Before he was “The Science Guy,” Bill Nye came to Seattle in the 1970s to work as a Boeing engineer. He was a fresh graduate from Cornell University, where an astronomy class with Carl Sagan stoked his appreciation for science. A Steve Martin look-alike contest got Nye into comedy, a relationship with John Keister got Nye working on “Almost Live!,” and a canceled guest on the classic KING-TV sketch show allowed Nye to take the spotlight for the first time. (Nye says the details of the story are lost to history, and he jokes that the guest he replaced was either Eddie Vedder, Rita Jenrette or Geraldo Rivera.)
The rest is history: After “17 short years” cutting his teeth on the Seattle comedy scene, Nye’s energetic blend of entertainment and education struck a chord with “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” which won 19 Emmy Awards during its 1993-1998 run on KCTS-TV. Beyond serving as CEO of The Planetary Society and on the board of the Mount St. Helens Institute, Nye has appeared on countless TV programs and he has written more than a dozen books for kids and adults. His latest, “Bill Nye’s Great Big World of Science,” is out Oct. 27.
The Seattle Times caught up with Nye about his new book, the 2020 election, his memories of Seattle and how the next generation of kids can change the world.
(Answers have been edited for clarity and length.)
Seattle Times: Tell us about what you’re working on, starting with your new book.
Bill Nye: The book took me a couple of years to write, and it’s called “Bill Nye’s Great Big World of Science.” I’m very proud of it; I put my heart and soul into it. It’s full of beautiful color illustrations, and it’s full of demonstrations, so if you’re home right now with your family and you’re going a little crazy, check out “Great Big World of Science” for some experiments you can do at home. I have a discussion of a wide-ranging array of science topics, ones very appropriate for people when they’re 10, 12, 14 years old. And that turns out to be a pretty good level for everybody.
I talk about the scientific method and how we made these discoveries, life science, your body, animal bodies, plant bodies. There’s climate change. It’s the book I’ve always wanted to write, with beautiful illustrations, demonstrations inside and enough room for my voice.
ST: In 2020, the year of coronavirus amid the age of social media, is there a lack of science literacy in the United States?
Nye: Yes, science denialism is a huge problem. People blame the internet, but it goes back somewhat further than that, with the fossil fuel industry trying to tell everybody that scientific uncertainty about climate change is the same as doubt about the whole thing. The fossil fuel industry hired some of the very same people that the cigarette industry hired to sell the idea that you can’t prove cigarettes cause cancer for every person that gets lung cancer. And they were very successful … they went on for decades selling cigarettes when it was well understood that they’re extraordinarily bad for you.
ST: I know that getting folks to the polls is important to you. What makes it such a personal mission?
Nye: I spent my adult life trying to get people excited about science. We have these two enormous problems: the short-term problem of the coronavirus epidemic, and the much more serious long-term problem of climate change. And we have to address those with science — hope is not a plan. So yes, science is on the ballot. As a Republican, you can do whatever you feel is right. But if you are a Trump supporter, which is not the same in my view, I encourage you all to vote on Wednesday, the fourth of November. I’m the CEO of The Planetary Society; I’m supposed to be political but not partisan. But this year, it’s just out of hand. You cannot have the world’s most influential culture and government ignoring science. We cannot have this. Everybody vote.
ST: To borrow the title from your Netflix show, how exactly do we save the world, and what is the greatest threat to mankind?
Nye: It just didn’t seem possible to people my age for a species like ours to change the climate of an entire planet. But we did, we are, and so we’ve got to deal with it. … Think about what we need to do to raise the standard of living of girls and women. When you [do so], you address extreme poverty and climate change and human population continuing to grow. When you raise the standard of living of women and girls, everybody’s life is better. To do that we’ll do three specific things: provide clean water to everyone for everyone on Earth, renewably produced, reliable electricity, and access to the internet for everyone. If we can do those things, people your age are going to save the world. And by the way, the world is going to be here — what we want to do is save the world
ST: You mention these monumental goals, but are there problems science can’t solve?
Nye: I remind everyone: Science itself doesn’t do a thing, it’s scientists that do things. So the biggest problems in general are not scientific, the biggest problems are political. Getting everybody on board with this idea that we’re going to do something, that we’re going to create a new energy infrastructure, is hard.
ST: I vaguely know the story of you coming to Seattle in the 1970s, working at Boeing and leaving to pursue comedy before you became “Bill Nye the Science Guy.” Could you tell us about your memories of the city at the time?
Nye: I say all the time that Seattle saved my life. The friends I made there are still dear, close friends of mine. But I won a Steve Martin look-alike contest at a nightclub that was called Montana’s [and started doing stand-up]. … I quit my day job Oct. 3, 1986, approximately, to work on “Almost Live!” … All that came from Seattle. And [recently], ESPN posted an article that I got interviewed for about the 1995 Seattle Mariners. The Mariners beat the Yankees and that was a big doggone deal. It made Seattle a baseball town. That was an exciting time in Seattle. I was there when the SuperSonics won the NBA championship, too, when there was no 3-point shot.
ST: Do you have favorite Seattle staples, past or present?
Nye: Seattle has grown up. I was there when Seattle was just going through puberty, I guess, and I like to think I was part of that whole thing which made Seattle hip: the garage bands, grunge music. We [at “Almost Live!”] were on the fringe of that because of John Keister. We were part of that little Seattle cultural movement at the time. It was very exciting, but for me, it was work, because the doggone show was a freelance job. On a good year, you’d get 26 weeks of employment. … [I was hired] to do this thing called “Fabulous Wetlands” for the Washington State Department of Ecology [in 1989], and that became a template for the “Science Guy” show. … There are no big breaks, there are just breaks. Bricks on the great stepped pyramid, the ziggurat.
ST: Did you ever imagine having this widespread reach as a science educator?
Nye: The answer is “absolutely, without question, sort of.” That it is to say that when we made [“Bill Nye the Science Guy”], we hoped they would be of value in informal education. We were at the right place at the right time. These shows stood the test of time, I think, because everybody on the crew was on board with the great vision: We’re going to change the world, we’re going to make science fun and we’re going to engage people so they want to learn about science. And everybody in the crew just had a terrific sense of humor, which is essential to the “Science Guy” show.
ST: How do you stay energized and motivated, and what’s next for you?
Nye: When you’re in love, you want to tell the world. To me, there’s nothing more exciting than science. It’s how we know nature. It’s how we know the cosmos. It’s how we know our place within it. … You and I are made of the dust of exploded stars. You and I are made of stuff that can know its place in the universe. You and I are one way the universe knows itself, and that fills me with reverence every day. If that doesn’t, as the kids say, “blow your mind,” what does? That is amazing to me, that we can know the cosmos and you can realize that you’re an insignificant, tiny, tiny piece of the cosmos, yet you can understand it. And that is either depressing or amazing and inspiring, and for me it’s amazing and inspiring.
ST: In writing another educational book for kids, you’re returning to your original target audience. What’s your message to middle schoolers?
Nye: You can change the world — and we need you to, because there are so many of us now. When I was a kid, there were fewer than 3 billion people. My grandparents, there were fewer than one and a half billion. Now there’s going to be 8 billion, there’s going to be 9 [billion], there might be 10 billion people. And so accidentally, humans have ended up in charge of the planet. It is an awesome responsibility. But it’s an awesome — and I mean, that fills you with awe — opportunity. We can do this, you all, and young people, you are the future. So let’s get out there and change the world.