editor of Aeon and former editor-in-chief of American Scientist and Discover. He is a visiting scholar at NYU's SHERP program and a writer for Popular Science and Scientific American.
Read an Excerpt
Principles of Nerd Living
The Tao of Phi
This is a book about everything. It is about everything I know and about everything I think you should know, too.
I realize that may sound a little crazy, but I’m completely serious. We live in an age of unprecedented access to information. When you pick up your phone or open your laptop and go online, you are instantly connected to a trillion trillion bytes of data; that’s a 1 followed by 24 zeros. Every year another billion trillion bytes of data move around the Internet, carrying everything from those important videos with kitty cats to the arcane but fantastic detailed results of subatomic particle collisions at the Large Hadron Collider. In that sense, talking about “everything” is easy. Everything you and I know, and everything we need to know, is already out there for the taking.
Yet despite all those whizzing ones and zeros—the collective intelligence of billions of human brains—I still feel that we seem awfully . . . well, stupid. We’re not using all this shared wisdom to solve big problems. We’re not facing up to climate change. We haven’t figured out how to make clean, renewable, reliable energy available to everyone. Too many people die in avoidable auto accidents, succumb to curable diseases, do not get enough food and clean water, and still do not have access to the Internet’s great busy beehive mind. Despite being more connected than ever before, we’re not particularly generous toward, or understanding of, one another, preferring to hide behind denial and personal bias. The flood of information has effectively allowed us to know something about everything, but that knowing is clearly not enough. We need to be able to sort the facts and put our knowledge into action, and that is why I wrote this book.
I want to see humanity band together and change the world. I think it will take a special kind of personality to get this done: people who can handle the modern overflow of information, take in everything all at once, and select the parts that matter. It requires rigorous honesty about the nature of our problems. It requires creative irreverence in the search for solutions. The process of science and natural laws don’t care about our politics or preconceptions. They merely set the boundaries of what is possible, defining the outer limits of what we can achieve—or not, should we shy away from the challenge.
Fortunately, there is a large and growing clan of people who think that way, who love nothing better than using the tools of reason to solve the most unsolvable-looking puzzles. We call them “nerds,” and I humbly (proudly) count myself among them. I have spent a lifetime developing the nerd mindset and trying to master the admirable but often elusive qualities that come with it: persistence in the pursuit of a lofty goal, resilience to keep trying no matter what the obstacles are, humility for when one approach turns out to be a dead end, and the patience to examine the problem from every angle until a path forward becomes clear. If you already consider yourself one of us, then join me in doing more by applying your nerdiness to the big problems of the day, not just to trivia or minutia (although of course we will set aside plenty of time for those). And if you don’t consider yourself a nerd yet, join me all the same: You will soon discover that everybody has an inner nerd waiting to be awoken by the right passion. My whole life has been a series of those kinds of awakenings, moments of epiphany when
I became evermore aware of the joyous power of science, math, and engineering.
It happened to me with a jolt in the 11th grade in Washington, DC, when I took formal physics for the first time. In nerd culture, we might write that it was my phirst phormal physics, and we’d phind that phrasing rather phunny. The “ph” pronounced phonetically with the same fricative that produces the sound from the consonant “f” is from phi, the Greek letter φ. The Roman “p” looks vaguely like a Greek φ. In Greek, the “f” sounds a little breathy, so the Roman letter “h” serves to preserve that sound or tradition. I couldn’t help myself—I had to stop typing and look up the roots of the “ph” in our words “physics” and “phosphate.” When we see these “ph” words, we know they came to us from ancient Greek and then Latin. The scholars call it “transliteration,” meaning “across the letters.” Centuries ago a diligent, perhaps even enthusiastic, transliterator was inclined to add that “h” to the “p,” and here we are. Phew.
This little digression encapsulates what it means to be so into a topic, so phocused and phascinated by some aspect of nature or the human experience, that people consider you—or more important, you consider yourself—a nerd. For me to really enjoy some deliberate misspelled wordplay, I had to think about the background of φ, “ph,” and “f.” I called on my knowledge that most English speakers pronounce the letter φ like the second syllable in “Wi-Fi,” but Greek speakers pronounce φ like “fee,” as in “Fee-fi-fo-fum, / I smell the blood of a nerdy one.” And as I was checking that out, I recalled that φ has other intriguing connections to physics besides the linguistic one. It is the mathematical symbol denoting the golden ratio, a fundamental geometric proportion that appears widely in biology, economics, and especially art. In statistics, φ is a measure of the correlation between two separate factors, and so it is a crucial measure for distinguishing chance events from cause and effect in scientific experiments. Stick that in your back pocket.
You might regard the things I just told you as little more than bits of playful trivia, but I beg to differ. The knowledge I gained in my obsessive pursuit of φ changed me a little, and it just changed you, as well. The impulse to chase down details is central to the way I have solved problems throughout my life. It is also, not coincidentally, a defining nerd trait. Further evidence of my detail-oriented outlook: Long before the ubiquity of the Internet, my friends would say about me, “The party doesn’t start until Bill gets out the dictionary.” I like to know the background of words, the etymology, as well as the meanings of the words themselves. While I was ref lecting on the digraph “ph” just now, I was also reflecting on what started that train of thought—namely physics, the study of nature, specifically energy and motion—and the joy I felt when I was first (or phirst) exposed to it.
The word “scientist” was coined in 1833 by the English natural philosopher William Whewell. Before then, the term was “natural philosopher,” which sounds a little odd today but back then was a familiar expression. Philosophy is the study of knowledge; philosophers seek ways to know whether or not something is true, so natural philosophy was the study of what’s true in nature. Or, in modern terms, a scientist is a natural philosopher seeking objective truths.
We look for laws of nature that enable anyone to make concrete predictions regarding the outcomes of tests and experiments. Science belongs to anyone who loves to think and look for connections in nature. It’s not all about math and measurement, but wow, the math is what gives the predictions their precious precision. We can know the motions of distant worlds to such a degree of accuracy that we can land the Curiosity rover on Mars or send the New Horizons probe past Pluto with near-pinpoint accuracy. We can measure the exact age of a billion-year-old rock by clocking the decay of the radioactive atoms it contains. The combined power of math and science is amazing. That’s why nerds are so drawn to them, but the insights that come from science are inspirational even to those who never plan to crunch the numbers.
Digressions and micro-obsessions seem to come naturally to those who catch the science bug. You may meet people who are into trivia or who adore the very small details of some area of study. It might be the names of counties in Maryland or Mississippi or the writing credits on Star Trek. My claim is that by learning those details, these nerdy people know something extra about a bigger picture, as well. The trivia expert (a trivialist?) has in his or her head a framework of an area of study, outfitted with the appropriate memory hooks on which to hang more information, which in turn enhances and fills in the bigger picture.
It’s much easier to remember the names of counties if you have a mental picture of a state map that indicates what county is contiguous with what other county. The names, the map, the driving distances to the state capital—they’re all much easier to keep track of if you have the details properly placed in a mental map. This big-picture frame, combined with detailed views of the world, enhances one’s ability to navigate across county lines, carry out commands on a sailboat, or do a little brain surgery. I’ve found this to be a recurring theme in my most formative experiences: The details inform the big picture as much as the big picture organizes the details. Is it enough simply to know where Maryland is on a map? Maybe, but the extra knowledge of the state’s inner workings creates a much clearer picture and brings with it immeasurable value.
I’m encouraged by how deeply nerd behaviors have been absorbed into mainstream culture. Not so long ago, the nerds were often defined in opposition to the popular kids in school. Nowadays, it’s downright fashionable to exhibit an obsessive attention to detail—not just in science but in nearly anything. The kind of trivia knowledge that was once considered a TV game-show oddity is now a staple of Thursday night social gatherings at hip neighborhood bars. Another encouraging sign: The most popular show on television as I’m writing this is The Big
Bang Theory, which every week overwhelms sitcoms, dramas, and news commentary in the ratings. Tens of millions of people apparently identify with an odd bunch of characters who are nominally engaged in complex science but who also display their very human quirks.
Now, as much as I love nerds and nerd culture, I have also observed some worrisome trends over the last years that have motivated me to speak out. On the surface, things look promising. The increased attention to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) learning is terrific; it’s great that programmers and tech-oriented entrepreneurs have become major celebrities in our culture and businesses. After all, our society is increasingly dependent on technology, and we will be in deep trouble if very few people understand the scientific ideas that the technology depends on. What’s not to love? The growing fondness for trivia and geek-speak would seem like a great thing.
But the current pop version of nerd culture leaves me with a nagging concern. Geeking out—going fanatical about characters in comic books, for example—can be fun. It can develop a community of people whose lives are enriched by sharing a common interest. It brings together hundreds of thousands of people every year at Comic-Con and the like. But it’s most definitely not the same as diligently studying math and science to grasp the complexities of climate, to engineer a disease- or pest-resistant crop, or to become one of our time-honored quintessential smart people: a rocket scientist. Geeking out is driven by the same instinct to hoard information, but the application of the knowledge is a different and considerably harder-working sort of thing. It takes me right back to my original thought: Information and application are very different things. When I talk reverently about the nerd mindset, I’m extolling the virtues of a worldview that involves gathering as much information as possible and being constantly on the lookout for ways to use it for the greater good.
The difference between information and application may seem obvious to someone reading along here, but it’s not obvious to a great many people in the general public. There are charlatans and cult leaders out there who are able to pawn off false details and bias as fact and reason. I continually meet people who espouse their own stories of the origin of the universe and how we all got here, attempting to pawn off false information and bias as fact and reason. I’m not talking about traditional religious believers; I’m referring to people who string together some general concepts into their own quasi-physical theory of the big bang (or black holes, or some secret way to “fix” Einstein’s relativity theory). I also meet and hear about too many people who exploit bits of scientific information to peddle worthless products, to promote counterfactual political arguments, to sow fear, and to justify sexist or racist thinking. In some cases, these people seem to genuinely think they are doing science, but they aren’t. They may even think of themselves as nerds, but they really aren’t. They adopt the language of physics or biology without having spent the time to know the established science and current thinking with regard to the stars and the space-time these stars inhabit.
Here’s another important cautionary point: It’s very easy for us, any of us, to draw faulty conclusions from a small sample of events. Superficial familiarity with nerd-style thinking may even encourage it. If you switch off the lights in your living room at the same moment two cars smack into each other outside, you might conclude that your switch-throwing caused a car crash. You might decide to never touch that switch again, at least not while there are any cars passing by. Or you might wait for a particularly disliked neighbor to cruise past and then start switching that switch as fast as you can.
In this extreme case, the cause-and-effect connection seems obviously wrong. I imagine the readers of this book have no trouble concluding that there is almost certainly no link between a light switch in your house and automobile-driver attentiveness (unless it causes the light to shine right into oncoming windshields, in which case, please switch it off right now). But what if it’s a much more subtle effect, like reading that people who drink red wine are less likely to have heart attacks? Or that people with certain skin colors have lower IQs? At different times, some very inf luential researchers became convinced that such things were correlated. Should you believe them?
Excerpted from "Everything All at Once"
Copyright © 2018 Bill Nye.
Excerpted by permission of Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony/Rodale.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Bill's Guide to Doing Everything All at Once viii
Part I Principles of Nerd Living
Chapter 1 The Tao of Phi 3
Chapter 2 Scout Lifeguarding 16
Chapter 3 Me Against the Rock 24
Chapter 4 When Slide Rules Ruled 34
Chapter 5 The First Earth Day and National Service 44
Chapter 6 How My Parents Quit Smoking 58
Chapter 7 Ned and the "Thanks" Sign 67
Chapter 8 Why the Bow Tie? 75
Chapter 9 Land of the Free, Home of the Nerds 86
Chapter 10 Everybody Knows Something You Don't 98
Part II Need Ideas into Nerd actions
Chapter 11 The Joy of Constraints 115
Chapter 12 Upside-Down Pyramid of Design 131
Chapter 13 Comedy and Me 144
Chapter 14 Not Faking It 163
Chapter 15 Resonating to the Nerd Beat 175
Chapter 18 Critical Thinking, Critical Filtering 188
Chapter 17 A Vaccine Against Deception 204
Chapter 18 Destiny Be Damned-Full Speed Ahead 216
Chapter 19 Time for Measured Urgency 226
Chapter 20 A Mind Is a Wonderful Thing to Change 237
Part III How to Change the World
Chapter 21 Are You an Imposter? 251
Chapter 22 How High Can You Go? 261
Chapter 23 Tragedy of the Traffic Accident 272
Chapter 24 Cold, Hard Facts of Ice. 285
Chapter 25 West Virginians and All That Coal 297
Chapter 26 Security Through Nerdiness 307
Chapter 27 Think Cosmically, Act Globally 317
Chapter 28 Humans Control the Earth, Nerds Should Guide the Humans 330
Chapter 29 A Reasoner's Manifesto 341
Chapter 30 Design for a Better Future 355