Science Rules: Brad Efford on Bill Nye the Science Guy Episode 3: "Dinosaurs"
You know, the earth is hit by meteorites all the time, the science guy says. It could happen again.
He is explaining about dinosaurs—the it is their demise becoming our own. The science guy takes a slingshot loaded with a bullet-sized ball of pepper to a box of white flour. When the ball bullets the flour, the flour goes flying, coats the air. The coating’s so thick the sun can’t get through. Flora is famished and the rest is 65 million years in history.
It is difficult to say what the science guy intends when he says it could happen again, if he stands detached from the issue or is simply keeping hidden his existential fright. Or if—it’s not impossible—he relishes the prediction. But intent’s not important: the effect is unavoidable, the dread of mass extinction unbound by age. The science guy looks confident, looks amazed, but he is only playing a part.
Rebecca Laws hacks into the earth. She brings the pick over her head and then back down in a clean, practiced pattern. She’s uncovering dinosaurs from the side of an otherwise unassuming mountain. She’s digging for femurs, skulls, toe-bones in the high-Rockies heat. She says she used to want to be a veterinarian, but then I switched over to dead animals. She holds up a Maiasaura skull and grins a little at her logic.
How must it feel to be exactly who you want to be? It’s boggling. The march of time is unwavering, and you’re still just trying to figure it out. Or maybe you have—maybe this is it, this life you’ve settled into. Would this realization make any difference? You are a collection of misshapen desires. You think you have to pick one and roll with it. And maybe you’re not wrong—maybe there is no wrong answer. And maybe there is.
Imagine a dreams pyramid: the wide bottom, packed with wants, is where your life begins. The top, for most, is where you land, the pointed apex eventually your only option. But what if your dreams turned from dogs to dinosaurs? What if somehow you discover your pyramid’s balancing on its point? What if there never was a pyramid, and no one really cares?
What if you chose vet and woke up one day finding fossils. Thought: mechanical engineer, and landed on science guy.
The science guy is pacing back and forth in a meadow at Dinosaur National Monument. He is agitated, talking to himself.
Now people say, Why study dinosaurs? he says other people say. Why study dinosaurs? Are you kidding? The science guy begins pacing faster, escaping the pacing pattern entirely to wander and marvel at the idiocy of idiotic questions. They lived—what? In an ecosystem. That’s right: dinosaurs had their own ecosystem! They were like animals! And what happened to them?
He stops, leans in quickly and uncomfortably close, begins to whisper: Nobody knows. They’re all gone. Their ecosystem has changed. Completely.
Sometimes the science guy gets almost Shakespearean. His understanding of thorny human emotions, of what gets in the way of science—of understandings of our own—is frighteningly keen. The science guy would love not to have to answer idiotic questions. Would love a world of only science guys and gals.
For now, he settles for teaching. And when he leans in quickly and uncomfortably close, you can see through his eyes the part of him that almost, maybe, prefers this. It’s the same part that revels in turning imbecilic queries into lessons. In schooling students, regardless of age and in all the meanings that action invokes.
If history is a football game, it’s tied nil-nil. Terrestrial surface dwellers have only just made it to the goal line. The march of time’s on defense, but the team’s unwearied. In fact, it may be the only constant on the field. The other players keep changing, taking time-outs or injuring themselves or calling foul or just generally freaking out. But the march of time is cold, dogged, more frightening for its voicelessness. There are no fans—you’re on the team, or you’re dead. And we’re still here, perpetually tied nil-nil.
This is how the science guy explains the depth of all history. This is what he has stooped to: football analogies. So the science guy is brilliant. Brilliant, yes, and returning once again to the chorus of his favorite fight song: We are tiny, we mean nothing, we’re due for an extinction.
This might be a little unfair. The science guy means well. His purpose is to elucidate, to draw you in. His dread, if possible, is playful. He wants you to sing along: We are tiny, we mean nothing, we’re due for an extinction.
He can’t hear you, and he’d really love to hear you. The science guy is a science guy because he’d really love for you to know just how much he’d love to hear you. You hate disappointing, and you hate disappointing no one more than your teacher. So once more, why not, with feeling: We are tiny. We mean nothing. We’re due for an extinction.
Brad Efford is the founding editor of The RS 500, a project pairing each of Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time with an original piece of writing. His writing can be found in Puerto del Sol, Pank, Hobart, and elsewhere. He teaches English and history in Austin, TX.
Original Artwork by Lena Moses Schmitt.