Issue Date: January 15, 2007
Bill Nye came well-prepared for our meeting, which took place at a diner on Madison Avenue in New York City last month. His signature bow tie had a periodic table print, acknowledging C&EN's readership. He skipped the formality of waiting for an opening question, starting right in thus: "In magic, they say it's all done with mirrors. In chemistry, it's all done with molecules. And everything, everything, everything that you see in this room owes its existence to chemists."
I wondered where to take it from there, as I watched a woman over his shoulder apply pigmented wax to her lips. But I quickly realized that breakfast with this enthusiastic proselytizer of science, in town to speak at the annual Chemists Club Eggnog Dinner that night, was going to cover a lot of ground. Indeed, we discussed everything from God to our iPods. My biggest challenge would be reining him in—which I had absolutely no intention of doing.
His opening fusillade, in fact, reminded me of his famous television show for kids on PBS. I remember introducing my daughter to "Bill Nye the Science Guy" in 1992. For years—the show ran through 1998—she and the kid across the street would come home in the afternoon, tune in, and ask the adult on hand for whatever common kitchen ingredients the Science Guy prescribed to "blow stuff up."
More recently, Nye launched a science program for adults called "The Eyes of Nye." His intent, he says, was to take on socially and politically charged issues such as stem cell research and global warming—to bring scientific explication into the confusing mix of political rhetoric, much of it decidedly antiscience, vying for the public's attention.
"I wanted to take it up a notch to the issues where voters and taxpayers have to make scientifically literate decisions," he says.
Before starting his career in television, Nye, 51, worked as a mechanical engineer at Boeing, where he developed a hydraulic pressure resonance suppressor that is still used on 747 airliners, and as a consultant to the aeronautics industry, in which capacity he worked on the A-12 stealth attack aircraft. By the early 1990s, he says, he became frustrated with the constraints big business put on science and invention. He decided to take on a "mission to change the world," to heed a calling to communicate the wonders of science to the scientists of the future.
On the topic of what he now sees as the future in scientific research—materials—Nye invokes one of his heroes, Rick Smalley, the Rice University chemist who shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his part in discovering fullerenes (C&EN, Oct. 9, 2006, page 13). Nye says Smalley was also on a mission—Nye interviewed Smalley for a Discovery Channel program on the 100 greatest discoveries in history (13 are chemicals) shortly before the chemist died of cancer.
"As I look back and watch the video, I see he was pushing hard because he was dying," Nye says. "He didn't tell us, but he died just a few months later. And his message to the world is that we have to do more with less."
Nye says he is interested in Smalley's thinking on the need to develop self-organizing molecules—nanotubes that "grow themselves like crystals." Nye also admired Smalley's talent as a communicator, which he says is best exemplified by the chemist's insistence on teaching introductory chemistry courses at Rice. "Smalley was the head of the chemistry department, a Nobel Prize winner," Nye says. "He could do whatever he wanted, but he insisted on teaching 101, which I thought was cool. He had a passion for it. It shows the value and importance of rewarding people who have a passion about teaching."
The world of science, on the other hand, needs to become more willing to educate the public, he says. Nye claims intimate familiarity with many scientists' aversion to "drive-by" journalism practiced by writers with an arguably lamentable lack of science background. But he says there is no excuse for retreating into ivory towers. "Communicating an idea is almost as important as having one," he says. "Scientists need to practice the art of the sound bite."
Comedic timing can also help. Nye, after all, made a name for himself by entertaining children. His shift to an adult audience has been more problematic, though. "The Eyes of Nye" gained none of the momentum of "The Science Guy." Nye blames the suits. "It was substantially underfunded," he says, noting that its budget was a casualty of a 2003 shake-up at KCTS, the Seattle-based public television affiliate that bankrolled the project. "The money evaporated because the station had undertaken too many projects," Nye says. " 'The Eyes of Nye' was made for a third of the budget of 'The Science Guy.' " It premiered two years ago and is no longer in production.
But Nye, who is working on another Discovery Channel show on inventions, remains undaunted, bolstered, he says, by a science community that recognizes the importance of his role as a communicator who can connect our childlike delight in "blowing stuff up" to a heartfelt enthusiasm for all of science.
"The science professionals give me access to everything," he says. "I'm the nerd who made good."
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