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Welcome to the Scientific American podcast, Science Talk, hosted on June 18, 2013. I am Steve Mirsky. On this episode-
Bill Nye: The other strange thing or surprising thing about many grinding operations is it’s the hard thing that breaks off and the substrate, that which holds in this case the whiskers, is so flexible that it doesn’t get ground off.
Steve Mirsky: And that is, of course, Bill Nye the Science Guy. He’s involved with a promotion connected with the new Superman movie, which presented a good opportunity to talk with one of the champions of science outreach in the U.S. I spoke to him by phone before the movie opened.
Bill Nye, of course the Science Guy, why don’t you tell us about this particular project that you’re involved with?
Bill Nye: Well, the Man of Steel is the latest manifestation of everyone’s beloved Superman, and the reason - I think part of the reason Superman is such a hit and stands the test of time I think is two things; first of all, he can fly, which is just cool. Then the other thing, he’s got that cape. I mean who doesn’t want to have a cape? My goodness.
Steve Mirsky: When I was a little kid I actually ran up and down the street with a red towel tied around my neck.
Bill Nye: Well, of course. I mean yeah. But I’m glad you didn’t jump off a roof, hoping-
Steve Mirsky: No, I did not do that.
Bill Nye: Yeah, you realized there were limitations. You know, we - the planet’s massive, like 1024 kilos, has all this gravity. But he’s Superman; I mean it’s a different world. And so along with that different world, in the movie, which, I mean let me be clear, I have not seen yet. But he has a beard. Clark Kent has a beard, and he’s agonizing over whether or not to be a human or go back to Krypton, which I guess blew up. He’s got some archenemies, there’s some issues with his father, so very traumatic. But then all of a sudden he’s clean-shaven. What’s up with that? So Gillette asked me to speculate on how this would be possible, and conventionally I would say there’s a material science explanation. MatSci as we say. And so it’s a grinding operation.
Steve Mirsky: And, well, give us a little detail. Yeah.
Bill Nye: So the old question in material science, or in tribology - if I may speak about tribology, the study of friction - the old question is the road is made of concrete, very hard, durable material; tires are made of rubber, although durable, clearly a much softer material. Nobody goes slashing roads with a knife the way you might slash a tire. So why does a road ever wear out? Why does the end of the runway where the planes land ever wear out? And the answer has to do with tribology or material science.
And just if the - every surface has asperity, or roughness, and so the roughness is - if you have an asperity on a tire with a very large cross-sectional area and you have an asperity on a road with a very small cross-sectional area, it’s like a pillow hitting an icicle. The pillow can decapitate the icicle. Then you have pieces of icicle ground in with your pieces of pillow, and they work harden or strain harden and become harder than either surface and then they start grinding, the particles start grinding away. And very reasonable. I mean that’s what goes on with Superman.
Steve Mirsky: How do you mean that in terms of what would he actually do in order to shave?
Bill Nye: He’d have a Kryptonian razor that works by grinding.
Steve Mirsky: A-ha.
Bill Nye: And if that thing wore out he’d just fab one up from earthly material - terrestrial materials.
Steve Mirsky: Right. So although he is indestructible, his facial hair would not be. Yeah, you’d be able to grind it without destroying it.
Bill Nye: That’s right. And so the other strange thing, or surprising thing about many grinding operations is it’s the hard thing that breaks off and the substrate, that which holds in this case the whiskers, or the arterial wall, is so flexible that it doesn’t get ground off. People grind the plaque out of arteries without destroying the arteries with a grinder, albeit a precision, beautiful, pricy stainless steel fabulous grinder. So this - you know, I’m a mechanical engineer, doggone it. I mean as I like to say, I’m human, but this would be a classic use of a grinding operation.
Steve Mirsky: Now this was an explanation that you came up with?
Bill Nye: Yeah.
Steve Mirsky: ‘Cause my recollection, when I was a kid and I was a devout Superman comic reader, my recollection is that there was some of his-
Bill Nye: Heat-ray vision.
Steve Mirsky: Exactly. He would use mirrors and bounce his heat rays off the mirror and do some fine vaporization work.
Bill Nye: One of the criteria for the Man of Steel movie that I was presented with - and I won’t say it was a finger-pointing, angry confrontation; it was all very friendly - is you were not allowed in this explanation to use any of the - if I understand the use of this term, the “canon” of Superman lore. You weren’t - for example, I saw him on the black and white television show, I saw him walk through walls. He would dissociate his molecules and go through a wall.
Steve Mirsky: I remember that one.
Bill Nye: Which was a spectacular effect. I guess they used double exposures, “Oh my good - wow! Whoa!”
And so that was not permitted and the heat ray was not permitted. By the way, I mean the guy can fly into volcanoes, right? I mean he flies through a - he flies right around the sun once in a while.
Steve Mirsky: Didn’t he fly right through the sun to clean his suit?
Bill Nye: Yes. Or maybe just to corona mass discharge. So if he can do that, what the heck, he comes out as the curl of his - you know, the lock of hair is fine. So I don’t know about the heat vision and the mirror.
Steve Mirsky: So let me ask you-
Bill Nye: It could be - I don’t know this, but it could be that the author of that Superman episode were not aware of this fundamental question of material science. I’m not saying it; it’s just possible.
But what charms me about it, about the whole thing is you’re trying to come up with a scientific hypothesis or theory in the middle of a fictional world where the guy has superpowers. I mean it’s just a fun exercise.
Steve Mirsky: And that’s what I was going to ask you about. Let’s talk a little bit more about the value, other than just the pure entertainment of it, which is quite valuable in and of itself, what’s the value for, especially for kids in consuming this kind of material and then thinking about it from a really scientific viewpoint?
Bill Nye: Well, I think first of all you start with the passion, beauty and joy, the PB&J of flying. And then you get into, well, if you’re going to live in this world where you have superpower, there are some logical constraints. And I cannot help but think of Gödel’s theorem about self-consistent systems. And I mean I’m not a mathematician full-time, I mean I took a lot of freaking calculus in school, and I did it for a living for, well, I guess 20 years, but in Gödel’s world any self-consistent system is inherently incomplete. You can show that any vector space that is mathematically self-consistent has some fundamental assumptions that are unprovable. And this is only my recollection, this may not be right, but my recollection is how I came up with the theory or the hypothesis. So you have to accept that there’s going to be an incompleteness. And this just reminds me of that, Superman can fly on the Earth, he’s from Krypton, he has a beard, then he doesn’t have a beard. What’s - why? How is that possible? And so it’s just a cool exercise to try to figure out how that would be.
Steve Mirsky: That’s good stuff. If you have another minute, I’m just curious, if you feel like talking, there was some news accounts recently you had a public event in Waco, Texas.
Bill Nye: Oh, that was several years ago, but still it stands the test of time because of our beloved Internet.
Steve Mirsky: Oh, okay. I just - it got played again recently for some reason.
Bill Nye: It pops up. And I’m delighted, frankly.
Steve Mirsky: So you want to talk about that a little?
Bill Nye: Well, this woman and two children, I presume it’s a mother and her two children, left the room indignant, angry, muttering after I pointed out in the - real early on in the Old Testament, it might be on the first page of typical text, the text claims - this is in English, which has got to be translated a couple times from a couple of different language - ancient languages - it says that God made the sun to light the day and the moon to light the night. Well the moon’s visible in the sky I guess, what, 25 days of the month, or 24 days of the month. And so there’s no evidence for me that the guy or the person who wrote that passage understood that the moon had reflected light. And so then the woman grabs her two kids by the wrists and storms out of the room noisily, making a scene.
Steve Mirsky: Because you had said that the moon does not produce its own light, it’s reflecting-
Bill Nye: Well, then since the moon doesn’t - clearly does not produce its own light. I mean I’ve met the guy who walked on the moon, Buzz Aldrin; I spent a lot of time with him. I think I met Gene Cernan at a big event years ago. They walked on the moon, okay? The moon’s not glowing. I can tell you the moon’s not glowing.
Steve Mirsky: Their feet did not burn. Right.
Bill Nye: So since it is reasonable to me that the Bible was written by a human rather than by a deity with superpowers. And so then the woman storms out of the room noisily. What am I supposed to do? Okay. All right. Do you really believe the moon is glowing? You really? In other words, she is living - talk about a self-inconsistent system.
And my - what I think rekindled this thing in Waco, Texas was a year ago February, in another interview with another media outlet, called Big Think, I remarked that if an adult wants to hold this inconsistent view of the world, that is to say the world is clearly, we can demonstrate, especially with rubidium and strontium, you can demonstrate that the world is 4.54 billion years old. And then many of these adults of this influence are okay with believing that the world is 10,000 years old. I said, “If you adults want to do that, want to carry that self-inconsistency, that’s fine. But keep it to yourself when it comes to your children and school and science education.” And it’s inappropriate to spend tax dollars intended for science education teaching that the world is 10,000 years old. It’s just inappropriate. And I, as a taxpayer, I’m not going to put up with that. And so this stirred up a lot of controversy.
But creationists are, I think largely by accident, leaving the world worse than they found it.
Steve Mirsky: Hey, Bill Nye, thanks very much. Pleasure to talk to you.
Bill Nye: Oh, thank you. Let’s, dare I say it, change the world.
Steve Mirsky: By the way, if you find musings about Superman interesting, do find the 1971 essay by Larry Niven entitled “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex.”
We’ll be back right after this word from Kerri Smith at the Nature podcast.
Kerri Smith: This week, why naked mole rats are cancer-proof, why Martian meteorites don’t look like the Martian surface, and the company that claims to have a working quantum computer.
Steve Mirsky: Just go to www.nature.com/podcast.
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