Bill Nye is many things: comedian, scientist, author, inventor, TV personality.
But ask the lanky, bow-tied Nye how he sees himself, and he picks another description.
“I’m an educator,” Nye said during a recent two-week return to teach at Cornell University, his alma mater. “You do what you have to do to get what you are saying across, and if that means being funny, that’s what I do.
“There are major issues that people — as taxpayers and voters — will have to make informed decisions on in the near future. They will need to understand the science and the ethical considerations to form their opinions. Some of these are issues that will affect humanity for decades to come.”
So he’s back with a new TV show to help people understand and appreciate the science that makes our world work.
But unlike “Bill Nye, the Science Guy” — which won 28 Emmys during its run from 1992 to ’98 on PBS — “The Eyes of Nye” is aimed at more than just kids. In it, he tackles subjects such as cloning, overpopulation, genetically modified foods, nuclear waste, global climate change, stem cell research and drug-resistant disease.
“This show is a different pace for a different audience,” said Nye, 49. “There is a lot more discussion. ‘The Science Guy’ was for younger viewers, viewers who grew up playing colorful video games at top speed, so with ‘The Science Guy’ we put action before content.”
“The Eyes of Nye” uses big words with abandon, he jests.
The series has been picked up by 213 stations, covering about 72 percent of the country (check local listings).
Science teachers love Nye
Cindy Workowsky, a spokeswoman for the National Science Teachers Association, a national organization with 55,000 members, said Nye’s appeal bridges generations. “He has a cult following among science teachers,” Workowsky said.
Nye had hoped to start his new show two years ago but it was delayed because of management and financial difficulties at KCTS, the Seattle public television station that launched “The Science Guy” in 1992.
In between, Nye did “The 100 Greatest Discoveries” for the Science Channel, a show he sums up by saying “it wasn’t career ending.” He has a new book — his fifth — titled “Bill Nye’s Great Big Book of Tiny Germs.”
Nye’s continuing popularity was evident during his visit to Cornell, where students packed his classes, lectures and appearances. After one talk, Nye stood around for nearly 45 minutes talking with students, signing autographs and getting his picture taken.
“It’s his gift. He makes science understandable and fun, and he knows how to connect with people,” said Bruce Lewenstein, a Cornell communications professor who has become friends with Nye during his visits to Ithaca, where he has an endowed five-year faculty appointment.
Remembering SaganSome of that magnetism can be traced to the cosmic sage himself, Carl Sagan, the popular astronomer, Cornell professor and author who died in 1996.
Nye is reverential when he talks about Sagan. During his recent visit to Cornell, he taught Sagan’s former astronomy course in the same classroom where Sagan taught him. Different carpet, though, Nye pointed out.
“It was incredible. There I was standing in front of the same room, teaching the same material Carl taught,” Nye said.
He graduated from Cornell in 1977 with a mechanical engineering degree that landed him a job at Boeing where he worked on flight control and navigation systems for jets. And, he never forgets to mention the hydraulic pressure resonance suppressor he designed, and which is still used on Boeing 747s.
As a student, Nye arrived at Cornell with a deep passion for science from his childhood growing up in Washington, D.C. Flight caught his fancy early. Nye remembers being fascinated watching bees around the azaleas in his front yard and with his rubber-band powered airplane.
Nye’s mother worked for the Navy on secret codes because of her skills at math and science. Nye’s father loved sundials — an interest he passed on to Bill who would later persuade Cornell scientists to put them on the Mars rovers.
Working at Boeing and living in Seattle, Nye began making extra money as a standup comic, eventually writing and performing for Seattle’s homespun ensemble comedy show “Almost Live.” It was there “The Science Guy” was born, said Nye, who once won a Steve Martin look-alike contest.