“Excuse me, but gigawatt is pronounced ‘gigg-uh-watts’,” Bill Nye said in 1985. “You say it with a hard ‘g’.”
He was a 32-year-old engineer living in Seattle who called into the live sketch comedy TV show Almost Live! to correct the show’s host, Ross Shafer, who mispronounced the word “gigawatt” while talking about science on-air.
Shafer quipped back: “Who do you think you are – Bill Nye the science guy?”
The name stuck. Nye was asked to call in every day at 4.35pm to give science-based answers to the show’s call-in questions. He started working as a comedy writer for the show, which led him to hosting Bill Nye the Science Guy, the quintessential children’s science show which ran on PBS from 1993 to 1998.
While Nye started his career trying to explain basic science to people, he has come full circle – on the biggest scale of his life. On top of his new Netflix show, which was just renewed for a second season, and a documentary about him which premieres this fall on PBS, Nye just released his latest book, Everything All at Once: How to Unleash Your Inner Nerd, Tap into Radical Curiosity and Solve Any Problem.
“The book is a way of thinking, which I feel is both scientific and creative,” said Nye on the phone from his home in Los Angeles. “We have hardly done anything to address climate change or improve the lives of people in the developing world; we have to get to work.”
The book traces Nye’s upbringing in the 1950s to the moment he fell in love with science in the 11th grade. It’s filled with anecdotes of his time studying mechanical engineering at Cornell University in the 1970s – with famed science professor Carl Sagan – and working at the Boeing aircraft company. Nye was always the funny guy at work, so he moonlit as a standup comedian in Seattle’s local comedy clubs and scored his first televised set on Seattle Public Access Channel 29 in 1977, where he walked onstage and said: “Hi, my name is Bill, I work in an office and I have a car. Do you want to go home with me?”
The timing was off and he blew the joke. When Nye looks back, he cringes. “What was I thinking?” he said. “It was awful!”
But the stage time paid off in 1991 when he started doing science experiments on the wrap-up segments of Back to the Future: The Animated Series. Two years later, he began hosting Bill Nye the Science Guy, an Emmy Award-winning TV show.
“What’s amazing to me is how many people grew up watching the show and were affected by it in a good way,” he said. “It’s like wow, really? I’m really proud of that.”
This April, Nye launched a Netflix show called Bill Nye Saves the World, which is often seen as an extension of his children’s show. “I don’t think of it as educational so much as thought provoking – it’s science with an opinion,” said Nye. “We hope to give our viewers a scientific perspective on global issues.”
The show has Nye breaking down the science of global warming with a star-studded cast that includes supermodel Karlie Kloss and rapper Desiigner.
“Are there alternative medicines that don’t work? Are video games inherently bad or good?” asks Nye. “These are all ideas which lead to questions that can be answered with a scientific point of view. Scientific thinking is what we argue for and defend.”
In one recurring segment, scientists, pundits and academics with opposing views chat about timely science topics, whether its genetically modified organisms or vaccines.
“From a scientific perspective, you have to get vaccinated, that’s it,” said Nye. “You can’t choose to believe in gravity; if you walk off a cliff, you will be affected aversely. Climate change is not a 50-50 thing which you can choose to believe in or not. If you choose to ignore human’s influence on the world’s climate, we will be affected adversely.”
The show is only 30 minutes and has been criticized for glazing over scientific details. However, Nye’s new book is an in-depth look at some of the topics touched upon in the show, such as climate change deniers and “climate change whiners”. Nye defines the whiners as senior citizens in their sixties and seventies who claim they can’t see the effect of climate change in their day-to-day lives. One problem could be its overwhelming scale.
“Climate change is happening in slow motion, it’s not an instant catastrophe, it’s subtle,” said Nye. “But when you go to the Greenland and see the ice, there’s no more arguing about it.”
As someone who has protested outside the White House after Trump pulled out of the Paris climate agreement and has stomped alongside 1 million activists for the March for Science, Nye thinks there is still a long way to go for science advocacy in the US – especially with Trump’s proposed 2018 budget slash to scientific research programs.
“It’s in no one’s best interest to ignore science or cut funding for basic research,” said Nye. “It’s going to be a significant issue for voters in upcoming elections around the world.”
Considering Trump’s climate policies, it comes as a surprise that the president’s name is not mentioned once in Nye’s book. Not once. “As Abraham Lincoln said, ‘This too shall pass,’” said Nye. “He’s not going to be president forever and there’s substantial evidence he won’t be president by the end of the summer.”
Nye draws a parallel to when Richard Nixon resigned as president – history could repeat itself. “Trump has done a lot of extraordinary things,” he said. “Maybe he will change his mind on a lot of issues and become less unpopular than he is right now.”
Speaking of his own popularity, Nye is not concerned about his own haters – such as Sarah Palin, who calls him a “kid’s show actor” – and those who say he isn’t enough of a “certified scientist”. “I’d like to just remind people what it takes to get a degree in mechanical engineering at American universities, all you do for four years is physics,” he said.
“I took a class called ‘Heat Transfer’, another was called ‘Thermodynamics’. I still have my textbook, Mathematics for Engineers.”
But Nye thinks this is all beside the point of the big idea that drives Everything All at Once.
“They’re just trying to shoot the messenger,” he said. “Climate change is bigger than I am; it’s bigger that you are. I’m sorry, people, you can shoot the messenger but the climate is still changing.”
- Everything All at Once by Bill Nye is published by Rodale Books.
Tuesday 25 July 2017 06.00 EDT
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