Bill Nye the Science Guy is best known as the frenetic science proselytizer with the bowtie and the kid’s show on PBS in the 1990s. He came to that job after years at Boeing, where he developed a hydraulic pressure resonance suppressor that is still used on 747 airliners. He also worked as a consultant to the aeronautics industry, in which capacity he worked on the A-12 stealth attack aircraft. He had level three security clearance on that one. He is also a member and fellow the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. (Killjoy!)
Here are some final stretches of our breakfast interview. I found him charming, genuine, and an expert enthusiast. I’d like to thank him for granting me clearance to use parts of my day job interview at Cassowary.
Rick: Why did you give up a career as a mechanical engineer to start a kid’s science program?
Bill: Well, sir– I was feeling that my bosses were paralyzed by self doubt. In the 1980s, Japan was this economic powerhouse, making all these fabulous products. These guys I was working for were in fear of–terrified by–anything made in Japan. Looking back, they should have been! Compare the innovation and success of a Toyota with the thoughtless retro-thinking of modern automakers in the U.S., which started in the 1950s. My bosses were obsessed with making a profit every quarter, and when you’re making a new navigation device for a business jet that’s supposed to be 3/8 the size of the original, you can’t do that in three months. There aren’t enough smart people in the world that you can coordinate to make that happen. I was very frustrated with these guys, and I thought the future is kids, not these people.
Rick: But the guys you were working for grew up in the era of better living through chemistry. College students today won’t touch chemistry with a ten foot pipette. They’d rather pursue careers in video and sound engineering.
Bill: Well, that’s my mission. To change the world. There is noting more exciting than science. What could possibly be more fun than science? No! Really!
What does everyone say to chemists at every cocktail party, maybe with the exception of the Chemists Club Eggnog Party because they’re all chemists? They say, “You’re a chemist? Hey, can you blow something up?” Nobody says that to the video guy. And the chemists had better look out if somebody can blow something up better. There is nothing more exciting and cool than blowing something up. I work in television, I’m around television professionals all day. And they want to blow something up. They want the coolest shot of the explosion. I remind everybody that the reason Alfred Nobel got so crazy wealthy, is that he was so good at blowing stuff up.
Rick: Let’s toss around the idea of “being human.”
Bill: Okay–to think of something and make it? Amazing! When I look at squids, gold fish… I don’t think they’re doing that. I don’t think that’s what’s going on with them. Ants—mmmm-maybe. Kinda.
But What makes you human? It’s your ability to know that you’re part of the cosmos. That you’re aware of your place in the cosmos. I don’t think that even my favorite dogs are thinking about that. The biggest thing humans can do is imagine the future. Our brains are big enough to do that.
Rick: …Pee-wee Herman!
Bill: Yeah! Rocky and Bullwinkle–same deal! Sesame Street!