Bill Nye tells us how old the earth is

Bill Nye explains how we use science to calculate the age of the planet and how that understanding, and science, impact our economy. I hope Sen. Rubio listens...


  1. For someone who makes a living of explaining stuff like this to a TV audience, I find this guy not very articulate or easy to follow. Feels like he didn’t really prepare for the interview.

    1. he sounded flabbergasted and exhausted – which is the appropriate response to people who defend creationism.

    2. Trying to explain (and thoroughly vulgarize) radioactive decay in a mere few seconds is a very tall order for anyone. Also, short interview segments on the news don’t usually involve a lot of time and planning. The interviewee is not sent a precise list of exactly what the questions will be, how they will be phrased, what the best, most succinct answer ought to be, etc. It’s a world of difference from planning a proper show or lecture.

      I thought he did well, especially when he brought up the point that scientific and technological achievement is absolutely and critically a part of ‘America’s proud history’ and ought to celebrated and encouraged, not treated like unpatriotic concepts and whatnot.

      1. I had exactly the same impression as memoid. I don’t think he did at all well especially since the interview was, as he acknowledged, longer than a few seconds.

        She asked him an outstanding question “How old is the earth *and how do we know?*” He completely bobbled the “how do we know” part by jumping around from point to point. Anyone who doesn’t understand how we use radioactivity to measure the earth’s age wouldn’t learn much from the video.

        1. People without any knowledge of radioactive decay AND how it is used as a measurement couldn’t learn anything significant in less than 2-3 minutes anyway. Explaining just ONE of the two concepts in that short a time would be a huge challenge.

          I will concede that he probably shouldn’t have attempted it. He should have just called her out on how ridiculously broad her question was and that the ‘answer’ is way to complex to be broken down comprehensively in that short a time. But he then would STILL have been accused of being condescending and evasive.

          ETA: I don’t know if you watched the entire video, but he did have other questions to answer. The whole purpose wasn’t about trying to teach isotope dating to novices.

        2.  That’s an outstanding question if you have a couple of hours to talk about it.  It’s not a very good setup for a 30 second answer.

      2. I thought it was odd how he spent nearly as long on explaining the word inane as he did on radioactive decay.
        Surely the average CNN viewer knows what inane means?

        (I’m not going to like the answer to this, am I?)

      3. i used to work at CNN LA as a camera operator and did many of these segments with mr nye. if you look at the clock it reads 10:57AM ET, which means he probably showed up to the studio at 7AM PT. it’s early, the studios are cramped and the lights are bright and the delay sucks.

    3. I just wish he didn’t look like the stereotypical “nerd scientist” with the bow tie and bushy eyebrows.  Sadly looks matter on TV when dealing with the public.

        1. My point is the average viewer who probably is already leery of science will use his appearance to dismiss him without listening to him and since these people vote, yes it matters.

          1. That doesn’t even make sense.

            “Why, that feller looks like one of those science-y folks. Why should I trust HIS opinion about science?”

        1. Well, whoosh in the sense that Nye is an actor who is *purposely* affecting the image of a nerdy scientist to teach children about science, but I have to wonder if that stereotype is really that helpful in getting the point across. Yes, some scientists are nerdy, myself included, but others are actually on the cool side.

          1. I’ve known a number of brilliant (and hot) physicians who wore bow ties, but maybe you can get away with things in SF that seem weirder in other places.  The whoosh was because it’s a professional affectation; I don’t think that there’s a Bow Tie Gene linked to science.

          2.  The point of a bow tie in science is that you won’t light it on fire with your Bunsen burner like you can easily do with a regular tie.

          3.  Bill is both an actor and an actual scientist.  So I think the character he created for the public is about who he really is as well as a persona that he felt would make science fun.

  2. Economy should be the measurement of the decrease in local entropy relative to humanities’ collective goals. You can’t understand local entropy without understanding the age of the universe. You can’t understand how to study the basic elements without also understanding the age of the universe. You can’t understand the next 100 years of the world economy without understanding the basic elements.

    I hit two 30 second sound bites in a quick random click on that video and heard Bill Nye basically say that, but then again, my first sentence is a bit of a jump.

      1.  there are certain innate needs that are getting easier and easier to attain/provide in the modern world and our “collective goals” should reflect providing an environment enabling such.  Many global and US governing bodies accept these as truths.  housing, clothing, food, jobs, healthcare, education, etc (collectively aka “dignity”).

    1. you are talking about long-term economics.  and i agree.  but most of the big players in our economy these days are only concerned with quarterly results (at best).  we need to get our elected representatives fix this for us. 

  3. I think this explanation, and most intro-level explanations, of radioisotope dating leave too many gaps to be persuasive.

    I always assumed that, if there was more uranium and less lead three billion years ago, then wouldn’t there have originally been more uranium and less lead in rocks formed three billion years ago than in rocks formed yesterday? wouldn’t they show the same radioisotope ages?

    It’s a key point that these uranium-rich minerals form with certain proportions of uranium and certain proportions of lead or none at all, and can’t form with different proportions. Because they form with certain proportions, we can get the starting composition to compare with the current composition to calculate the age.

    It’s a bit different with carbon-carbon dating than with uranium-lead or potassium-argon. Here the starting composition is the atmospheric composition, which depends on solar radiation, which requires calibration.

    And anyway, I believe there are complete tree-ring sequences going back beyond 5954 B.P.

    1. I think this explanation, and most intro-level explanations, of radioisotope dating leave too many gaps to be persuasive.

      That’s the problem with ANY explanation as far as creationists are concerned. Answers that are 100% precise, accurate and absolute are almost non-existent. Rb-Sr dating makes a lot of sense even though it does require other adjustments (but the adjustments do make sense as well). No matter how reasonable, obvious and precise science can get, creationists will come up with an excuse why it supposedly ‘ain’t evidence’. They have their own reasons for believing what they believe and reason certainly isn’t any part of it.

      1.  He has a point.  For example, there are no big-budget space opera or post-apocalyptic porn movies out there.  For my kind of kicks imagination is the only way to go.

        Unless we can convince James Cameron to start doing erotica.  Letter writing campaign?

  4. Yikes, one look at Bill Nye and I’m amazed at how gray he looks now. Poor guy. He’s really better off not getting involved in these debates anymore, since they amount to shouting at walls.

    That said though, I do think his view on creationism is really short-sighted. In fact, he might be surprised to learn that about half the scientists in the world are deists. This has included famous names like Albert Einstein, Nikola Tesla, Kurt Godel, Francis Collins, and Donald Knuth. William Ockham deserves an ironic mention as well; he was a friar, and today we see people using the razor he invented to practically slit their own wrists, such as by claiming that public shootings are caused by either lax gun control laws or violent video games. So it’s probably safe to conclude that either half the scientists in the world are enormously stupid, or that modern science is fully compatible with both theism and atheism.

    Look, Mr. The Science Guy, give yourself a vacation. You suffered, what, a stroke two years ago? Don’t provoke another one by taking on television hacks. Don’t let yourself degenerate and become that which you hate. I assure you that God has plans for how he’s going to handle the religious frauds who have disgraced His name.

    1. But he’s not arguing for atheism.  He’s arguing that if you want to have the correct time frame for the Earth and the universe, it matters as it’s essential in understanding many aspects of science, including biology, geology, physics and astronomy.  He’s not picking fights with religion, just the facts of natural history.  You mentioned some celebrated scientists, but I doubt you can name a well known scientist from 1900 on who believed the earth was only 6,000 years old.  

      1. The universe is three weeks old.
        This I know from the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Things like coins with old dates on them, and web pages made in 1998 were simply added into the creation as a joke, to confuse people.

        … May He comfort you with His Noodly Appendages.

    2. A deist is just an atheist who doesn’t want to pick a fight. Just choose any emergent property of a materialistic universe, call that “god” and be done with it.

    3. That said though, I do think his view on creationism is really short-sighted. In fact, he might be surprised to learn that about half the scientists in the world are deists.

      On the “religiosity” scale, deism is about as far from creationism as you can possibly get.  Your opposition to atheism is completely off-topic.

      If you’re going to say “well, deism is creationism because you believe the universe is created” don’t bother.  It’s one of the stupidest arguments ever made, right up there with Otto’s (of the Simpsons) “they call them fingers but you never see them fing!”

    4. There’s an enormous difference between deism and creationism, especially young-earth creationism. Any decent scientist will say there’s nothing inherently wrong with believing that God created the universe 14 billion years ago. There is plenty of room for a belief in God. There is no reasonable room for a belief that the earth was formed and populated during a 7 day period a couple of thousand years ago (unless you resort to last-tuesdayism, which is indeed a tenable philosophical position).

      I’m a Christian, and my position is that if your personal interpretation of the bible contradicts observable and provable facts, then you’d have to be unbelievably arrogant to think that your interpretation trumps reality.

    5. Einstein was in no way a Deist.   He occasionally used the word “God” as a whimsical euphemism for the nature of the universe, but not in the way that religions use it.  Here are some direct quotes from Einstein himself:

      “The word God is for me is nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this.”

      “It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”

      Anyone who claims Einstein believed in God is perpetuating a lie.

  5. You can tell the guy playing those video clips was starting to get bored by the end of the segment because he started just playing home videos from his last vacation.

  6. So according to this Sen. Rubio guy knowledge has no value unless it grows the economy?  WTF?  Let’s get rid of Christianity then since it has little to do with growing the economy either.  If your values begin and end with the quest for money then your life is wasted.

  7. The ironic part is the Catholic Church, of which Sen. Rubio is a member, accepts evolution and the Big Bang and the whole ball of wax.  Rubio is pandering to fundamentalists in his state – not his own church.

    1. I was thinking about that as I saw Rubio going off about that subject – the Vatican has telescopes wherein Catholic astronomers do exactly the same kind of research that the heathens in the next telescope over perform.

  8. Explaining the science to Fundies is about as useful as peeing into the wind.
    I’m certain Rubio knows how the science works, but he must pretend it is fallacy to keep his job.

    The interview would be more effective if people were held accountable for their beliefs and actions, instead of just rhetorical pandering.

    1. Fuck holding them accountable for their beliefs. 

      They can have those so long as they only act (form policy) on knowledge, deferring to people who do know science when they themselves do not.

      1.  you know their voting record is public, as is some of their campaign contributions (if late in the cycle), right?  show me someone who votes aggregiously against their public perceived-constituency pandering and i’ll show you an ex-congress-person.  they need to be held more-accountable, it’s just really hard to do.  how do you prove someone (someone whom is paid to talk) is knowingly lying?

  9. When Obama was asked a similar question during the 2008 presidential campaign, he gave nearly the same answer that Rubio did. I don’t recall anyone going after Obama with torches and pitchforks like they are doing with Rubio.

    “I believe that God created the universe and that the six days in the Bible may not be six days as we understand it — it may not be 24-hour days. And that’s what I believe. I know there’s always a debate between those who read the Bible literally and those who don’t, and that I think is a legitimate debate within the Christian community of which I’m a part. You know, my belief is that the story the Bible tells about God creating this magnificent Earth on which we live, that that is essentially true, that is fundamentally true. Now, whether it happened exactly as we might understand it reading the text of the Bible? That, you know, I don’t presume to know.”
    — Barack Obama

    1. The difference between the two is that Obama seems to be saying that people will interpret that part of the bible in different ways.  Rubio seems to say that we won’t really know about the science, as theologians don’t agree what the bible says.

    2. How are those similar responses?  One offers an excellent example of how someone can be a religious believer and yet fully accept science as reality, and the other shows a coward who isn’t following his own church’s teachings OR acknowledging reality.

      1. Rubio: “Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to answer that. It’s one of the great mysteries.”

        Obama: “The six days in the Bible may not be six days as we understand it — it may not be 24-hour days. Whether it happened exactly as we might understand it reading the text of the Bible? That, you know, I don’t presume to know.”

        Actually I do find these responses to be strikingly similar, whatever shades of meaning you might read into them. For this, Obama was given a free pass and Rubio is being crucified.

        1. No. 

          Obama specifically limits his -belief- (not knowledge) and any debate over it to his Christian community.

          Rubio uses his lack of knowledge as a wedge for teaching creationism in schools.

          Good secular leaders can go to church, eat human flesh and drink blood and then go to work and form policy based on knowledge instead of belief. Rubio would clearly have a problem doing that because he is willing to consider knowledge a lack of knowledge, Obama is clear that it is belief.

          Rubio couches his answer by claiming he thinks parents can tell kids whatever they want. Well Duh. That’s not the debate and he knows it. He’s talking equal time for Creationism in public school science classes, not a parents right to instruct a child in faith. 

          He’s also an assmunch for using “At the end of the day”. I hate that.

  10. “multiple theories out there on how the universe was created”?  Yet another false equation between the words “theory” and “hypothesis.”

  11. This illustrates exactly how bad the forced “objectivity” from the media has become.

    On one side, you have a renowned science educator, who explains about the science of radiometric dating, and the value of science and technology to modern society. On the other, is a politician who dismisses all of that because it might contradict a book featuring unicorns and talking snakes. So they title it something like:

    “The age of the earth: opinions differ.”

    Refusing to take a stand between truth and falsehood is not objectivity and it certainly isn’t proper journalism.

    1. Being told by a cult that the earth is only 4000 years old against the scientific method that provides the house you live in the food you eat and the medicine that keeps you alive ought not to be up for debate. The newscasters are not broadcasting news, its irresponsible entertainment fantasy against scientific fact. The churches are behaving extremely badly by going along with this, they don’t need to fight science to propagate their memes, in fact by discrediting it in the face of an overpopulated earth they are deliberately courting human extinction events by making it all-right to ignore science like Climate Change.

      Well I’m sick of the lot of you, I cant be bothered to reason with you any more, I’m astonished that nice reasonable people like Bill Nye continue to try and do so.

      Just remember this, those of us who believe that science is a useful tool and does the job of identifying how the universe works very well, just remember when the first couple of billion people die as a result of climate change or something else we discovered by using science. Just remember that we told you so but you chose to be stupid and cleverly argue your way out of responsibility for anything because it went against your religious beliefs.

      I believe that religious zealotry itself damns the human race to extinction. That’s not a scientific fact unlike the age of the earth but it is my belief.

      1.  perhaps people that are strong enough to continue the good fight are causing the tide to change as soon as it is.

  12. Oddly — I don’t think the Catholics are staunch creationists. Not like, say, Baptists. Certainly not “young earth” creationism. They are one of the churches that recognizes evolution. They actually have secular scientists as advisers about scientific discoveries and how it may or may not impact the understanding to scripture. They have come a long way since Galileo.

    Then again, soooo many Catholics have little knowledge of what their faith actually teaches. I’ve noted converts know more about it than people who were born into the church.

    1. “Not like, say, Baptists.” For what it’s worth, there is no one way that Baptists believe. There are hundreds of different Baptist denominations around the world, and they agree on almost nothing. Even if you’re thinking the Southern Baptist Convention in the U.S., as radical and conservative as that umbrella organization has become, it does not dictate the beliefs of individual churches or members. 

      Sorry to make the point, but as a liberal Baptist who fully subscribes to the theory of evolution, it felt like a distinction worth making!

  13. When push comes to shove, as long as I get my beer volcano and pirate regalia i’ll be sitting pretty.  Raa-men.

    Most scientists say the Earth is 4.5 billion years old

    What the hell do the few others say?

    1. There are many scientists who are experts within their very specific field of research, but lack in-depth understanding of everything else. In fact most scientists are like that – there isn’t time to become experts in everything else. Most get by with an understanding of other fields that they picked up as an undergrad or when it was required to help them understand something in their own research (cross-disciplinary knowledge is often crucial so I don’t want to discount it, but it results in a shallow understanding of other fields at best).

      Similarly, most scientists realize that they aren’t experts in anything outside their own field, and keep their mouths shut about anything they aren’t sure about. Unfortunately, not all do, and some with inflated egos act like experts in things they really don’t know a whole lot about. 

      In most cases, that’s ultimately harmless and just results in a little embarrassment. But there are creationist scientists. They may in fact do excellent work… but not in fields relevant to this discussion like geology and evolution. Because they may be a respected scientist in whatever field they are in, they will think their thoughts on other things matter and will occasionally make statements about other fields they know nothing about that contradict the bible. It’s a credibility killer, so most stay quiet about it.

      As a geologist, this bothers me. We know with certainty that the age of the earth is ~4.5 billion years, from dozens or hundreds of different lines of overwhelming evidence. 

      There’s a guy that leads rafting trips down the Grand Canyon with the express purpose of pointing out the geological beauty and saying “look at this, there’s no way this formed naturally. checkmate, atheists” – meanwhile an undergrad geology student with only the most basic of knowledge could go through and explain everything and how it formed that way naturally in great detail. Creationism is willful ignorance and it’s disgusting.

      1. So this clown is on the river in the canyon and doesn’t maybe think the water dug dis hole? 

        No, it was God peeing from space what cut this canyon

        1. The water dug that hole – but it was the water of the Biblical Flood, in one massive scouring.  And they they’ll cite the channeled scablands, which pretty much *were* scoured in one go, but by a glacial lake outburst.

          Just as the Devil can quote Scripture for his arguments, creationists can quote science. 

      2. So basically, a liver expert is never confronted with the evidence of a 4.5 billion year old Earth, or a 13.7 billion year old universe, and that’s where the flakes pop up from.

        Still, it’s very strange that any science professional with a degree would have their “skepticism muscle” underdeveloped, to coin a term.

  15. Radioisotope dating is only one of a dozen different ways to determine the age of stuff.  Everyone is familiar with tree rings, and to a lesser extent ice core layers and sediment layers.  Here are some other interesting types:

    The coolest thing?  They all agree. 

    My particular favorite is obsidian hydration.  Even if you quibble with the accuracy, it’s pretty obvious that it takes a hell of a long time for glass to adsorb water.

    1.  The “all agree” is really the most important point.  The really compelling thing about science is that different theories fit together into a larger tapestry.  It’s easy to fit a theory to some data in an ad hoc way, but doing so gives you silos, a collection of theories that don’t interact.  You can make a young earth theory internally coherent but you’re not going to make it consilient with the main body of scientific theory and evidence.

      Another way to say it is if your theory being true requires almost all other scientific knowledge to be false you probably need to go back to the drawing board.

  16. It’s time to leave these dumb monkeys behind and for the rest of us to evolve.  There’s no hope for these apes; We’re just wasting our time.

    1. where do you intend to leave them?  how far do you think we can get without their economic/ populous input? 
      seriously, questions i struggle with myself…

      1. where do you intend to leave them?

        I’d like to leave them without vast control of our government, natural resources, human rights, etc. They need to be sidelined while the rest of us try to fix this horrific mess they’ve made for us all. They’ve proven themselves not only to be inept, but also dangerous.

        how far do you think we can get without their economic/ populous input?

        It would be like releasing chains on humanity.

        1. if we’re just talking about “dumb monkeys”  maybe that’s anyone who has 70%ile intelligence or lower?  in this country, unfortunately that’s like 80% of the people.
          based upon the most recent national election, aren’t we talking about 47% of the country? ie, those that voted for someone that doesn’t believe in science (or so he claimed over and over, in so many words)?
          say that’s an exaggeration ;-), the “dumb monkeys” who believe in creationism, or can’t be corrected of their ignorance is probably still a solid 30%, and i’m being charitable.  our economy will do much worse if we don’t enable their tax dollars, no?
          i’d love to restrict their votes, but who decides who votes?  slippery slope.

          1. i’d love to restrict their votes, but who decides who votes? slippery slope.

            I don’t want to restrict anyone’s vote no matter how ignorant they are. Although, I certainly do want to change the electoral voting system so it doesn’t give more votes to people that live out in the sticks (who are over-saturated with right wing radio air pollution) than people who live in cities.

            But, what I am talking about is that we need to stop catering to dogmatic imbeciles and move humanity forward ourselves. They keep us stuck in the mud debating with them while we should be taking care of dire issues instead.

            The “debate” over evolution was solved a very long time ago and the media needs to ignore these morons so we can all evolve. And, we sure as hell as Americans need to vote these dimwits the hell OUT of office ASAP.

  17. The people who seem to care the most about teaching evolution in public high schools seem to be either militant fundamentalists or militant atheists. Hmmm. I thought this was supposed to be purely about science? It’s obvious people on both sides are using this issue as a proxy for religious and philosophical and sociological issues they care deeply about. How about we compromise and teach evolution (not creationism which is not science) in college? It’s true that the current version of evolutionary theory does a great job of explaining the available evidence and has great predictive value. However, it’s kind of like quantum mechanics in that it’s a) counterintuitive b) highly technical c) only experts really need to know about it. Of course if you’re tryiing to influence people’s religious beliefs by providing a non-divine origin for humanity, that’s really a proselytizing issue. (Proselytizing for atheism.) Once people get older, they are better able to reconcile evolution with their faith. Stripping away peoples’ faith through cheap moves like exposing them to evolution before they can handle that knowledge is abusive. We got rid of teacher-led school prayer because the state should not be pushing religion. We don’t need high school classrooms being used to further an anti-religious agenda, either.

    That was for the militant atheists. Now to the fundamentalists; stop pushing creationism. It’s stupid. Sure, you don’t want your kids to think they’re animals with no souls. Why not explain to your kids the concept of paradox? Evolution and faith can coexist because of paradox. They’ll understand better when they’re older. But stop promoting that creationism crap and demanding that politicians pretend that they don’t know that it’s crap.

    1. We don’t need high school classrooms being used to further an anti-religious agenda, either.

      Teaching basic science is not an anti-religious agenda.

      How about we compromise and teach evolution (not creationism which is not science) in college?

      How about we continue teaching basic science in school? I can;t imagine what could possibly be going on in your head that would make you think that it’s in any way okay to stop teaching basic science in school in order to abase ourselves to religious fanatics.

      Your entire comment is a massive false equivalency and an apologia for religious fundamentalism.

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