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Bill Nye, the successful guy

This former stand-up comic knows the formula for appealing science: a good measure of facts and a beaker full of fun.

By PAMELA DAVIS

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 11, 1999


The gangly guy in the blue lab coat and bow tie avoided the usual classroom props. To explain human digestion, he rigged a contraption that was part blender, part chocolate milkshake and part spatula. The blender was the Mouth-o-Matic. The shake was the saliva and the spatula was the tongue.

"Chyme is the goopy, soupy stuff that we make in our stomachs that our body digests," he told his TV viewers. "It's a lot easier for our body to move chyme around than it would be, say, a whole burger and plate of fries."

He doesn't just play one on TV. Bill Nye really is a science guy.

He uses that "Science Guy" moniker as the name of his TV show and as part of the title of his newest book, Bill Nye the Science Guy's Big Blue Ocean (Hyperion, $16).

"Our small intestine absorbs the chemicals in our food much like a towel soaks up water," Nye explained on one of his shows. "After the small intestine it goes into the large intestine and then, well, it's on its way." (Cue the audio of a toilet flushing.)

Nye, 43, says he doesn't know for sure if all his viewers understand that he's a real scientist, but he thinks they do.

"That's the key to the success of the show," he said during a recent phone interview. "When you look into my eyes, you believe me because I'm passionate about it. It's very interesting to me. There's nothing cooler than science."

You've probably seen Nye while flipping through the channels on Saturday mornings. A guy in a size 38 tall lab coat stands out among cartoons and Saved by the Bell reruns.

Something else probably caught your eye, too: his bow tie. It's a fashion choice he made in high school. Unlike regular neckties, bow ties don't fall into beakers.

Nye, single in Seattle, now has about 100 bow ties. "There's one green tie you see in a lot of the shows," he says. "That was in my early days before I had accumulated a lot of them. They are real bow ties, and I tie them myself."

His television show, Bill Nye the Science Guy, is in its seventh (and last) year of syndication on 194 stations across the country. It's seen locally on WTVT-Ch. 13 at 10 a.m. Saturdays.

Next year, all 100 episodes of the series will move to Noggin, the new cable effort from Nickelodeon and the Children's Television Network. Noggin is currently available on a smattering of cable systems and satellite service providers throughout the country, but none in the Tampa Bay area.

"I'm the best in the world at this one little thing: presenting science on television to English-speaking audiences," Nye says.

Creating a fun show about a topic lots of folks consider to be dry and undigestable was easy for the former stand-up comic.

"One of the most straightforward ways to make something entertaining is to make it funny," he says. "I'm not saying writing jokes is easy. It's quite difficult, at least it is for me. It has to be entertaining or nobody's going to watch it."

Nye was a comedian off and on for 10 years. He was always put in the middle of a comedy club lineup, never in the headliner spot like Jerry Seinfeld or Jay Leno, he says. But Nye knew he would never, ever be as funny as his hero, Steve Martin.

"I'm kooky for Steve. I hope to meet him someday. I wrote him a note, but I never heard back from him:

"Dear Steve, I'm Bill Nye. I owe my career to you. I'd like to buy you lunch sometime. Your friend, Bill.'

"I'm sure he's like, "This guy's insane. He's a stalker.' "

We're pretty sure Nye is neither, although he is a little strange. Just don't tell NASA, because Nye really wants to be an astronaut.

Though his show has been honored with 15 daytime Emmy awards and he has written three books and has licensed his name to two science toys and was recently named the spokesman for Noggin, what Nye really wants to do is lift off into space.

Every few years Nye fills out the astronaut application and goes in for his astronaut physical. And every few years he is rejected. His degree in mechanical engineering from Cornell University isn't enough. Nye says he needs a Ph.D. to be an astronaut.

"Physically, athletically and as project man, a solver of mechanical problems, a tinkerer, I am as good as anybody," he says. "I'd love to get a Ph.D in applied physics or fluid mechanics, but that's a seven- or eight-year commitment."

Being an astronaut would help him change the world, he says. He considers changing the world to be a lifelong goal.

"Apparently, people who travel in space never look at the world in quite the same way. It changes your life," he says. "I think it would be the next logical thing to help me pursue my goal of changing the world. Getting people excited about science means in the future we'll have more scientists so we can make better decisions as voters, taxpayers and citizens. Also, I really like to go fast."

Mr. Speed is Mr. Science's friend.

"I like it all right, but you know how many speeding tickets I have? That's right. Zero. A car is a weapon. If you have a loaded gun you have to treat it with respect. The same is true of a car, and I'm not saying that I won't get a speeding ticket this afternoon, I'm not saying that I'm some kind of driving genius, but I do respect it and understand how fabulously dangerous it is."

That kind of talk, all safety-conscious and responsible, is part of the reason Nye has become important not only to children's television but to their education. He specifically aims his TV show and books to 10-year-olds because studies indicate that 10 is about as old as you can be to get really excited about science.

"According to studies sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the National Science Teachers Association, it's very reasonable that 10 is as old as you can be to get excited about anything," Nye says. "If you're going to be an accountant, you have a love of arithmetic by the time you're 10. If you're going to be an attorney, you like language and words by the time you're 10. I don't have documentation on that, but to me, as an educator, I'd say it's probably true."

Kids aren't only ones watching Bill Nye the Science Guy. He says half of his viewers are adults, and the other half are preteens, teens and a huge number of college students.

"I'm at a point now where young people say (Nye, imitating Keanu Reeves in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure) "Hey, you're Bill Nye. I watched your show as a kid.' (Back to Nye's high-pitched voice) Then, I look at these people and say, "What are you now, man?' "

His adult fans have made Web pages dedicated to him. One of them is called the Bill Nye Worship Page and includes a photo of him, a space shuttle model in his hand, with a caption that reads: "Bill Nye, what a god. Just look at him." Another Web site lovingly calls Nye's show Mr. Wizard on speed.

The Bill Nye love fest aside, what's on the Science Guy's mind these days are not his adoring fans but the subject of his new book, Big Blue Ocean, published last month.

"You have to understand the ocean to understand your world," Nye explains. "I would love it if people didn't screw up the ocean. The hardest thing for everybody to understand about the environment is that every can that you throw away instead of recycling, every ounce of paint thinner you don't properly process, ends up making the environment less healthy."

Nye is a hands-on kind of guy. He urges his TV viewers to get personally involved in science, and his book includes kid-level experiments.

"The actual challenge is to take care of the little things constantly. It's a very hard idea for people to understand. The nature of the universe, where it all adds up, is very hard for people to grasp," he says. "The biggest thing a kid can do is be attentive to all the little things. Turn out the lights. Do all you can to limit the waste you put in the waste stream. It looks easy, but it's not."

One of Nye's favorite Science Guy episodes deals with pseudo-science -- things like UFOs and astrology. By Nye's definition, pseudo-science is the notion that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. As a member of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, he's out to expose this kind of stuff.

What angers him even more than fake science is a total lack of science, as is the case in Kansas, where the Board of Education approved a set of standards that makes no reference to evolution, the scientific theory that living things evolved from earlier species.

"We all depend on science to live. Every piece of food that anybody eats, with the exception of somebody eating a few acorns, is a result of genetic engineering. In Kansas (lots of kids) grew up on farms and they all know about knocking the tassels of the male corn and shaking it on to the female corn. So, to have these kids be excluded from modern understanding of the world is really bad, bad, bad."

Nye said that NBC recently called and asked him to list what he considered to be the top 10 discoveries of the century.

"I said DNA is No. 1 one and (the folks at NBC) were insistent that it was the airplane," he recalls. "I said, "You guys put down whatever you want.' I love airplanes. I'm kooky for airplanes. But a century from now, the discovery of DNA is going to be the thing."

For now, Nye's thing is creating a new TV show, something for all ages, maybe about math. He's also got a couple of patents on toys and is hoping to develop a deal.

"I got all that stuff going now. I got the publicist. I got a couple attorneys. I got four or five agents," he says. "Believe in yourself. Invest in yourself, by heck."

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