Science TED Talks

Let’s put a sundial on Mars: Bill Nye at TED2012

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Photos: James Duncan Davidson

Bill Nye, The Science Guy, would like to discuss with us our place in space. Not with black holes, or multiverses, but here on Earth, where his dad was born. In World War II, Bill Nye’s dad was building an airstrip on Wake Island, in the middle of the Pacific, when it was bombed. He was captured on Chrismas Eve 1941, and was a prisoner of war for 44 months, the longest of any American.

But in camp, he had a special skill. He could tell time by sticking a shovel in the sand, creating a sundial to replace the watches that were confiscated. After returning, he became obsessed with sundials. He created the “sand-dial”, so you don’t have to bring your watch to the beach. He also recived a lifetime membership in the World Sundial Association.

Growing up with his father, Bill Nye himself developed S.O.D., “Sundial obsessive disorder.”

Later, he was invited to NASA to give a talk, and noticed something about the Mars Rovers (yet to be launched): There was a piece on each Rover that was different colored, to calibrate the cameras, with sample colors and a palette of grays of different intensities or, as Bill Nye puts it, “grayths.” They were round, and they needed a post to cast a shadow. Nye, of course, immediately thought, “these need to be sundials!” So today, there are two sundials on Mars.

You can build your own sundial very easily, with a stick and a ping-pong ball. With them, you too can see an analema, the path the sun makes in the sky as the year progressed. “Very few of us have heard the word analema yet, but we all depend on it.” When the next Mars Rover lands, he wants people all over the world to build these simple sundials, and through them get a better sense of our place in the Universe. “If you take the time this summer, you can, dare I say it, change the world!”