October 15, 2008

Bill Nye ’77 Gives Planet Tour to Honor Carl Sagan

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As the tour guide for this Sunday’s Sagan Planet Walk approached the nearly 500 tourists, scientists, students and Ithaca residents gathered on the Commons, women shrieked and flashbulbs snapped. Donning a polka dotted red bow tie, sunglasses and a boater hat, Bill Nye ’77 “the Science Guy” was not taken in by the hype. For him, the tour was all about science.
“This is a big part of elementary science education and understanding your place in the universe,” Nye said.
The Sagan Planet Walk is a project of the Sciencenter, Ithaca’s science museum located on Route 13. Stretching 1.2 km from the Commons to the Sciencenter, the scale-model walk was marked by monuments to each planet. Nye dedicated the tour to Carl Sagan on the eve of his birthday. Sagan was a Cornell professor, Ithaca resident and astronomer. .
A former student of Sagan’s, Nye cited the University as the catalyst that keeps him involved in the Ithaca community. Nye — whose long-syndicated “Bill Nye the Science Guy” television program is a staple in secondary school science classes — was heavily involved in the creation of the tour.
“He has an actual presence, and it makes it more interesting and exciting,” said Amanda Anger ’12. “Now I’m glad I didn’t go home for fall break.”
As Nye led the crowd into the “icy depths of space,” various experts and professors from across the country were stationed at the different planet monuments to answer questions about the respective planets.
“The scale is something that it’s hard to get your mind around,” said Anthony Milano grad, the Mercury expert. “I’m really pleased we have this here in Ithaca.”
Prof. Robert Sullivan, astronomy, also emphasized the importance of the scale of the tour.
“It gets the public familiar with where they live, on a different scale than they’re used to thinking,” Sullivan said. Sullivan, who is involved with the Mars Science Laboratory and Mars Exploration Rover mission, answered the crowd’s questions about the Red Planet.
After the walk’s conclusion at the Sciencecenter, various tour-goers streamed into the museum, while others flocked around Nye to chat and get autographs.
“Bill has a remarkable way of connecting kids and science, and we saw that here today,” said Dr. Charlie Trautmann Ph.D. ’83, executive director of the Sciencenter. Nye is Honorary Chair of the Trustee Board of the Sciencenter, and his support for the museum goes beyond financial means. Trautmann cited the Sciencenter’s “barn-raising” construction in 1983, and recalled Nye showing up with his nails and work belt.
Nye’s return to Ithaca this weekend was prompted by the Division of Planetary Sciences meeting at Cornell, which he also spoke at. The meeting drew scientists and astronomers from across the nation. Many of these experts were at the walk, either as tourists or answering questions about the respective planets.
“The number of people turning out for this is incredible,” said Mark Lewis, astronomy, Trinity University. Lewis specializes in planetary rings, and was the expert on Saturn. “There’s a lot of value in understanding our place in the universe. In talking to experts, you get a good idea of how we know things.”
The interactivity of the tour, as well as Nye’s irrepressible humor and wit made for a dynamic afternoon.
“I think it’s really fun,” said Nick Faust ’12. “I can’t imagine this happening anywhere else, where you get hundreds of people to do a planet walk.”
The walk is open year round, as the planet monuments withstand Ithaca’s famously mercurial weather patterns. In the same vein as Nye and Sagan, the walk sought to popularize science for the masses by clearly demonstrating the vastness of the galaxy to science enthusiasts.
“This was done in cooperation with Cornell astronomers,” Trautmann said. “We are very happy to connect the science that goes on at Cornell with people who are curious about the world.”