October 22, 2003

Meeting Bill Nye '77: 'The Science Guy'

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Although he’s currently most fond of evolutionary biology, Bill Nye ’77 keeps the periodic table close to his heart. Or at least to his hip, where he always carries a credit-card sized version of it around in his wallet.

Although the public knows him best for his television show “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” Nye is currently serving as a Frank H.T. Rhodes Class of ’56 University Professor. This week, students may have spotted him cycling around campus on a bicycle, Nye’s preferred form of transportation, borrowed from Prof. Jim Bell, astronomy. After the two met in a chance encounter, Bell invited Nye to become a visiting professor and they have worked together ever since.

In Bell’s office on Monday, wearing his trademark bow-tie, Nye sat down with The Sun to discuss his new television show, the Mars pathfinder and his experiences as an undergraduate at Cornell.

Nye’s new television show, “The Eyes of Nye,” explores controversial science issues and is aimed at an adult audience. Unlike “Bill Nye the Science Guy” it is for people “old enough to vote,” and addresses far more than just “elementary science,” Nye said.

“We’re trying to change the world, that’s our whole goal,” he said. “The more you understand about the world, the better decisions you can make about it.”

Addressing hot topics such as cloning, the evolution of sex, addiction and race, Nye wants to influence how people make moral and political decisions. He hopes that if people understand the scientific background to these concepts, they can make more informed judgments about them.

In addition to these controversial issues, Nye is also investigating topics that may seem shallow, but have deeper social consequences. For example, one show focuses on the science of sports.

“Why do we play sports?” he asked. “What’s my answer for everything? That’s right … evolution.”

From this viewpoint, he sees sports, particularly team sports, as developing from food-gathering and other activities important to human progress.

So far, Nye and his production staff have shot 13 episodes, but are still looking for a buyer. This situation is extremely unusual, as television shows generally only shoot one or two pilot episodes before finding a station.

Ideally, he imagines his show playing on NBC at 7:30 in the evening, just before people watch the science show, Nova. Nye would also like Discovery Channel to buy the show, which he sees as a far more likely possibility.

Besides his new show, Nye is also currently involved with the Mars probe project, an area of study that he loves.

One of his major contributions has been creating a sundial from a device on the probe that happens to cast a shadow. By broadcasting the sundial’s hour lines on the web, he hopes to increase public interaction and awareness of the project.

“The idea behind the sundial is to involve people in the passion, beauty and joy, the PBJ [of the program],” he said.

He believes that the 700 million dollar cost of the program is well worth what discoveries NASA may make as a result.

“It’s like buying an extra-fancy latte once for [each of] our taxpayers,” he explained.

In particular, Nye hopes that the probe will be able to collect more data about permafrost within the crust of Mars. For the future, Nye thinks finding bacteria on the Red Planet would be the most important discovery possible.

“If there were bacteria on Mars … the whole world would have to take a meeting,” he said.

Group meetings were the norm for Nye during his undergrad years in the mechanical engineering department. Nye did also offer some advice for current Cornell students. He regrets that he wasn’t more involved in activities on campus, and recommends that students take advantage of what the university has to offer.

“By scheduling your days to take advantage of all of the cool stuff on campus … it forces you to study less inefficiently,” he said.

An environmentalist himself, Nye encouraged students involved in environmental activism on campus to “keep it up.” However, he also said, “I would focus on the facts, rather than on the outrage.”

Despite some regrets, he has fond memories of his time spent here. Although he enjoyed many of his classes, especially math and aeronautics, his favorite class was astronomy, taught by Prof. Carl Sagan.

Like his former professor, Nye hopes that the work he has done in popularizing science has made the world a better place.

“What I want is someone who watched the show to become a scientist and change the world,” he said.

Archived article by Shannon Brescher