Bill Nye & His Life on Planet Earth (INTERVIEW)

"The Science Guy" and bestselling author shares his thoughts on dancing (with the stars), bow ties, and living happily on Planet Earth.
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Two decades after christening himself “The Science Guy” and launching an internationally beloved series of educational videotapes for students, 60-year-old Bill Nye continues to reinvent himself, behaving much like the heavenly comets he occasionally observes, circling the universe in highly eccentric orbit. There is Nye, serving as executive director of The Planetary Society, a nonprofit intent on space exploration and related scientific endeavors, and then squaring off with Creationists in highly publicized debates. And then, there’s Nye – trademark bowtie always crisp and flamboyant – hoofing it in a Beethoven get-up on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars in 2013, and then reaffirming his place on bestseller lists with his recent book, Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World

In astronomical terms, Nye is “eccentric,” his orbit frequently deviating from a perfect circle, his eccentricity defining the very shape of his path. A genuine original, marching ever to the beat of his own drummer, an infinite fount of wisdom and curiosity, Nye is a fireball, to be sure, and it doesn’t take a telescope to see that. 

Your bid for the Dancing with the Stars crown was crushed early on by injury. It’s not like Bill Nye the Science Guy to watch anything from the sidelines, is it?

No, no it’s not. That was a really uncomfortable time. Very difficult. In science, there is a lot of observation involved, but that’s not why you sign up for a dance competition! With an injury to the quadriceps, though, what’s key is to not reinjure it. So I wore this immobilizer boot with an arrangement of Velcro straps and you can only bend your knee the recommended amount and you try to live your life in that thing for two months. And everything moves so much faster than you do!

Maybe that’s the universe’s way of telling you to slow down.

Well, it’s always nice, I suppose, to have a little time off. 

Many people were surprised to know that you were an avid swing dancer even before Dancing with the Stars. 

That turned out to be kind of a liability, actually. In international style, you literally start on the other foot. Maybe I’m just making excuses, but the first two weeks of the TV show were quite a mental adjustment for me. If I hadn’t gotten injured, I think we would’ve hung in there, though. I really do! 

So why dance at all? What’s the appeal for you?

Dancing is the joy of movement. I claim that our ancestors, who did not experience the joy of movement – which would be an overarching term for exercise – they, uh, didn’t survive. (Laughs) If you didn’t get up and hop and move around, you got eaten by other organisms that did. 

So dancing is a method of self-preservation.

It’s a mode of maintenance. But, also, what are the three words we are all fascinated with: Sex, sex, sex. Dancing is a cultural way to manage social interactions. It’s fantastic! What’s not to love?

Is there science to dancing?

The way I do it, there is. The whole thing is science. From an evolutionary standpoint of cultural interactions to evaluate gene-sharing partners, sexual partners, but also there’s the fabulous, fundamental, classical physics of spinning and friction and the kinematics or linkage of what can happen if you, say, do it wrong with a four-bar mechanism – like my leg!

“Kinematics” is not a word that commonly comes up in the interviews I do. You’re the smartest guy in a lot of rooms. Definitely this room. So what are some words of wisdom we should live by?

Well, I can only offer wisdom to another man, I think – if I can even do that. It’s not much, but it is powerful: when walking with a woman, walk on the street side. It’s a hit with women of all ages. It’s a tradition from a different time, but it still conveys respect. And as all the kids are saying, the chicks dig it. And here’s another one, a really important one: everyone you meet knows something you don’t, so be respectful. Listen. No matter how freaking smart you think you are, everyone you meet knows something you don’t. So listen!

Bill Nye Book Cover Courtesy St. Martins Press

In his bestseller Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World, Nye challenges us to make choices that will lead to a cleaner, more efficient, and happier world. (Photo: Courtesy St. Martins Press)

You’ve been the face of science for almost three decades now. Why is science so important to you?

The method of science is the best idea humans have ever had! Humans have had a lot of ideas, my goodness, and some pretty great ones. The U.S. Constitution is a pretty good idea, I think. The Golden Rule is a good idea. But the process of making observations, coming up with an explanation for why you think it occurred, creating your own test to examine that hypothesis, then comparing your results to what you imagined or presupposed, that is fantastic! 

Indeed. We can’t part ways without my asking: what’s the story with the trademark bow tie? How did that come to be? 

It started in high school. I was a server at the Girls Athletic Banquet – and believe me, there’s nothing more attractive than an athletic woman, that’s just how it is – and we had to dress up for the job and I somehow had the instinct or wherewithal to know that a regular tie would end up in the soup or in the coffee, so I went with a bow tie instead. Then I discovered, when I started doing the science thing, I noticed that bow ties do not slip into the flask or the beaker. They can avoid soup, coffee, and scientific materials. From a practical standpoint, if you’re going to be dressed up, a bow tie’s the way to go. As Jerry Seinfeld said, you want to dress nicer than your audience and as the old show biz maxim goes, you want to look like you’re the headliner. So bow ties for me and a nice crisp dress shirt. 

Bill Nye Photo By F. Scott Schafer Courtesy Planetary Society

Nye started to wear his trademark bow tie in high school. ". . .When I started doing the science thing, I noticed that bow ties do not slip into the flask or the beaker, " he says. "They can avoid soup, coffee, and scientific materials." (Photo: F. Scott Schafer/Courtesy Planetary Society)

In recent years – and in your books – you’ve become not merely a science entertainer, but an activist of sorts. What guidance might you offer us about living on the Planet Earth? 

Here’s what I want everybody in the world to do: do more with less. I don’t want people to do less or use less, necessarily, which is old school or traditional environmentalism – use less, do less, drive less, use less clean water, don’t wash your clothes, be stinky, don’t eat. But what we need today is to develop technologies or techniques that allow us to do more with less and, in my imagined, perfect, patriotic world, the U.S. would export these techniques and technologies to the developing world and save the planet for as many humans as possible. Solve that situation and you’ve got yourself the keys to the kingdom as far as I’m concerned!