Washington -- Bill Nye is in his element.
On a molten Thursday in Washington, Bill bounds through his favorite shrine to science, the National Air and Space Museum. Hanging from the heavens of this great museum is evidence of how science has triumphed, how science has ruled. Mercury, Apollo, Sputnik, The Spirit of St. Louis.
For years, Bill came here as just another guy. Not anymore.
"That's Bill Nye the Science Guy!" people say, stunning him. "Science rules!" Bill answers in his mantra.
Bill, a former Boeing engineer and stand-up comic, has parlayed a passionate interest in science into "Bill Nye The Science Guy," which airs 5:30 p.m., Monday through Thursday, on Maryland Public Television. The Emmy-nominated, Disney-backed children's program is the brainy darling of public television.
The show features Bill's kinetic other self: The Science Guy.
Watching Bill's show is like hurtling through every field trip you ever went on. More than 30 segments are tightly edited into each episode of "Bill Nye The Science Guy." Through it all -- the video parodies, the "Consider The Following" segments, the giddy sound effects -- Bill's head remains the main, recurring character. It teaches, it jokes, and it spins -- as the baritone, computerized theme song is played . . . Bill, Bill, Bill.
"My whole life has been a preparation for this show," says the 39-year-old Washington native. "The show is an extension of me."
No more impersonating Steve Martin at parties, though Bill won a Martin look-alike contest a decade ago. There's shop talk about a prime-time special or feature film from the Science Guy. Already, the show has spawned "Science Guy" books, videos, teaching guides and student science kits.
"I not only play a scientist on television, I am one," says Bill. H earned a degree in mechanical engineering from Cornell, where he studied astronomy under another scientist well-known to PBS, Carl Sagan.
If you mix MTV with "Mr. Wizard" (Don Herbert is Bill's hero), you get "Bill Nye The Science Guy." Try it at home, but wear your safety goggles. Experimenting with television can be dangerous -- educational.
Don't pop your pimples. That spreads germs, says the 4-year-old daughter to her dad. Also at breakfast, the 6-year-old boy is rubbing his hands together, making friction. Well, the kids have been watching TV again. And not "The Jetsons" or "The Flintstones" -- which some television stations consider educational. The kids, perhaps your kids, have been hanging with the Science Guy.
20 new shows
Bill's episodes on Friction and Germs have been repeated this summer, as the Science Guy takes time off before writing new episodes this fall. Disney has ordered 20 more shows -- which is a lifetime in the unstable universe of television. The half-hour show is aimed at 9- to 11-year-olds.
"They're old enough to get interested in science,' Bill says. If you don't hook them by then, "they veer off."
But adults are roughly half of his viewers. Ask around the office. Chances are some folks watch Bill when they get home from work. A reported 530,000 homes daily watch "The Science Guy" on PBS.
His show is still dwarfed by "Sesame Street," watched in more than 3 million households. But he pulls in almost as many viewers as "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?," watched in 540,000 households.
Bill's show is also syndicated on commercial TV, where he attracts 1.2 million, weekend viewers.
"We want more shows like this. This is at the heart of why we created public television in the first place," says Kathryn Montgomery, co-director of the Center for Media Education in Washington. "This just gives you a glimpse of what children's television can be."
An advocate for improved children's TV programming, the center aims to strengthen the 1990 Children's Television Act, the source of a running debate in Washington over the state of
children's TV. Children's programs have become vehicles for advertising, Ms. Montgomery says. "We have turned children's television into one big commercial."
Bill plugs only learning.
"The Science Guy" features scientific "demonstrations" but not "experiments." The difference is demonstrations are rehearsal-tested and will work at home, Bill says. Experiments can fail, of course.
"Science education is so cool because, as we say in comedy, it's a prop bit."
Bill has not only made science on television cool, but he has made saying "cool" cool again.
The shattering onion trick
A classic nitrogen demonstration launched The Science Guy.
After working three years at Boeing, Bill left to join a Comedy Central ensemble show called "Almost Live." He wrote and performed sketches while wondering if he would ever qualify for a credit card again.
In a 1987 segment, Bill appeared in lab coat and safety goggles and dunked an onion in liquid nitrogen. The onion shattered, and a star was born. Bill won a local Emmy for the bit and realized his destiny was to combine comedy with science.
After four years of pitching the show, Bill caught a break when Seattle's public television station, KCTS, got interested in the "Science Guy" concept. Bill's first show aired in April 1993. PBS fell for it and so did Disney. Disney has invested more than $7 million in producing the show; PBS has provided $2 million, and $4 million has come from the National Science Foundation.
"After 15 quick years," Bill Nye has arrived -- in his lab coat, bow tie and a periodic table of the elements in his wallet.
Now Bill barrel-rolls in a stunt plane to demonstrate Flight; Bill parasails over Puget Sound in the name of Velocity and Lift; Bill helicopters into the crater of Mount St. Helens to talk about the Earth's Crust; Bill dances country-western style to illustrate Friction. "The best teachers I had didn't use textbooks that much," he says. "Teachers you liked the most were entertaining. And 'entertaining' is not a bad word."
Ultimately, he wants to film episodes from the space shuttle.
"He knows no fear," says his father, Edwin Nye. "He bungee jumped . . . well, he can have that."
Bill bikes Seattle while explaining breathing and "being a mean, clean, respiring machine." He swims, plays tennis and basketball all to score science points. He commits more exercise on one show than most do in a month at the health club.
Off the show, Bill hikes in the Pacific Northwest, scuba dives in Hawaii and bikes like a mad scientist. His low-fat, 150-pound frame is built for combustion. He's a dancing machine -- ballroom and country western. About the only thing this Single Guy can't do is sing.
At home, Bill uses Pyrex beakers for cooking measurements. He plays with Lionel trains and shoots off dozens of model rockets. "I just love those things." The Science Guy logs little TV time. Bill sticks to re-runs of "Mr. Wizard" and David Letterman's Top Ten lists.
And when "Apollo 13" came out, Bill was at the first matinee in Seattle. The 12:15 p.m. show.
1% "I was right there, right there."
A curious kid
As a boy, Bill Nye was a regular Little Science Guy. He mowed the grass when he was told, played army and space ship with his buddies, and came up to Baltimore to play with his cousins. Bill loved the flying scissors kick immortalized by pro wrestlers. And Bill loves Frisbee -- he's a human Frisbee.
For his senior picture in the Sidwell Friends School 1973 yearbook, Bill posed with an oscilloscope. He was hugging the thing. Fact is Bill was the guy who sat behind you in school and knew all the answers.
"He's geeky but cool at the same time. He gives nerds a better chance in life because he's hip," says Rimas Campe, assistant promotions director at Maryland Public Television.
Mr. Campe appeared at the station's Halloween party dressed as the Science Guy: lab coat, bow tie, clipboard and cassette player cued to play Bill's theme song. He has an autographed poster of Bill on his office door. The man has screamed his Nye allegiance to the heavens. While experiencing G-forces aboard a roller-coaster at Kings Dominion, Mr. Campe yelled, "Science rules!"
"It's something Bill would do."
"We all have a little ham in us, you know?" says Bill's dad, 78-year-old Edwin Nye, who lives in Arlington, Va. "Bill is part ham and part teacher."
Bill's father is a retired GE appliance salesman and part ham. Bill's mother, Jacquie Jenkins-Nye, has a doctorate in education. His grandfather taught chemistry at Johns Hopkins University, and the story is he flunked Spiro Agnew.
Learning is in the Nye family's genetic code. There was no question in the Nye household whether Bill, his brother and sister would do their homework. His parents could picture young Bill becoming a scientist -- he was such a curious kid. But no one could have predicted The Science Guy.
"Doing this sort of thing was the last thing I had in mind for him. When he got his degree, I thought he's going to be an engineer," Mr. Nye says. "When he took off on this show, I kind of shook my head."
"We go about our daily lives understanding almost nothing of the world," wrote Carl Sagan in the introduction to Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time." "Except for children (who don't know enough not to ask the important questions), few of us spend much time wondering why nature is the way it is."
Exactly, says Bill, who knows the author well. Before Mr. Sagan's landmark "Cosmos" series on PBS, before the Cornell professor reportedly uttered "billions and billions . . .," he was packing in auditoriums for his lectures on astronomy. Bill was right there.
"Professor Sagan changed my life," he says.
Mr. Sagan watches "The Science Guy" and has endorsed his former student's cause. In an article he wrote this year for Parade magazine, Mr. Sagan decries the way scientists are portrayed in children's television:
"Many of these so-called scientists are moral cripples driven by a lust for power . . . the message conveyed to the young audience is that science is dangerous, and scientists are worse than weird; they're crazed," Mr. Sagan wrote.
Then, the professor mentioned Bill's show, noting that the episodes "are fast-paced, range over many realms of science and sometimes even illuminate the process of scientific discovery."
Bill smiles at the quote, and repeats the line he knows by heart: ". . . sometimes even illuminate . . ." Fact is Sagan is busting his chops a bit.
Bill says he needs to do a better job illustrating the scientific "process of inquiry" and not just showing the tidy, fun results of a demonstration. Don't shortchange the process.
"It pushes me, and he's right," Bill says. "I couldn't be happier that he's nipping at our tails a bit.
"I want to please him, Dad, doggone."
In Washington, Bill Nye reaches into his black traveling bag -- like Mary Poppins digging into her carpet bag -- and yanks out a clean, white rope. In four seconds, he completes the Man-of-War Sheep Shank knot -- his father's favorite knot. (Bill, a former Boy Scout, ties knots to entertain himself on flights.) Then, the Science Guy unravels his bow tie only to re-tie it seconds later.
"Do you know what holds it together?"
Of course, dummy.
Bill unsheaths his apple red Swiss Army knife and then shows off a new toy he just bought. He twirls two Frisbee-like dishes on two wooden sticks. In this swank hotel, a gentleman attending a meeting of Fulbright scholars stops and gapes at Bill. The man looks so serious-minded -- and shy about approaching Bill in the middle of his balancing act.
The Fulbright scholar has something to say to the Science Guy: "Your show is great!"
"Bill Nye the Science Guy" offers this activity called "Television Blinks."
Television sets show 30 images every second. We process these images into one "persistence of vision." This experiment will snap your "Persistence of image."
The Science Guy says: "Wave your pen or pencil in front of the TV. You can see that the waving pencil seems to have several images. It's almost as though you were holding a sort of pencil fan. It's highly weird.
"That sight is caused by the picture on the television being created and turned off twice for every frame of pictures. The light coming off the TV is blinking 60 times a second -- twice for each image it shows!
"When you wave the pencil in front of a regular light bulb, you won't see any fans images.