Bill Nye on Superman, Shaving, and His Own Turn as a Superhero

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In anticipation of the upcoming Man of Steel movie, Gillette jumped on the fact that the trailer shows a rather scruffy Superman and thought it would be fun to gather a group of knowledgeable folks to ask them the rather time-tested question of “How does Superman shave?” The results can be seen here, and we talked to Kevin Smith last week, but the next theory comes from educator and science guy, Bill Nye.

You can see Nye’s theory in the video above, but he was kind of enough to expand on his thoughts with us:

GeekDad: I really like your theory. It seems to have a lot of validity to it, however, the idea of grinding the beard off my face horrifies me a bit.

Bill Nye: Do you shave?

GD: Every day, yes.

BN: Are you troubled by bringing a very sharp object to your skin every day?

GD: I’m not …

BN: This would be bringing a very hard, very fast object right up to your skin. It’s an interesting thing. When you go to make something, you either add material — pour plastic into a mold, for example, or nowadays, a 3-D printer is all the rage, where you build up layers of plastic — or you remove material. That’s what you do when you whittle or carve or sand.

In engineering, we are crazy for milling, drilling, reaming, broaching, hobbing, and grinding. These are all machining operations, shaping operations. Grinding is a surprising thing because you can grind material with stuff that isn’t quite as hard as the material you are grinding. Perhaps, a surprising result. Have you ever come across the study of friction called tribology? One of the ancient questions in triblogy, you have a concrete road, which is presumably a pretty hard thing, and it is shaped by rubber tires, which are nominally a pretty soft thing. So why would a concrete road ever wear out if it’s so much harder than the tires? This is an ancient and fabulous question. In the same fashion, Superman is able to shave his beard.

GD: So will we see beard grinders for the rest of us?

BN: Well, why not? Have you used an electric toothbrush? So imagine a thing the diameter of a barrel of a ball point pen that you hold up to your face and take the whiskers off because they are brittle. You can, as a fabulous demonstration, take a nail file and grind off the shell of an egg, yet leave the membrane of the egg untouched. So Superman perhaps, or reasonably, takes his beard off in the same way.

People grind the plaque out of arteries with very high-speed grinders that are not quite microscopic, but very small and the artery wall is not damaged. The shorthand for this is that it’s a grinding operation, rather than a cutting operation.


GD: I was tickled by a particular comment on your YouTube video, which is supportive of your theory, but suggests that perhaps the appropriate material to use to grind Superman’s beard would be Chuck Norris’s beard.

BN: I have no evidence to show that Chuck Norris’s beard is substantially different than anyone else’s beard. But there is considerable evidence that Superman’s beard is different from everyone else’s beard. In my experience, the guy flies through fire, goes at supersonic speeds through the vacuum of space, he flies through corona mass discharges on the sun and he’s OK. I don’t think I could do that with my beard, nor do I think Chuck Norris could. You guys can run the test, but you’re going to have to negotiate with Chuck.

GD: I don’t mean to spread rumors, but we’ve never seen you in the same room as the superhero SpeedWalker

BN: I’m sure I have no idea what you’re talking about!

GD: Has anyone ever asked how does SpeedWalker shave? We’re getting all this attention towards Superman, what about Speed Walker?

BN: I’ll remind you that SpeedWalker has super powers in the sense he is able to out-walk even the Seattle monorail and was able to go from Seattle to Bremerton, Washington, which is on the other side of Puget Sound, faster than a Washington State ferry, which nominally goes about 30 knots. He was able to do that. But there’s no implication in SpeedWalker’s world that his beard is extraordinary.

The thing about the thought experiment with the Man of Steel movie is that you are constrained by this world and we were as theorists, hypothesizers, my three colleagues and I, we were strongly discouraged from coming up with a theory that would depend on some other aspect or historical feature in the lore or canon of Superman in the past. I remember a TV show where he walked through walls by disassociating his own molecules. There’s a comic book where he burns his beard off with a mirror and his heat vision. And we were also discouraged from using aflame-sprayed Kryptonite onto the razor.

So in the same way we were constrained in Superman’s world, to shave his beard, there’s nothing in Jeff Bimmel (Oh! Oh! I misspoke!) There’s nothing in SpeedWalker’s world from having a standard, human issue beard. Jeff Bimmel, to refresh you ,was the guy who turned into SpeedWalker. He worked for the Daily Reader.

GD: You’ve motivated a lot of kids to get excited about science over the years.

BN: It’s pretty cool!

GD: When you were a kid, who got you excited about science?

BN: My father often referred to himself as Ned Nye, Boy Scientist, and my older brother was a huge influence. I never met my grandfather, my mother’s father died before I was born, but he was an organic chemist. I was given his glassware to play with. Guys in those days, the organic chemists, they learned German and they learned to blow their own glass. I thought these pieces of glassware were the coolest looking things and I wanted to be part of that world.

My mother also was recruited by the US Navy because she was good at math and science. She worked on the Enigma Code, the Nazi code in World War 2. So I was brought up with science being a respected profession and something that you should participate in. My father did not become a scientist because his father was not that aware of science as a pursuit and he ended up in prisoner of war camp for four years and when he came back he was worn out and just wanted to get to work, but he was very supportive of [science].

I had fantastic teachers. My sixth grade teacher, Mr. Lawrence, was just fantastic. I just attended – this astonishes me – my 40th high school reunion and I saw my physics teacher and he’s still working! Mr. Lang, George Lang is still working and he was a huge influence on me. So was my chemistry teacher and Mr. Morris, I guess you’d call him my pre-calculus teacher. These people all just had a huge effect on me.


GD: It seems like science is having a big of a popularity renaissance …

BN: Let’s hope so!

GD: … but concerning STEM education, what’s our next step, what do you think is important so kids grow up to be scientists and engineers?

BN: I emphasize to everyone that it’s great to have STEM, I can’t imagine having too much of that. But a place we can focus in a straight-forward fashion is algebra. Apparently algebra is a huge influencer on one’s academic career. Apparently, if you don’t learn algebra, you are reluctant to think abstractly about all sorts of things. It’s not determinant of whether or not you become a scientist or engineer, it’s a way of thinking. If you’re a socialist or international relations mediator, you want everyone to have this skill, associated with algebra. I mention it because algebra should be an inexpensive thing to teach. We don’t have to revolutionize the school system to get people engaged in algebra. I suspect all we have to do is value it, to start teaching symbols representing numbers, early on in elementary school rather than wait until seventh grade.

GD: It seems like you have a renewed popularity, especially on the Web. I don’t know if it’s people that grew up watching you and are now sharing your show with their kids, but what do you make of this interest in your and your message?

BN: I love it because my message, I think, is a worthy one — that science is the best idea humans have ever had — and humans have had a lot of ideas. But the process of science has changed the world. Right now, we’re talking on a telephone, which is an electrical machines that we use. It’s astonishing! If everyone were to embrace the scientific method or accept it as a reasonable way to understand nature and our place in it, the world would be better off. If I’m wrong about that, my idea would get replaced by something else and then we’d claim that’s the process of science. But I’m very excited that kids who used to watch the show are now coming of age and paying taxes and getting jobs are still excited about [the show]. I’m working in social media to make it popular.

I grew up in the U.S., I was born here, I am a patriot. I want engineers trained in the U.S. to shape the future for humankind. We have amazing problems. We have HIV, AIDS, we have ice caps melting, we have seven billion people — where there used to be one and a half — in barely a century. These are just world-sized problems and they’re going to take new ideas new thinkers who embrace science to address these problems. So, it’s exciting! Let’s change the world!

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