Most of us have heard the term “The Greatest Generation” – a moniker used to describe the generation of men and women who lived through the Great Depression and World War II. A generation of folks that not only sacrificed their own lives to fight for their country, but who brought the economy and the nation back from the brink. It’s a group of people that Nye brings up early on in his newest book Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World.
The last world war might seem like a strange topic to bring up in a book about climate change, but it fits. Nye notes that many people have suggested that no generation has or can live up to the kind of feats The Greatest Generation is known for. Nye disagrees. “We face a challenge right now, you and I, that is even greater in aspect and scope than a global war. It is a battle for our house and home, and for our future planet.” If we can address global warming – if we can stop or slow down what is barreling right toward us – we will be worthy, Nye suggests, of a new moniker: the Next Great Generation.
Nye’s solution for addressing climate change isn’t revolutionary: stop burning fossil fuels – yesterday. Use natural gas and nuclear energy only so long as we need them as bridges to better energy sources. And as fast as possible, switch everything to solar, to wind. "Unstoppable" joins a raucous chorus of books on the topic of climate change, all of which have their own version of this same idea, all of which attempt to galvanize the public and our government to take serious actions.
In "Unstoppable," instead of quoting scientific studies, interviewing experts, or visiting far flung corners of the world to see new takes on sustainable living, Nye tries a different tack: He goes back to the basics. He knows the information on climate change has been out there for quite a long time and that the research is complex, but conclusive: Climate change is coming, and it’s already here. But he also knows people and nations have just dragged their feet to make changes in their lives and the world.
So how do you rouse the public into action when nothing else has worked yet? Nye’s answer to that question is: with science, of course!
“We need to break free of our carbon shackles,” Nye writes. “I’m sure that if we understand energy, and how its production affects the atmosphere … we can engineer a better future.”
It’s an optimistic idea -- that information about science and energy would lead people to believe in and act on the reality of climate change. But if anyone can do it, it’s Nye, right?
Nye’s television show, Bill Nye the Science Guy, made him a household name to thousands of children back in the 90s (and onward, in repeats on PBS). And man, was it an energetic show. Flash, bang, boom, and a truckload of science all in one half hour, streaming to your school and your home every day. The Science Guy aimed to make science understandable and fun and accessible to children and the regular layperson (and it did).
So, in "Unstoppable," in chapter upon chapter, Nye delves into the science, math, and engineering behind global warming, the technologies that are causing it and the technologies that can save us.
We’re not talking about skim the surface science – the whole “there’s a ton of carbon in the atmosphere and the amount is rising” kind of stuff. No, "Unstoppable" is in the weeds. It’s detailed. It’s science about heat engines – how they work and why they matter in the discussion of climate change. It’s science about why the flexibility and longevity of the carbon dioxide molecule, a byproduct of fossil fuels, is what makes it contribute so heavily to global warming. It’s about positive and negative feedback loops, about electrons and capacitors and AC and DC current, it’s about mass and work, force and energy, radiation and half-lives. It’s about earthshine and atmosphere, about rocket propulsion, about moving magnetic fields. It’s about why different isotopes of uranium decay differently. It’s about how wind turbine blades are twisted just right to create lift. It’s about the energy density of batteries and how they work inside. It’s about it all: coal, natural gas, nuclear energy, solar energy, wind energy, electricity, and more.
"Unstoppable" is unapologetically science-stuffed. This is its best and worst quality, because while it’s informative and oftentimes interesting, it also often feels like a textbook. Sure, it’s a textbook written by a beloved, bow-tie-wearing guy. It’s a textbook filled with funny (cheesy) puns, with science that is explained well and with a lot of analogies. It’s a textbook that we might even wish we had back when we were learning this stuff in school.
But it still often reads like a textbook, and if the purpose of this book is to impart understanding (versus just knowledge) to the populace, it’s unclear how far one would slog through the details before getting discouraged when the going gets tough.
It’s unfortunate, also, that the end of the book is weak – a letdown after you’ve succeeded in mucking through all that tough stuff. There’s a chapter with a rant against NASCAR that, however much deserved and however well written and reasonable, feels misplaced. The chapters on changes that Nye himself made to his house are stuffed with mostly unattainable and costly suggestions that the average person wouldn’t be able to afford to implement. Three full chapters on why we should continue to space travel – while persuasive – feel way off topic and more like a shameless plug for The Planetary Society (of which Nye is the CEO).
"Unstoppable" aims to test the hypothesis of whether explaining the science of climate change from the ground up will rouse people into action. And maybe it will. Maybe if more people understand how exactly carbon dioxide and methane contribute to climate change, how fossil-fueled cars and energy grids create those two substances in the first place, and how exactly wind and solar energy work – maybe they will go out and create change. Share their understanding. Vote for the people who will vote for policies that fight climate change. We’ll see.
Nye may sometimes miss the mark in his science-heavy chapters, but he’s at his prime when talking about politics, policy, about why we need to act and why we haven’t yet. In his first four chapters, where those topics are his focus, he’s superb. It’s where he dismantles the idea that we don’t need to care about climate change. It’s where he annihilates the doubt climate change deniers have seeded in the minds of many. It’s where he destroys the idea that it’s too costly to fight climate change by showing how much it’ll cost if we don’t.
It’s where he calls everyone to action to save Earth, to save it as if it were our home, and it was on fire.
“When you see those flames the decision is made: You have to act. You can’t afford not to,” Nye writes. “Fortunately, there is still just enough time – and our science will show the way.”