The Ephemera

Bill Nye is Undeniably Cool

One thing that hasn’t evolved is the scientist’s ability to stay on message.
Photograph of Bill Nye

Bill Nye, the scientist and science educator, has been making the news media rounds recently, promoting his new book, Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation. In a Q. & A. with Jeffery DelViscio, of the New York Times, Nye referenced his desire to “change the world”—a phrase of his that’s stuck with me since I had the pleasure of interviewing him nearly twenty years ago. Admiring his ability to stay on message since transforming from the host of the children’s science show Bill Nye the Science Guy, in the nineteen-nineties, to a regular thorn in the side of creationists, I dug up my old feature. (I’m lucky to be old enough that my early writing isn’t available on-line.) It’s poorly written and edited, but its heavy dependence on quotations actually makes it more of a fun curiosity. Here it is, almost exactly as it appeared (I simply had to change a word or two) in the Varsity newspaper, on March 28, 1996.

He wears a bow tie, has jumped into an active volcano, loves watching Mr. Wizard, rides his bike to work, is a former mechanical engineer, once won a Steve Martin lookalike contest, and is worshipped by millions of kids and adults alike. Sound like anyone you know?

Probably not. That’s because the guy in question is none other than Bill Nye, host of the nationally syndicated Bill Nye the Science Guy, and he’s not like anyone you’ve ever met before.

With his show currently in its third season, Nyemania has swept Canada and the U.S. But where most children’s educational programming appeals only to the young, Bill Nye the Science Guy also has an unusually large following among the young at heart.

“About half the viewers are grownups,” says Nye. “We try to make the viewers think. There’s more going on than is on the surface. I also feel the stuff we’re talking about is interesting to anyone. I guess the best feature of the show is that it doesn’t talk down to the viewer, because I don’t believe in that at all. This all sounds like common sense, but to actually do it and to get people to watch is pretty incredible. Common sense—not that common!”

Anyone who has seen an installment of Nye’s show will be well aware of his animated personality, a quality that does not leave him when the camera stops rolling, much like his love of science. It’s these traits that led Nye to his present position in life as children’s science guru.

While working as a mechanical engineer at Boeing, Nye began to mix his love of science with his natural flare for comedy and soon found himself a night job as a stand-up comic. Eventually, he made his way onto television, performing and writing for KING-TV’s late-night ensemble Almost Live! and guesting on The All-New Mickey Mouse Club, as well as onto a number of national radio programs, as the resident “science guy.”

“I didn’t really dream of doing what I was doing at Boeing,” says Nye, “but I did at other jobs. The reason I’m doing it for kids . . . I read some research that said ten is as old as you can be to be excited about science—about anything, actually. Once you’re in high school or you’re out in the work force, you’ve made most of your life decisions. So the idea was to get people before high school so we’ll have enough scientists. That’s my little goal—to change the world!”

Though Nye may sound like he’s joking about changing the world, it’s actually a goal he takes very seriously, hoping to let everyone in on what he already knows—that science nerds are really the ones running things, and that, as he says at the opening of each show, “science rules.”

“In the future, everyone will wear a bow tie,” Nye says, referring to his trademark neckwear. “I like bow ties—they don’t fall in your soup or your beaker. We’re trying to get people excited about science because it’s so compelling. It’s so exciting. It’s about the world! It’s hard to think of anything more interesting.”

Apparently some very important people agree. Dedicated viewers of Bill Nye the Science Guy include not only Nye’s former college professor Carl Sagan, but also U.S. President Bill Clinton.

“I got a letter the other day from Bill Clinton. I mean—he watches the show! It’s so weird. It’s very gratifying, but I think of how much more we can do.”

Perhaps another factor of Nye’s attractiveness to older generations is his show’s style. While colourful, modern, and fast-paced, the show’s general look has something of a retro feel and is often interspersed with clips of black and white grade-school educational films.

“Bear in mind, everyone who works on the show was born within a week of each other,” says Nye. “It’s an extension of our experiences. But also, it gives the show a more global vision. The idea is that those were the very first audiovisual ways to teach science. And look—the science is the same. The earth went around the sun in 1958 and it still does. In fact, it’ll still go around the sun long after we’re gone, and that to me is the single most compelling thing about science.

“It doesn’t matter who tells you the Earth goes around the sun. It goes around the sun for everyone. Even if you’re not a man of European descent. If you are a poor African American person without much opportunity—the Earth goes around the sun. And if you can understand that then you can be empowered. You can be in control. I love that.”

If Nye’s words seem rather heavy for a man teaching science to the world’s fourth graders, that’s just the way he wants it. Recent shows have tackled issues such as AIDS, and Nye feels it’s never too early to teach children about the realities of life, though some parents may disagree.

“I’m very proud of that [AIDS] show,” Nye says. “We got this letter once that we hold up from time to time. It’s from someone who said she was eight years old and that she went running from the room screaming when she saw the eyeball show where we had a woman who gets a prosthetic eye. If you read it and you look at it—it’s typed and it’s clear it was the parents who were freaked out.”

Nye’s success has spawned many imitators, some successful, many not. Perhaps Nye’s most popular competitor is Paul Zaloom, a.k.a. Beakman of the syndicated Beakman’s World. It is a competition Nye says he doesn’t mind.

“I went to the Columbia Pictures Television area and they said, ‘Oh, look. It’s the enemy.’ It’s not the enemy. We need more science shows. The more the better. Here, where I live, in Seattle, Beakman’s World is pre-empted almost every week by basketball. Beakman’s World is a fine show. It has way more shtick than us. I’ve met Paul. He’s a very nice, thoughtful guy. He’s an artist, not a real scientist, and I think viewers might see that a lot more.

“With the shtick, that scheme of doing a show is something I experimented with for a pilot I did for another production company. It just didn’t work for me. It works for those guys. The actual science is way more compelling than the shtick. I saw [Sagan] at my tenth college reunion and he gave me some good advice. I told him I was starting a kids’ show about science and he said to focus on the real science instead of the technology. Show the way a computer works rather than I.B.M.”

Nye will be the first to admit that his own show borrows from another successful show that came before it.

“I was a big Mr. Wizard fan,” he says. “He changed my life. I got a nice letter from him. He respects the show. We definitely share a vision. Without him I wouldn’t be here. He sent the world to the moon as far as I’m concerned.”

No doubt, in time, a young, fresh fellow scientist will be crediting Nye with landing the world on Mars, as Nye’s effects on the scientific youth are already far reaching. One need only turn on their television to view Nye’s enthusiastic love of science day after day, week after week.

But don’t take anyone’s word for it. Watch it for yourself.