“Now, let’s go forward and change the world” is revered by some as a timeless trademark in the tradition and development of scientific awareness and appreciation. The phrase was fostered through the television program, “Bill Nye the Science Guy.” Every seat in Alice Statler Auditorium was filled last night, as a vast audience came to hear those very words echo from Bill Nye’s ’77 own mouth.
As a Frank H.T. Rhodes, Class of 1956 visiting professor, Nye drew on past anecdotes during his years as an engineer at Cornell, and conferred advice to future scientists and writers alike, including a creative arts slant directed towards future comedians. Nye explained how he dabbled in each of these career areas, ultimately reaching the goal of hosting his own television program.
This visit marks Nye’s second return to Cornell as part of a three-year appointment as a visiting professor at Cornell. Prof. Jim Bill, astronomy, introduced Nye and reflected on how the two met initially, five years ago on a plane. “I said, ‘excuse me, you’re Bill Nye,'” and he replied, ‘Oh my God, you’re right.'” A chance encounter segued into an open invitation from the department of astronomy and the university for a visiting professorship. Nye has worked on the Mars Rover mission during his tenure at Cornell and has lectured in various engineering and astronomy classes throughout this week on campus. Bell attributed the lecture’s theme to Nye’s journey as an
engineer at Cornell and his eventual success at stardom in the entertainment industry. “The idea was to tie the two together,” Bell noted. The lecture attracted a significant sample of Cornell community members, young and old, in addition to students from neighboring towns and colleges. “I never knew he was as [good] a comedian as he is a science [expert]. He’s very creative and a good choice as a visiting professor,” said William Casolara ’04,
Tompkins Cortland Community College.
Nye began by counting heads in the audience, expressing gratitude for everyone’s presence. “Thank you, and you, and you, and you,” transitioned into “ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, kids of all ages, the story begins in 1973.”
Nye recalled his freshman year roommate exclaiming, “Bill, come over and see this.” On the cable television, Nye watched a movie with Steve Martin, and was immediately inspired by his passion for comedy. “This guy is insane, you wonder if he’s in on [his own joke],” Nye remarked. His roommate encouraged him: “You should do this, you should be Steve Martin.” Nye showed the audience an early stand-up video of Martin. “They had a national Steve Martin look alike contest on the other side of the country that I participated in and won, [falling short of] the national title. From that point on, I started doing stand-up comedy,” he said.
Elaine Kung ’05 said of Nye, “He’s my role model. You know how people can inspire you to do something. Well, Bill Nye inspires science.”
Nye explained his career path after college graduation, including a few brief noteworthy stints working on 747’s. “I got paid to do homework problems; it was cool that they gave you more than 50 minutes and [for that reason], you never needed partial credit,” he explained. After a significant technical interlude, Nye embraced his own return to comedy.
“Many of you dream of being comedians. Remember, people regret what they don’t do, not what they do,” he said. Nye embarked on stand-up comedy, with themes centered on engineering jokes. “Perhaps I wasn’t very good. People recognize you [as an engineer] right away because your pants don’t reach the floor,” he said. Nye continued stand-up comedy as part of a full time job at a comedy club.
One day, Nye tuned into “Almost Live with Ross Schafer,” a comedy show in Seattle, Washington. Nye called in response to Schafer’s mispronunciation of “gigahertz,” arguing that it was not “jjjiiigahertz.” That is when Schafer told him, “Bill, you should be ‘the Science Guy.'” Nye played a tape of the Schafer show last night, highlighting a few experiments with liquid nitrogen. This episode was the first appearance of the science guy on television. Nye quit his job in search of the “science guy” proposal. “Not everyone saw the genius that we all see now,” he remarked. At this time, Nye thought of himself as a comedy writer, placing a heavy emphasis on writing.
“If you’re not a good writer, you can’t go anywhere,” he said.
Students responded eagerly to Nye’s commitment to his passion for humor interspersed with science.
“I like the way some people can live their lives without ever losing the enthusiasm for their passion,” William Hoyer ’04.
Nye played a few more video clips, emphasizing the earlier days of his comedic writing. Jared Talbot ’04 said, “Geeks are cool. The videos were especially good. He’s really funny.” Nye gave advice to prospective comedians: “The most important thing for any comedian is timing” He persevered in pursuing his dream of “the science guy” idea, rubbing shoulders with “terrific writers” along the way, in addition to doing a new engineering job every six weeks. “I created a volume knob that was coffee-proof for the cockpits of airplanes. People would [too often] spill their coffee on it and I wanted to guard against that,” he said.
Working at the Washington State’s Department of Ecology was one of his last jobs that landed him his own show. After the wetlands video was released, he received a call from David Letterman and was invited on the Late Show. “I thought, this is my big break, but he made a fool of me,” Nye said.
Finally, Nye received his chance from a public broadcasting station in Seattle.
“They asked us to do a special on boating safety, in 55 degree cold water,” he said. After the boating episode, they offered Nye his own show.
Nye tied everything together with his own informal mission statement: “I try to get people excited about science and go forward in a scientifically literate society. We want to make the world a better place, and do all that through science. This is the reason for my show,” Nye explained.
Other students shared Nye’s enthusiasm. “I appreciated his physical movements on the stage. He seems interested in promoting science, making it approachable for everyone,” remarked Jennifer Moultow ’03.
Not finished without a few tactile demonstrations, Nye whipped out an abacus from underneath a long cloth-covered table, and made an analogy to one of his clips on math computation. He also took out a slide rule and demonstrated how to figure out logarithms from this instrument that engineers relied on heavily during his undergraduate years.
Nye then extracted a larger version of the slide rule from underneath the table’s curtain and exclaimed, “Like all things, size matters.”
He wrapped up his video-dependent lecture with a few words of wisdom. “Stick with writing things you want to get across. The problem continues to be data entry, or getting information into a system,” he said.
Nye challenged his audience to find ways to input data into a computer without a keyboard.
“If you do this, we could, dare I say it, change the world!” Nye is currently working on a new show that will debut in the future, entitled “Through the Eyes of Nye.” He left an enthusiastic crowd amidst cheers and overwhelming applause with his expected trademark, “Now, let’s go forward and change the world.”
Archived article by Chris Westgate