"That's the key to the success of the show. When you look into my eyes, you believe me because I'm passionate about it. It's very interesting to me. There's nothing cooler than science."
Bill Nye is perhaps the most entertaining and successful populizer and proponent of science in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Using wit, humor, and knowledge (an honest to goodness scientist) he has made science accessible and even appealing to young and old alike through television, books, speaking appearances, and countless interviews in print and other media.
Best known as Bill Nye the Science Guy after a bow-tied and lab-coated "character" he created that became a successful children's show, his enthusiasm for science carries through his work and has inspired a generation of people in the sciences much the same way as his idol Carl Sagan did with his book and series Cosmos in the 1980s. One of the reasons is because The Science Guy isn't really a character, it's Nye, himself. He actually does wear bow ties (owns several dozen) and really knows and loves science and wants you to feel the same way.
In the beginning...
Edward ("Ned") Nye was a quartermaster in the army during the second world war. He spent four years of it as a prisoner of war in China. Those years without electricity led him to a fascination with sundials after the warhe wrote a book titled Sundials of Maryland and Virginia and marketed one of his own (a "Sandial" made to be used on the beaches of the Atlantic coast). In his nonscience life he did advertising sales.
He married his college sweetheart Jacquie Jenkins who had worked for the navy on secret codes because of her science and math abilities. She earned a Ph.D. in education. A fine pedigree for a man who would grow up as a surrogate science teacher to millions. On 27 November 1955 William S. Nye was born in Washington, D.C. (he has a pair of siblingsone of each). He was interested and encouraged to explore science and the natural and mechanical world from a young age. One of his earliest memories was of a rubber band powered airplane and spending the time to figure out how it works and making it turn left (so he could stay in one spot and the plane would return to him).
He attended school in Washington, DC and discovered in high school he had a knack for tutoring his fellow students. He also had a penchant for wearing ties every day. Even after the policy was dropped. In his free time, he concentrated on one of his other loves: bike riding. But not just riding the bikehe also spent hours taking the bike apart and learning how it worked. It is that sort of curiosity that led him to attend Cornell University (where, among other things, he took an astronomy class from Carl Sagan) and a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering.
Science Guy, indeed
After college, Nye moved to Seattle, Washington where he got a job working for Boeing Engineering. He worked on flight control systems and designed a hydraulic pressure resonance suppressor which is still used in 747s. After working at Boeing from 1977 to 1980, he worked for MARCO, a Seattle-based company involved in many aspects of marine technology. Nye helped design equipment for skimming oil spilled in the ocean and for separating water produced with oil in oil fields. In 1981 he began a five year stint with Sundstrand Data Control where he worked on instruments used in logging and oil drilling and on an inertial guidance system for business jets.
Continuing with his non-entertainment work, he has continued hard science up to the present and works as a consulting engineer. One of those jobs was working on the A-12 fighter jet (which got him a Level 3 security clearance through the Department of Justice). Another was developing an electronic micrometer and tooling calibration instruments for Micro Encoder, Inc. (There's another important instrument that he worked on which will get its own section.) Despite his other "job," Nye remains a licensed mechanical engineer for the state of Washington.
Coming full circle, he was named a Frank H.T. Rhodes Class of '56 University Professor at Cornell University (2001 to 2004). Even finding himself teaching in that same classroom where Sagan taught him. In addition to his degree, he has two honorary doctorates from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Goucher College.
Nye has two patents for educational products. One is a magnifier that uses water and the other is an abacus that can do math like a computer. He has another pending that is designed to help people learn to throw baseballs better. In the works is a better ballet toe shoe.
Meanwhile, back in Seattle...a star is born
While working his "real" job at Boeing, fellow employees encouraged Nye to enter a Steve Martin look-alike contest. He won. This led to a night job performing standup comedy a three nights a week (something he continued for several years). Eventually he dropped the day job and became a full-time performer. He originated the Science Guy "character" first for KJR Radio in Seattle and later took it and did other work on a local comedy show "Almost Live!" The show ran from 1984 to 1999 (a reunion was held in September 2005). It aired before "Saturday Night Live" (in fact pushed it back a half hour) and was a local success. It then aired briefly on Comedy Central where is wasn't so successful. Nye wrote and acted until he left to develop "Bill Nye the Science Guy" in 1992.
Science Guy realized
The show was a fast paced, witty, half hour that was littered with sound effects and eye-catching graphics. A Mr. Wizard for the MTV generation (Bill acknowledges the importance of said Wizard in his career). Interestingly, about the same time period "Beakman's World" aired, a similar show that was heavier on the absurd comedy and cartoonishnessbut still very solid on the science (I liked them both). Each episode of "Bill Nye the Science Guy" was designed around a concept like volcanoes or garbage or blood and circulation. My favorite was the pseudoscience episodeNye is a membership fellow of CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.
Armed with his size 38 lab coat and bow tie (safety glasses when appropriate), Nye and a regular group of kids would do simple experiments that could be done at home and see demonstrations and models that made each concept easy to understand without dumbing it down. That last thing is a key to the show's endurance because it made it interesting to people of any age with an interest in science. Bill estimates that the audience was half adults.
The show was sprinkled with jokes and the closing credits usually showed out takes from experiment or acting flubs. Helping out was the unseen announcer (Pat Cashman, another "Almost Live!" member) who would also serve as the one to tell Bill he was getting carried away over an experiment ("Uh...Bill?"). He also had a number of guest stars, including William Conrad, Drew Barrymore, Robin Leach, and Sinbad among others. Each show also included a short music video summing up the show's topic. What was remarkable was how hip they were for a children's show produced by PBS. The videos were...not really parodies...but well-meaning takeoffs on actual contemporary music videos by bands like Nirvana and No Doubt (I think there were a Morrissey and a Pearl Jam one, too).
It aired once a week, at first, then was syndicated so that it could be seen on PBS (or nationally Saturday morning distributed by the Disney people through Buena Vista). It ran for 100 episodes and continued in syndication for a time before being dropped in most areas. I used to watch it on the PBS affiliate out of Madison, Wisconsin (if the antenna could get it tuned in), taping it while at work and watching it later at night (science ruling regardless of the time of day). It was abruptly replaced one day by the execrable "Kratts' Creatures." I went so far as to email the station and was told they were looking for something new in the timeslot. Said that Bill might return at a later date. Liars. By then, the Saturday episode had also been dropped.
During the course of the series, Bill or the show earned some 28 Emmy Awards, national and localnot something a show that tries to teach can usually do unless its name rhymes with "Sesame Street." After the show's demise, the episodes and Bill moved to Nickelodeon's Noggin network (aimed more at young to middle teens than the original Nickelodeon) where Bill spent time as an on air host, spokesman, and consultant.
Bill was hardly about to retire. Besides still doing interviews whenever a news organization wanted an entertaining and accessible answer to a science question, he also put out (and continues to) several books for children that continued the "Science Guy" persona and spirit of the
- Bill Nye the Science Guy's Big Blast of Science 1993
- Bill Nye the Science Guy's Consider the Following: A Way Cool Set of Science Questions, Answers, and Ideas to Ponder 1995
- Bill Nye the Science Guy's Big Blue Ocean 1999
- Bill Nye the Science Guy's Great Big Dinosaur Dig 2002
- Bill Nye the Science Guy's Great Big Book of Tiny Germs 2005
- Bill Nye the Science Guy's Great Big Book of Science: Featuring Oceans and Dinosaurs 2005
In 1996, when Carl Sagan died, Bill was asked to speak at the memorial service. Interested in space since childhood he has long been a member of the Planetary Society and has even become a member of its Board of Directors. Each year he applies to be an astronaut but has always been turned down, apparently a Ph.D. is preferred. That same year he starred with Ellen DeGeneres and Alex Trebek in "Ellen's Energy Adventure" which was shown at the Universe of Energy attraction at EPCOT (Bill helped Ellen prepare for an upcoming appearance on "Jeopardy!"). He also was a guest on "Space Ghost Coast to Coast" where Space Ghost asks him to "explain to our young viewers why they should believe in ghosts and that it's okay that I'm able to transcend the laws of physics and appear on television" to which Bill gives a diplomatic "You must be part of science we don't understand," "you're from stuff that's too complicated for us at our level, right now, to get." Sadly, that was almost the entire performance.
He appeared on an episode of "MisteRogers' Neighborhood" in 1997 and somewhere in there made an appearance on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" (which I have somewhere on tape) where he used a box to blow smoke rings and made a sort of hover car thing. He was the science consultant on Disney's 1997 Flubber remake of 1961's The Absent Minded Professor and played a science teacher in the 1998 television movie Principal Takes a Holiday. He was a technical expert on "BattleBots" in 2000, tried to "Win Ben Stein's Money" in 2001 (unsure if he was successful), was the narrator and host for the 2004 mini-series "100 Greatest Discoveries" on the Discovery Channel, and made cameo appearances on some episodes of "TV Land's Top Ten" in 2005.
Mars Attacked! (not really)
One of his great scientific achievements was involvement in the Mars Rover program. In 2000, while the rovers were being designed, the Cornell professor working on the panoramic cameras approached Nye and asked if he'd like to attend a meeting on the rovers. Of course he said yes. Upon seeing the photometric calibration target discs on the rover, he was inspired to suggest they make them sundials as well. The calibrator is used to adjust the color of the camera feed due to the difference in the atmosphere of Mars where the light tends to look pink or orange-ish. The discs have colors that are known so that the picture can be adjusted. Bill had a sundial attached that could help clock the Martian day.
On the dial is inscribed "Two Worlds, One Sun" with the name of the planet listed in 17 different languagesincluding Bengali, Hawaiian, Inuktituk, Lingala, and Malay-Indonesian. It also has "Mars" written in ancient Sumerian and Mayan. Getting a sundial on Mars was a wonderful honor not just for Billwho is quick to point out the history and importance of the sundial by noting that over 2000 years ago Eratosthenes used the shadows from two sticks to fairly closely estimate the circumference of the earthbut for his father who helped inspire his interest and love for both sundials and science (and the science of sundials? Gnomonics, of course).
Keep Watching the Skies!
Though he was keeping plenty busy (for instance, an online chat for CNN, an interview about corked bats for Sports Illustrated), Bill really hoped to return to television. Long in the planning, "The Eyes of Nye" is conceived as a more adult show, tackling more grownup and/or controversial material. But always with wit and humor and from a solid scientific basis. A glance at some of the titles for the thirteen episodes makes it clear that he's serious: "Race," "Addiction," "Nuclear Energy," "Cloning," and (ready for this?) "The Evolution of Sex" (there's also a reappearance of "Pseudoscience," I'm glad to say).
He worked on getting it ready for consideration and potential airing starting at least as far back as 2002. There were problems with funding, people left or were fired, budget problems. The show was in limbo for a while waiting to get picked up but it finally aired in 2005. Regrettably, no affiliate nearby shows it so I have only the clips on its website to go by. It looks good. Simple, funny (who else could earnestly say "there are no cow racists" without losing some credibility?), educational. Perfect for teens and adults alike. One of science's biggest problems is that it often deals with actual or apparent complex ideas and data that are difficult for the average person to easily grasp. It's made worse by a poor level of science reporting done by the media (in turn made even worse by reporters who think any disagreement with a theory or idea needs to be given equal time and gravity). Nye is able to boil down these complicated but exhilarating ideas to terms and analogies that make sense. He's also good at not only giving the "facts, ma'am," but also explaining how they were determined.
But until I can get my brother to...procure...them digitally (those Disney people are asking for US$500 for a full DVD set), that's the best I can do.
And that's not all!
Some of the other honors and awards not listed somewhere above:
- Carl Sagan Candle in the Dark Award for the Development of Critical Thinking: 1997
- Council for Elementary Science International Science Advocate Award: 2000
- Environmental Media awards for Best Children's Live Action Show: 1994, 1996, 1997, 1998
- Gold Camera Award from International Film and Video Festival: 1997
- US Forest Service Distinguished Award for Conservation
Various Board Memberships:
- Denver Museum of Nature: 2001 to present
- Johns Hopkins University: 2001 to 2014
- Mars Athena Exploration Team, Cornell University: 1998 to 2011
- New Horizons Mission to Pluto
Is there a "Bill Nye the Science Guy" drinking game? Oh yes there is.
There's little doubt that this tireless champion of science will continue to entertain and educate. He succeeds not just by raw talent but because he's genuine. He loves what he does and wants you to love it too. He still wears bow ties, still rides his bike to work, still loves a nice banana milkshake. He's even drawn from his youth and used his high school tutoring experience to help out inner city kids in the "I Have a Dream" program. He was born William S. Nye but he'll always be Bill Nye the Science Guy. Which I'm sure he's mighty proud to be.
Official site: http://www.eyesofnye.org
Official site: http://www.nyelabs.com
Internet Movie Database http://www.imdb.com
"A moment with ... Bill Nye, the Science Guy" 23 December 2003 Seattle Post-Intelligencer http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/local/153649_nye23.html
"Bill Nye comeback: hope and dismay in Seattle" Karen Everhart 12 May 2003 Current http://www.current.org/ptv/ptv0309kctsnye.html
"Bill Nye the Science Guy on science and technology" transcript of 11 September 2000 CNN.com chat http://www.cnn.com/COMMUNITY/transcripts/2000/9/11/nye/
"Bill Nye, the successful guy" Pamela Davis 11 October 1999 St. Petersburg Times (http://www.sptimes.com...
"Interview with Bill Nye: The Sundial Guy" 8 October 2003 Astrobiology Magazine http://www.astrobio.net/news/article625.html
"Perspectives from the field: Bill Nye, the Science Guy" Gail Repsher Emery 21 October 2002 Washington Technology http://www.washingtontechnology.com/news/17_15/last-byte/19311-1.html
"Q&A with Bill Nye" Sports Illustrated 12 June 2003 http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/si_online/QandA/2003/0616/
Longtime fan of all 100 episodes
If you really need to know this...