RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
No one knows science quite like the Science Guy.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW THEME SONG)
MARTIN: Now, that is a great theme song. Bill Nye the Science Guy - he cha-chaed his way into America's hearts on "Dancing With The Stars" recently. Now, he's back to what he does best, explaining how the world works, in easy-to-understand terms. His latest science Web series is called Why with Nye. And it delves into NASA's latest mission to Jupiter. It's also full of space animations, rocket noises and most importantly, Science Guy charm.
The man himself joins us from member station KPCC in Southern California. Thanks so much for being with us, Mr. Nye.
BILL NYE: Oh, well you are so wel - charm?
NYE: Sure, that's me.
NYE: No, that's right.
MARTIN: Right out of the box, charming.
NYE: Well, what are you going to do? The - people are not aware of the Juno mission and so - this is a mission to the planet Jupiter, to learn more about its core and its storms and its weather systems. And this gets into the two deep questions that I claim get to all of us, at some point in our lives: Where did we come from? and Are we alone? And if you want to answer those two questions, you have to explore space.
MARTIN: Wow, those are big questions.
NYE: They're big questions, and they're fascinating. It's, where did we - how did we get here? When I look at the night sky, there's a bunch of stars. Are there other people or other organisms out there on other star planet systems, pondering what we're doing over here on Earth? I mean, it's compelling.
MARTIN: So this is what you do. You've made a career out of explaining science to kids. And let's be frank, many adults, too, find this accessible. What is the trick to doing this? I mean, how do you know how to distill complicated ideas down to something that people can really understand? How do you know when too much information is too much?
NYE: Rachel, this is so sweet. Thank you. Back in the day, we had very compelling study that 10 years old is about as old as you can be, to get the so-called lifelong passion for science. And I suspect it's - 10 years old is about as old as you can be to get the lifelong passion for anything. So we aimed "The Science Guy" show at people in fourth grade - 10-year-olds - but that turned out to be a very good level for a lot of people.
NYE: Half the viewers were grown-ups, are grown-ups. And so along that line, this mission to Jupiter is, from a scientific standpoint, amazing. It's remarkable. It sounds like obscure scientific information that wouldn't affect your everyday life. But actually, it has the ability, perhaps, to profoundly change the way we view our - what I like to call our place in space, our place among the stars.
And so these missions, you know, the whole budget for planetary science at NASA is just a little less than $1.5 billion. But if things were not the way they are this weekend, the NASA budget would be almost $18 billion. And so, this is about 9 percent of the NASA budget. And the NASA budget is, in turn, less than half a percent of the federal budget. It's just an extraordinary value that could change the course of human history. Is that worth it? Yes, it is worth it.
MARTIN: Is the shutdown affecting the mission at all? Is it affecting your show?
NYE: So my understanding is the team kept coming in anyway - the Juno team. So everybody, this is an extraordinary thing. This is rocket science. It sounds odd, but you buy an off-the-shelf rocket to do this. You're the head of the Juno Mission, so it's an Atlas 5. The rocket's not powerful to go all the way to Jupiter in one push. So they shot this thing out - I went to Cape Canaveral in 2011 - shot it out beyond the orbit of Mars. It fell back toward the Earth on Oct. 9th. I mean, they're - just a couple of days ago - it went phishew! Slingshot around the Earth so that now, it will go all the way out to Jupiter in 2016.
And so to monitor that to make sure there were no last-moment course corrections, the Juno team was on station even though the government was shut down. And if you go to the Juno website or the other websites associated with it, they're shut down. But because these people are so heavily invested in this remarkable spacecraft, they came in anyway.
MARTIN: So what made you want to do "Dancing with the Stars"?
NYE: Oh, God. It's just when you watch a baseball game, what is it you want to - put me in, Coach. I could do that.
MARTIN: I don't think that.
NYE: Give me the bat. And dancing just fills me with joy. However, as I speak to you from a chair, I tore quadricep tendons when I slipped on maybe an especially slippery part of the ballroom floor, after maybe beating the heck out of my knees the previous four weeks doing all these crazy other things.
MARTIN: What was your favorite dance?
NYE: Well, I think my favorite dance will be the Jive. You're required by contract to come back to the finale.
MARTIN: Oh, good. Oh, great.
NYE: Yeah, Nov. 26th. So I'm very hopeful that I'm going to come back.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUMP JIVE")
MARTIN: Bill Nye's new series is called Why with Nye. You can find it online.
Thank you so much for talking with us, Bill. It's been so fun.
NYE: Oh, Rachel. It is I who must thank you. You were very patient to listen to all this.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "JUMP JIVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.