Bill Nye’s career as an educator started with a sex scandal. No, really. See, Rita Jenrette—Playboy model, wife of a U.S. representative, and admitted haver of sex on the U.S. Capitol steps—was supposed to appear on KING-TV’s sketch comedy show Almost Live! in 1987 but canceled at the last minute. Nye, then a cast member, tapped his lifelong love of science, bought a lab coat, threw together an experiment involving dry ice and marshmallows to fill the slot, and debuted his Science Guy character to big laughs and bigger praise. By September 1993 he had a show of his own, Bill Nye, the Science Guy, and was on his way to making science cool for kids everywhere. If you’re reading, Rita, a generation of biologists and astrophysicists thank you for your indiscretions.

 

Clearly I have records indicating that it’s been 20 years. But it doesn’t seem like it.

When I went to my 10th college reunion I went to great lengths to get a meeting with Carl Sagan, whom I had had for astronomy. His assistant said, “Okay, you can talk to him for five minutes.” So I went to the space sciences building at Cornell and I said, “I’m working on this show. What do you think?” I mentioned how I planned to talk about bridges and bicycles and so on—stuff that, as an engineer, I’d been interested in—and he said, “Focus on pure science. Kids resonate to pure science rather than technology.” And that turned out to be great advice.

Mr. Wizard meets Pee-Wee’s Playhouse—that was the pitch that the producers, Jim McKenna and Erren Gottlieb, came up with. I gotta tell you, that’s a pitch I never would have thought of. I would have come up with The Bill Nye, the Science Guy Show.

I bought my first new car when we got the show. It was a Honda Accord wagon. At first we didn’t have a wardrobe department. We didn’t have a props crew with trucks. I got that car so I could haul all of my gear around. Jim would say, “Oh yeah, also bring your scuba stuff and your mountain climbing gear and your swimsuit.” I remember getting very tired; I think the modern expression is stressed out. The nights before a couple trips I got really angry with myself for having taken this job. It was going to kill me. But looking back, it was pretty cool. The car was a stick shift, by the way. Why would the Science Guy get a stick shift? Because it’s more efficient.

When you’re on a comedy show, everybody is competing to get his or her joke in the monologue or get his or her bit produced. When you have your own show, the guy you’re answering to is you.

There’s a single-page document I gave to everyone who worked on the Science Guy show. I have it here at my house in a frame. I’m standing in front of it, so I’ll read it to you. “Produce a TV show that gets kids and adults excited about science, so that the United States will again be the world leader in technology, innovation, and the sound management of the environment. The show is entertainment first. Ideally, school curricula will follow us.” And that’s what happened. School curricula do follow us. We pulled it off. That’s why the show has stood the test of time, if you’re asking for a theory.

I don’t go out of my way to confront people. I don’t feel as though I’m a drunk picking a fight. But I do have deep concerns about the future of the country and indeed the world if we don’t encourage scientific literacy, if we don’t raise a generation of students who are able to think critically.

Let’s see, who have I been able to meet? Oh, how about some presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. They both got to meet me. Lucky guys.

You’re not here, but there’s a group of people—two daughters, a mom, and a grandma, I think—and they’re all staring at my house because they know it’s the Science Guy house. I can see them, but they can’t see me. Ha!

I’m pretty nerdy. But I’m not helpless. I can tap my foot to the music. I can talk to girls.

My strongest trait? Grasping big ideas and putting them in terms that a lot of people can understand. I’m what you would call a lumper, rather than a splitter. They use these expressions in science all the time. You’re either a lumper or a splitter. For example, are flies bugs? “Yes, flies are bugs,” you might say. “They fly around. They bug you.” No, the only true bugs have piercing mouth parts. Order Hemiptera, of class Insecta. I use that example because I’m kind of a splitter when it comes to bugs. But I’m definitely a lumper when it comes to arthropods. 

My dad taught me how to tie a bow tie—he was a heck of a Boy Scout, I gotta say—and when he did he told me this story: My grandfather went to a convention once and had to wear a tuxedo with a bow tie. He didn’t know how to tie it, so he just went to the hotel room next door—he was in a hotel for the convention—and the guy said, “Yeah, I can tie your tie. Lie down on the bed.” So my grandfather is said to have lain down on the bed, and the guy tied a perfect bow. My grandfather asked, I think quite reasonably, “First of all, thank you. But why did I have to lie down?” And the guy said, “I’m an undertaker. That’s the only way I know how to do it.” I’m pretty sure my dad was telling me a joke, but it’s a great story, right?

 

Published: September 2013

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