When Bill Nye tells a story about getting hit in the head, he stops to remind you about inertia, “a property of matter.” He’ll ask you how many electric switches are in your iPhone and casually chat about SpaceShipOne.
It seems as though Nye were born to play the role for which he is best known: “the science guy,” an amusing, bow-tie-wearing teacher with an entertaining experiment to go with every scientific phenomena.
But his career trajectory reads much more like a delicate string of happenstance than a born destiny. Looking a bit like Steve Martin started his career as a comic. Calling a DJ to correct his pronunciation of “gigawatts” got him a regular radio appearance, and a volunteer gig writing jokes led to his first TV appearance.
But listen for a fair length of time to Nye talk about his string of happy accidents, and you'll realize he's wired for disruption—personal and otherwise.
Nye has a knack for embracing chance opportunities. When he met a ballet company for a Bill Nye Science Guy show about bones and muscles, it wasn't long before he had patented a new type of toe shoe that is kinder to their feet (he also holds patents for a device that guides a baseball throw, a magnifying glass made by filling a plastic bag with water, and a digital abacus). His current position as the CEO of The Planetary Society is the drawn-out result of a meeting with his former professor Carl Sagan at his 10-year Cornell reunion.
A video clip of an interview Nye gave in February went viral this month, attracting more than 4.6 million views (at the time of this post) and national media attention. In it, he argues that teaching creationism is a disservice to children. Did he plan to become a spokesperson for the issue? Not really. But like the rest of his career, he’s rolling with it.
His reaction: “Bring it on, as we say."
Nye stopped by the Fast Company offices this week while promoting education startup Sophia. He talked politics, big breaks, and unexpected uses for liquid nitrogen. Here’s an excerpt of our conversation.
FAST COMPANY: What did you think you be doing when you started college?
BILL NYE: I thought I’d be working on airplanes for a long time.
You did work on airplanes for a while.
I was very well-supervised, don’t worry.
How did you become The Science Guy from there?
The guy who had been my freshman roommate, senior year, we lived behind each other in two different houses. He came hurrying to my house. You have to see this guy, he’s just like you. And it was Steve Martin at The Boarding House.
So then I got a job at Boeing on the other side of North America, and then a whole new separate set of new friends said, you’re just like Steve Martin, what’s wrong with you? Then Warner Brothers Records sponsored a Steve Martin lookalike contest. And I won, in the Seattle area.
After that, people wanted me to be Steve Martin at parties. Steve Martin was so huge. So that led to me doing stand-up comedy. And then I would meet guys at stand-up mic nights at comedy clubs, and I met the guy who was the head of the NBC affiliate in Seattle.
The head of [the station] wanted to have his own comedy show—because it’s the 13th market and you can kind of do whatever you want. So he hired the guy who won that competition, his name was Ross, and then Ross hired me to write jokes, because I would meet him at comedy clubs. I say "hired." He would “accept” some jokes.”
At this point in our story I was working on business jet navigation systems, laser gyroscope systems during the day, and I’d take a nap and go do stand-up comedy by night. I quit my job October 3, 1986, roughly, approximately. Every year on October 3 I try to take a moment.
Was it that bad?
No, I was a young guy. It was, if I don’t do it now, I’ll never do it.
The host of the comedy show was also, at that time, the host of the hottest radio show in Seattle.
Time to time, he’d have questions, and you could answer to win free tickets or what have you. One of them was a question that refers to the Back to the Future movie. And in the answer, he says“jigawatts.” So I called him, and I said, "Ross, you can say jigawatts, but really, we prefer gigawatts.”
[From then on] I called him every day at 4:45 and answered a listener question. And that went on for a few months. And then in January of 1987, we needed six minutes on the comedy show [because a guest cancelled].
I did this bit, "The household uses of liquid nitrogen." Because we all have liquid nitrogen around. So this was just reminder of some tips. I know normally you use it by fitting up your close-fitting machine parts, by getting one part really cold, but you can also use it for straightening out limp celery. You can slice onions with it, when you hit them with a knife, it’s really satisfying. It sounds like breaking glass. It’s a really striking sound. Striking, ah! Hilarious pun. Now the payoff, what I spent a lot of time doing, is you cook or roast marshmallows in liquid nitrogen and then you chew them and steam comes out of your nose. It’s really good.
And yeah, you can burn your tongue, but we’re artists.
I became a regular guy, doing goofball science demonstrations. Bubbles full of hydrogen that explode and jumping off a ladder into a paper bag that was nothing but an air bag made of paper, and you don’t get killed. It was good.
These were all things you had accumulated throughout an education in science?
Yes, but also, there was a guy, Don Herbert, Mr. Wizard. I was a little too young for the first Mr. Wizard. But then he did Mr. Wizard’s World. And I just studied it. I really studied it. I met him years later. He said, "Now I can pass the torch."
The guy changed the world. He sent this country to the moon.
When did you have time to invent a new type of ballet shoe?
That was not my fault. One of the shows we did was "Bones and Muscles."
We went to the Pacific Northwest Ballet. The Seattle ballet. These women, they’re 22 years old, and they have three or four surgeries already. They're covering up their scars with makeup. I just got to thinking about it. The toe shoe has not changed in centuries. So I just got to thinking about it.
In my mind you’re a character that pops up in my fourth-grade classroom to teach me about volcanoes.
That was a good show.
It was. But what I'm saying is, in my fourth-grade mind, you’re the least political figure I can think of. How did science become politics?
Last February, I was being interviewed about science education, and somebody asked me about creationism. Then it languished on the Internet for months. Then I guess, due to the nature of exponential growth—two becomes four becomes eight becomes 16—It just took off here the last three weeks. There’s been 5 million views. I pointed out that the Earth is not 6,000 or 10,000 years old. It’s not. We know this through scientific inquiry. Our brains. Wherever they came from, we have learned the Earth is somewhat more that that: 4.5 billion years old.
Did you make a decision that this would be something you’d be outspoken about, or has it just happened that way?
It's a little bit out of context, what you see most of the time on YouTube. I was being asked about science education. And the funding of science education.
Do you have any worries that this bubbling up on the Internet has an impact on your ability to be thought of as a teacher for a broad population?
It’s been all to the good. And the other thing is, you can’t go back. This is the route I’m going to take. It’s an important time. And maybe everybody thinks he or she is an important time.
I’ll stand by it, I’ll take on anybody. The Earth is not 6,000 years old. I’m sorry. We have radioactivity. Maybe you’ve been to the Museum of Natural History and noticed some fossil dinosaur bones, and maybe that would pique your interest.
That’s the other sort of tragedy. I mean that in the real sense of the word. If you have children exposed to ancient fossils of creatures, and you try to convince them that there's some extraordinary conspiracy by a deity to dupe you—that you can’t trust anything you think, you can’t trust your own common sense—that is not in our best interest for our society.
All these experiences—from accidentally going to Cornell, to working on airplanes, to doing comedy—have all come together seemingly intentionally.
I’m glad you feel that way.
Was it intentional?
You see parachutes. Any one of those shroud lines is not enough, it just wouldn’t do it. But somehow, if you have enough of them, they’ll hold you up.
I just remember as a kid, thinking, "Really? Those are like threads, man!" But if you have enough of them, [it works.] So I say to everyone, there no big breaks, there are just breaks.
I’m finding my way, you guys, it was not a master plan. So as I said, I made a remark consistent with my beliefs in February, and it took off six months later.
Or you can say that you made a remark on the radio and that sort of took off.
When you go to engineering school you’re exposed to math and science. So when someone says "jigawatts," you say "gigawatts."
But I didn’t have a master plan on gigawatts, as much as I love them.
Photo: Tyler Gray