Geeking Out

One Hour With Bill Nye the Science Guy

In which we meet the 90's science icon for some coffee.

 One Hour With Bill Nye the Science GuyLast week, we learned that we would have the lovely opportunity of interviewing Bill Nye–yes, the Science Guy, that bow-tie-wearing, zany engineer whose PBS show taught the majority of twenty-somethings much of what they know about magnetism, the circulatory system and electricity. Most kids who grew up in the 90’s were shown at least one of his videos in a Friday afternoon science class. Mr. Nye occupies a specific corner of our collective nostalgia, his kooky presence and love for science hearkening back to a simpler time when getting an A on a test was our biggest worry.

When this reporter woke up for the interview this morning, she found herself struggling to find something to wear. (“All my lab coats are in the wash,” we tweeted.) Turns out that we should’ve opted for a bow-tie, as Mr. Nye showed up to our interview in Bryant Park in that signature sartorial choice, a green paisley one tied around his neck. On the lapel of his jacket, a Planetary Society pin gleamed in the sun.

Mr. Nye, a resident of Los Angeles, was in New York to promote the work he is doing with Sophia, an online portal that hosts multimedia educational tools to promote social learning. He is helming the Sophia Summer Challenge, which aims to combat the “brain drain” that occurs over the summer. Students can sign up to take short tutorials and quizzes for a chance to win an iPad.

“Half of what you learn about science you learn informally or out of the classroom,” Mr. Nye told us, after we’d settled in to one of the green metal tables on the outskirts of Bryant Park. “These kids today are in front of a screen seven hours a day. While you’re doing that, why don’t you do some educational stuff? People really lose their proficiency in the summer–you don’t practice math, you forget how to do it.”

“What we want is more science literacy,” he added.

Mr. Nye is also the CEO of the Planetary Society, the world’s largest space interest organization, which was started by the late great Carl Sagan, one of Mr. Nye’s former professors (he believes he got an A in that class, though an A- was also possible). As part of this position, he raises awareness about the Curiosity rover’s mission to Mars. Mr. Nye recently had lunch with Elon Musk, the PayPal cofounder who launched SpaceX.

“It’s awesome,” Mr. Nye said of SpaceX. Before launch, Mr. Musk had a meeting with the board of the Planetary Society, said Mr. Nye. “He sat down with them and said, ‘I want to go to Mars. What do I need to do?’ And everybody said, ‘We need cheap access to orbit.’ It’s the key first step. Getting to orbit right now is too expensive.”

As a proponent of science literacy, what do you make of the gender gap in the field? we asked Mr. Nye.

“My mom was recruited by the navy because she was good at science,” he replied. “My mother–and this is not some great-grandmother–my mother could not get an American Express card because she was Mrs. Nye, even though she was also Dr. Nye. She marched in the parade–she told us she threw her bra in the fire–I was not there, though, so I can’t verify.”

“Science is the best idea humans have ever had,” he added. “Half of humans are women, so we want half of scientists to be women. This is a long journey–but the longest journey starts with a single step.”

From the man who taught us so much about science, we wanted to know: what did he still find most fascinating about the universe?

“We are star stuff,” he replied. “This is to say, you and I are made of atoms that came from exploding stars.”

We didn’t want to monopolize the chance to interrogate our childhood idol, so we asked fellow “Science Guy” watchers for questions. “Ask him to refute global warming in two sentences,” responded one Twitter follower.

“Global warming is true, whether or not you believe it. Sorry,” he retorted.

“What do you make of this whole zombie apocalypse?” one of our Facebook friends encouraged we ask.

“Apparently there are some drugs that can render you pretty useless,” Mr. Nye replied. “I joke all the time about how useless zombies are, though. Maybe they’re the antithesis of what’s cool now. What’s cool is to be quintuple-tasking at any time, moving fast, gettin’ ‘er done, and zombies–along with their slow movement–they seem indifferent to the world around them.”

“You don’t see a lot of zombies on Facebook,” he added.

In the middle of our meeting, a man came up to us and complimented Mr. Nye on his bowtie. “Do you get recognized a lot?” we wondered.

“A couple hundred times a day,” he acknowledged. Of his role as a nostalgic figure, he joked, “It’s a little disturbing. It’s very sweet, it’s very nice. I still don’t get it. When people say I’ve affected their lives, I still don’t quite get it. I went to work–most weeks–seven days a week. I put my heart and soul into that dumb thing, with the dream that some of you would pursue careers in science and engineering, or at least have an appreciation for it. The ultimate would be if one of you–or a group of you–solve some astonishing world problem.”

We were happy to find out that Mr. Nye was familiar with a lot of topics on the tech beat: He raved about the convenience of the app Uber, and expressed excitement about the recent CornellNYC campus announcement.

“I’m hoping they’ll give me a job,” he added.

Follow Jessica Roy on Twitter or via RSS. jroy@observer.com