March 2, 2007

Bill Nye ’77 Reveals His Passions, Rivalries, Inventions

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When most people think about science, they usually don’t associate it with PB&J, one of America’s most common sandwiches. This is not the case for Cornell alumnus, Bill Nye ’77 the Science Guy. The Sun recently had the opportunity to sit down with Nye and ask about his career after Bill Nye The Science Guy.

The Sun: You’ve loved science all your life. Your first memories involve playing with rubberband-powered planes and disassembling your bike. Can you tell me a little more about what got you started, and what your life was like pre-Cornell?

Bill Nye: “It’s just that predictive quality. If you warp the tale of a plane, you would expect it to turn left. I did that, threw it, and it turned left! I thought, HA! I CAN PREDICT THE FUTURE! I still remember the plane. It was a Guillow’s blue streak. They still make them, haven’t changed a damn thing; if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

Sun:Would you say Cornell changed your passion or molded it in a new direction?

Nye:I’d say it amplified it. I liked science before and when I got here I loved it, especially in the last two years. The last two years were really compelling. In mechanical engineering, you know everybody because there’s only 50 or 60 left by the end, so you hang out with everybody.

Sun:Can you tell me a little more about your latest show, The Eyes of Nye?

Nye:The idea is to address issues that through scientific understanding, citizens can make more informed decisions about things like nuclear waste, therapeutic cloning, climate change, world population growth, antibiotic drug resistance, and the evolution of sex.

Sun:What are your goals now that The Eyes of Nye has ended?

Nye:I’m thinking of myself as “Bill Nye The Climate Guy” these days. I also have had a couple of other shows. The Top 100 Greatest Discoveries aired on the Discovery Channel about three weeks ago, and the Greatest Inventions is set to air sometime in the fall. I’m also aiming at the more adult audiences by appearing on MSNBC, CNN, Fox News and Larry King. A couple of weeks ago, I was challenged by this scientist, [MIT professor Richard Lindzen], who made a bet that climate data from ice cores are no better than 2,000 years of resolution. He bet me a bottle of scotch. I couldn’t really follow through with it because of the Anna Nicole [Smith] fiasco; she just dominated the news!

Sun:Global warming is obviously a passion of yours. Would you say that is your current project?

Nye: The situation is quite serious, and there are huge opportunities, especially for Cornellians. We go to school where the climate is cloudy and cold, if we can solve sustainable energy problems here, we can solve them anywhere. It’s in physical science, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and chemical engineering, but also foreign policy, architecture, international relations, even literature; every discipline at the university could be involved in saving the world for humans.

People talk about saving the earth. The earth’s going to be fine, but you want to save it for me, for you, for us humans. Cockroaches, copepods, they’ll probably be fine; we want to save it for humans.

Sun:So what are your thoughts on Cornell’s current initiatives in sustainability and carbon neutrality?

Nye:I want us to do better than carbon neutrality; I want the 80-by-50. Eighty percent reduction of greenhouse gases, 50 percent by year 2050. That’s 2 or 3 percent a year for the next 40 years.

I spoke to President Skorton today about the sense of urgency; [the year] 2050 is too far away. At Cornell we could meet 3 percent in a weekend just by changing the type of light bulbs we use! They pay for themselves in just a couple of months. Cornell could lead the way. The students will get used to sustainability, take that out into the world and — dare I say it — change the world.

Sun:I read about your ballerina toe patents, and a baseball throwing educational machine. Are inventions also a current focus?

Nye:Absolutely. The patent for the ballet shoes should be coming through any day now. Fundamentally, ballet toe shoes have not changed in a few centuries. All the dancers are in pain and having surgeries by the time they’re 22. My toe shoe has a shape that takes the load from toes to phalanges with a holster that holds the foot against the phalanges. It’s made of modern material called kevlar lace — very strong polymer and thin lightweight material — while maintaining the classic ballet shoe shape.

Then there’s the Throw Tech Trainer, which is an invention that teaches you how to throw a ball better by accurately turning your wrist.

Sun:What you’ve done for younger audiences and science education is a tremendous accomplishment. But does it frustrate you that it’s hard to break away from the Science Guy persona?

Nye:Not really. It’s usually not too bad. The Ellen DeGeneres Show called about a week ago and after a couple minutes of talking basically asked me to come on the show and blow things up. I said I wanted to relate it to climate change, but no matter what, I’m still that guy that likes to go over a friend’s house and blow things up. I love the fundamental phenomena. Not that we should blow things up all the time, but I still appreciate it. What’s so wonderful about science is the PB&J — passion, beauty and joy — and the predictive quality. When you do something for the first time, that’s the J-O-D, joy of discovery, and that’s the message I want carried into the future.