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Bill Nye the Resume-Inflating Guy

May 9th, 2017

I See Your Six Courses and Raise You Three

This week, for some reason, I’ve been sitting around doing differential equations. Every once in a while I feel bad about forgetting 80% of the math, physics, and engineering stuff I learned in school, so I watch lectures and do problems. I don’t know if I’ll ever be as smart as I was in 1996, but it’s nice to recover little bits of it.

Coincidentally, today I saw the insufferable Bill Nye the Mechanical Engineering Guy on the web, condescending to people who (like Freeman Dyson and William Gray) are not convinced the world is melting due to anthropogenic global warming. Man, Bill is rude. And conceited. That’s why I call him the Mechanical Engineering Guy. He calls himself the Science Guy, but he’s not a scientist. He has an engineering degree and no graduate training.

I don’t know what kind of criteria a person has to satisfy in order to be called a scientist, but heavy-hitter scientists are generally Ph.D.’s. I suppose you can be a scientist with a B.S. (which would make me a scientist), but can you be a scientist with a B.S. in engineering, which is not really science? I would have to say no, unless you do so much work on your own, outside of classrooms, you eventually become a scientist. I don’t know of any evidence that Bill has done that, although he has certainly done work in science.

I think Bill agrees with me. He may not want to admit it, but I believe he knows he’s not a scientist. If he were a scientist, he would have a great defense of his credentials. He would have it memorized by now. That defense has not materialized. Instead, he has defended himself by saying he’s an engineer and that he took six semesters of calculus. Referring to his M.E. studies, he said, “It’s physics.”

I thought about that, and I decided to see how many semesters of calculus I had taken. I don’t remember things all that well, but as far as I can tell, I took EIGHT semesters of calculus. Calc I, Calc II, Multivariable, Ordinary Differential Equations, Partial Differential Equations, Complex Analysis, Real Analysis, and Math for Physicists (see Arfken’s textbook). I may have forgotten one or two courses. I also took Linear Algebra, and every physics course I took was jam-packed with calculus as well as every other conceivable type of math. It was not unusual to have to pick up new mathematical tools in brief asides during physics lectures, and my graduate mechanics professor expected us to get a basic grasp of differential geometry–a hard discipline–as a small part of his 3-point course.

You have to pick up all sorts of bizarre things to do physics. Fourier transforms. Various types of series. The calculus of variations. It’s like working on cars. When you run into a problem, sometimes you have to get a new tool. That means learning things on the fly.

I don’t even remember what Real Analysis is. I had to look it up to see if calculus was involved.

After I looked this stuff up, I went to the website of Cornell University. This is Nye’s alma mater. I checked to see how many math credits he had to take to get a B.S. in mechanical engineering. The answer is 19. Depending on the breaks, that’s six courses or less. I have at least 27 math credits. I also looked at the engineering courses Cornell M.E.’s take, and as I figured, it may be physics, but it’s not PHYSICS. To give an example, Cornell engineers take second-semester physics, which is called “Electromagnetism.” I took that course, and then I took a higher-level E&M course which was ten times as hard. Then in graduate school, I took a third E&M course. That’s the difference between engineering and physics.

To be an M.E., you have to learn little bits of medium-hard physics. You have to be able to split forces into components and so on. Far as I can tell, you don’t have to learn Lagrangian dynamics or quantum mechanics. On the other hand, you have to learn a ton of practical stuff. How to pick parts for machines and so on. Physicists don’t learn that stuff, so we have all sorts of time to devote to harder subjects like optics and advanced mechanics. We study very, very, very hard subjects that aren’t very practical. We know a lot about the way the universe works, but an excellent physicist may not be able to fix your toaster when it stops working.

I’ve looked at a couple of engineering physics courses. I looked at statics and dynamics. Maybe I somehow missed the hard stuff, but to me it looked extremely basic. I would call it “paraphysics,” the same way I would distinguish a paralegal from a lawyer. Real physicists don’t take those courses. I didn’t even know what “statics” and “dynamics” meant until I looked at the books. I also got myself a nice text on machine design, which is an M.E. thing. This is a neat subject, but the book is very simple. How to push round axles into holes and so on. Slip fit v. interference fit. It’s vocational, really. I remember an Atlanta lawyer calling Georgia Tech a trade school, and after looking at the machine design book, I get it.

I was a bad physicist, because I got burned out and quit before I got far into my graduate training. Nonetheless, I have a hard time taking Bill Nye seriously when he says he’s a scientist. You don’t have to be Albert Einstein to choose gears out of a catalog to make a machine work (This is how Richard Feynman described his own brief stint as a makeshift engineer.)

There are brilliant mechanical engineers, and I’m sure there are many who took very, very hard courses that went far beyond their degree requirements. Thing is, it doesn’t look like Bill Nye is one of them. If he were, we would have heard about it. From Bill.

Physicists are real scientists. Chemists are real scientists. Knowing how to choose the right alloy for a lawnmower piston is not science. It’s important. It’s cool. Science? No.

Maybe I’m wrong about all this. Maybe Bill has studied really, really hard since leaving school, and now he’s right up there with real scientists. If so, he ought to quit throwing out the “six semesters of calculus” defense, because it makes him sound like he has no idea what scientists actually study.

It’s a little bit like the bullying scene in Good Will Hunting. Ben Affleck, playing an uneducated townie, tries to convince a girl he’s a college student. He says he thinks he was in one of her classes. A mean grad student asks him which class it was. Affleck says, “history.”

Bill Nye would be totally incapable of assisting a theoretical physicist, and if he wanted to be an assistant for an experimental physicist, which would be easier, he would have to pick his man carefully if he wanted to be able to understand anything he was working on.

Anyway, generally, engineers are people who use science, but most are NOT scientists. That’s why the Nazis use to call Einstein an engineer. He was a Jew, and they wanted to downgrade his achievements. No one would ever use the word “physicist” to insult an engineer.

I’m really enjoying brushing up on math (I wish my math-hating high school self could read that; he would faint.) The work is really easy; I just write the answer to the problem down and move on to the next one. When I was in college, I spent three or four hours a week doing math homework, whereas my physics homework was, essentially, endless. I worked and worked until I ran out of time, and then I turned it in and hoped for the best. Math is way, way, way easier than physics, until you look for ways to make it hard. After that, well, I don’t actually know how hard it gets. Infinitely, I guess. My wild guesses about serious math are about as informed as Bill’s guesses about physics. I’m not a mathematician. I’m just a guy with a math minor.

One nice thing about college math was that it was possible to get scores like 85 and 95 on tests. In physics, sometimes a 40 was an A. Everyone would leave the test humiliated, and then we would find out we had done very well. The instructors never understood that it was bad to give people problems they couldn’t do.

It would be neat to be able to do real physics again. Maybe I’ll get there with time.

To sum up, I guess I would say the following things. Bill Nye is not a real scientist. Even if he were a great physicist, it wouldn’t mean he was automatically right about global warming. Tesla, who was about [googol squared] times as smart as Bill Nye, was wrong about relativity. Even if Bill were, objectively, right, it would still be wrong to call people “deniers” and suggest they be imprisoned for skepticism, as Bill does. As another commentator has pointed out, this is more or less the same thing as the Pope threatening to burn Galileo. Also, Bill is wrong to blame the Jews for the persecution they get in Israel, and he is wrong to suggest they should go “home” to places like Germany and Poland instead of their ancestral homeland.

Bill is a jerk. He needs to stick a pin in his own ego and knock it off.

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4 Responses to “Bill Nye the Resume-Inflating Guy”

  1. Chris Says:

    A guy I know once called him “Captain Kangaroo with a Bunsen burner” who thinks he’s the second coming of Feynman. He’s a good example of how corrupting an influence celebrity can be, if you don’t have sufficient humility to maintain perspective on your own actual importance.

  2. Steve H. Says:

    It’s sad that he’s trying to convince lay people that mechanical engineers are scientists. A dentist has more scientific training than Bill Nye.

    His fans point to an invention he patented while working for Boeing. If designing a gadget made one a scientist, the term “engineer” would no longer exist. Engineers would simply be called scientists, as would the lady who invented the Wonder Mop.

  3. Sharkman Says:

    For some insane reason, in the past 3 months I’ve been reading everything I can about physics and am trying to teach myself the basics.

    As a former attorney without even the faint semblance of an ability to do math, it is difficult, to say the least. But I do understand the theoretical concepts.

    There is a small group of physicists over at

    http://www.commonsensescience.org

    who believe a unified theory can be derived that does away with much of the bullcrap fantasy that modern physics seems to be based upon.

    I would be interested to see what you think of some of their papers published on their website, Steve. Especially since you may look at things a little differently now that you are a strong Christian now, like they are.

  4. Steve H. Says:

    Physics spans a huge area. Students start off with basic mechanics, which includes things like figuring out how high a ball will go if you throw it. A few years later, if you stick with it, you end up in a different world. Einstein and his buddies took us from balls and pulleys to relativity and quantum mechanics. Before you can get into cosmology, which is the field that tries to determine how the universe began, you have to be a very skilled practitioner.

    The farthest I got was graduate-level quantum mechanics. I didn’t study relativity in grad school. Any opinions I might venture concerning cosmology would be nearly worthless.

    One of the weird things about the universe is that we are located in a “sweet spot” of various quantities. If the temperature were slightly different, or if the gravitational constant were weaker, or if this or that variable were changed by a small amount, we would all die. Some scientists see our fortunate location at just the right places on so many axes as proof God made a special location where we could survive.

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