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He makes the natural world make sense

Bill Nye the Science Guy brings his brand of fun and crazy science for kids in two benefit shows for the Kids Discovery Museum, Feb. 11. - Courtesy of Bill Nye
Bill Nye the Science Guy brings his brand of fun and crazy science for kids in two benefit shows for the Kids Discovery Museum, Feb. 11.
— image credit: Courtesy of Bill Nye

Bill Nye the Science Guy brings his brain to Bainbridge.

It was the bees, not the birds, that turned young Bill Nye onto science.

Nye watched them in his Washington, D.C., yard, fascinated by their movement. Hearing a theory that “bees don’t fly” was the beginning of his skeptical, scientific thinking.

“It’s pretty clear bees were flying,” the popular science educator said. “It was not understood how bees flew for a long time.”

While Nye studied bees, collected rocks and figured out how to maneuver rubber band airplanes, his mother put her math and science skills to work cracking secret codes for the government. His father loved sundials.

Is it any wonder Bill Nye became a science guy?

Talking to Nye is like watching him on TV: he entertains and teaches in the same breath, shifting gears in a way that somehow makes sense.

Although his television program is no longer on the air, he still has a strong following, from students of all ages to science teachers. The 30-second intro to “Bill Nye, the Science Guy” is indelibly etched on the brains of those who watched his Emmy award-winning series on PBS:

“BILL! BILL! BILL!”

“The main thing is to give people the idea that science is a process,” the former Seattleite said this week, from his desk in Santa Monica, Calif. “It’s a technique for understanding the world.”

Nye will share some of the wonders of science in a benefit for Bainbridge Island’s Kids Discovery Museum on Feb. 11 (see box). Big screens will flank the stage to bring the show to life even for those in the back rows.

“We’ve cut off a lot of the seats to make good sight lines for everyone,” said Cheryl Dale, museum executive director. “People have ordered tickets from New York, Pennsylvania and Georgia and are coming in to see Bill.”

Nye doesn’t want to give anything away about what he’s planning, saying only, “I’m going to ride my bike to the hardware store later today. I’m designing something. There’ll be some spectacular science effects.”

Nye doesn’t make live appearances very often these days.

He is busy lecturing and serving on boards, including the Association for the Advancement of Science, the Planetary Society and the Mount St. Helens committee.

“When you’re on the board you have to get things solvent. You try to influence people, like tell the government to send a mission to Pluto or tell the head of NASA to abandon the space shuttle,” he said. “Or tell the scientists at Mount St. Helens to give money for an overnight camp site so students don’t have to drive up and back in a day.”

Stage life

Obviously not a stereotypical engineer, Nye loves attention.

Back in 1978, some fellow Boeing engineers dared him to enter a Steve Martin look-alike contest and he won.

“I did not win the national contest,” he added.

Soon, Bill Nye the Stand-up Guy was born.

“I did well,” he said. “I ‘got’ Steve Martin. How could this guy be so nutty? He couldn’t. He came along at a time when the country was depressed (about) the Vietnam War, Nixon.

“People wanted me to be Steve Martin. I got paid a few times for parties. It leads you to want to do your own material.”

Nye became a stand-up comic, even though it’s a hard act to do and he had a job. Nonetheless, he performed in Seattle, San Francisco, Houston and other cities before calling it quits.

“It does give you skills,” Nye said. “You learn to think on your feet. There’s a discipline in thinking in punchlines.”

For several seasons, he was a regular on Seattle’s ensemble comedy show, “Almost Live!,” which spawned the Science Guy.

In 1992, he turned the character into a show that won 28 Emmys during its 100-episode, six-year run on PBS. It remains a popular resource in science classes throughout the country.

Nye had an idea for another series, but issues with PBS delayed its production. Eventually, he created 13 episodes of “The Eyes of Nye” last year, distributed by American Public Television.

The series explores contemporary topics, such as global climate change, human population, genetically modified foods and stem cell research. Aimed at ’tweens to adults, it moves at a different pace than its predecessor, offering more discussions and interviews with experts, though wrapped in Nye’s trademark liveliness and humor.

Nye recently returned to his alma mater, Columbia, to teach, sign autographs and mingle with students. Standing in the same room where Carl Sagan taught him astronomy was an emotional experience for Nye, who was greatly influenced by the author-astronomer.

Nye graduated from Cornell in 1977 with a degree in mechanical engineering and took a job with Boeing, where he worked on flight control and navigation systems for jets. He proudly states that the hydraulic pressure resonance suppressor he designed is still used on Boeing 747s.

In the early 2000s, he helped develop a small sundial that he persuaded Cornell scientists to use in the Mars Exploration Rover missions.

Nye’s love affair with the camera continues. He enjoyed playing Professor Bill Waldie on the CBS drama “Numb3rs” last December.

He re-created a backdraft in a combustion lab, modifying the scene to make it real. He will do more episodes, he said, “B, if I was good enough and A, if they call me back.”

Oh and he’s thinking about getting married. Science crusader, author, teacher, technical expert, actor, creator of better ballet shoes – are there any realms left for Nye to conquer?

Yes, indeed. Surfing is one.

“Let me check the surf conditions for tomorrow,” Nye said. “I’ve bought a used board and am teaching myself to surf. It takes a few hours to learn and a lifetime to master. I took a few lessons and was told I have good wave knowledge.”

Swing dancing is another.

“I was going to start doing (drugs), but I started swing dancing,” Nye said. “I think it’s more addicting. It reminds me of baseball and surfing. It’s cool.”

* * * * *

Science rules!

Tickets available for both Bill Nye, the Science Guy shows at 1 and 4 p.m. Feb. 11 in the Bainbridge High School gym. The Reptile Man, Scott Peterson, is the opening act for the all-ages show. Doors will open an hour before performance times.

General admission is $25 per person, and all proceeds benefit the Bainbridge nonprofit Kids Discovery Museum. For tickets call 855-4650 or see www.kidimu.org.

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