Eye to eye with Bill Nye the Science Guy

How does cloning work? How are aliens likely to communicate with us?

You can find that stuff out by watching "The Eyes of Nye" on KCTS. So when we got ex-Seattle luminary Bill Nye the Science Guy on the phone, we asked him about other important matters in addition to his fun new public-TV show. Such as the origin of his bow tie.

Was there a time when you were just Bill Nye the Pizza Guy?

No, popcorn. Bill Nye the Popcorn Guy.

It was in college. I used to play ultimate Frisbee, and I just got a reputation for making popcorn at parties. I don't mean to brag on myself, but I make the popcorn in the pot, and it comes out fine every time. And so I would make the popcorn and then I would present the pot — I don't know if you ever saw the movie "Cocktail" — and I would spin the pot. I would give it a little flourish to prove I had not burned any kernels.

Have "The Eyes of Nye" ever suffered a sty?

It wasn't during the shooting. It was when I was very young.

What's up with the title and the premise?

"The Eyes of Nye" is my point of view about contemporary issues that have a scientific aspect to them and use science, so that you, the viewer, who are presumed to be somewhat old enough to vote — someone who is in his or her teens or on — can use this point of view to help him or her decide how he or she should vote about this issue. Nuclear waste, genetically modified foods, human population, global climate change.

I planned a vasectomy immediately after your "Population" episode.

Yeah, well, I mean we need two more Earths.

Some of what you present is pretty alarming.

You can get freaked out ... [begins talking in a sing-song tone] ... but things are never as bad as they seem, and the longest journey starts with but a single step.

I really believe in all this stuff. That's the blurse, as they say — the blessing and the curse of Bill Nye. I really believe in science. It is a faith. It is a reverence akin to religion. But as we always say, it's different from religion in that, as near as we can tell, it exists outside of us. It has an objective quality, the process of science.

How has the country's increase in religiosity — not to mention politicians' displays of it — affected science?

I was just at the American Association of the Advancement of Science, and I'm not a spokesman for the AAAS or anything, but anecdotally, everybody's very concerned. Because along with this resurgence or embracing of fundamental Christianity is this rejection of science. And that's bad. Science has brought us so much. Like I'm talking to you on a cellphone, for crying out loud, from the other side of a continent. And we accept it as part of our lives, and we even expect it. And we all eat food grown on farms that are perhaps hundredths of the size of the amount of land needed per person as it was 200 years ago. And then to go and reject that process, to reject that way of understanding the world in favor of this other philosophy, is not good.

A significant portion of Americans believes we were put on Earth exactly as we are right now. As an evolutionary science guy, what do you think?

I like to regard myself as someone who's capable of critical thought, that is to say who can evaluate claims. When I go to Dinosaur National Monument and look at the hillside there that's under a pavilion built by the Woodrow Wilson administration, when I look at the dinosaur bones accumulated there, I cannot accept the idea that the Earth is 10,000 years old and that we were put here just as we are. That is not reasonable to me. That this divine being or something put these things here to test me? Created all of radio chemistry — that is the potassium argon dating of volcanic soil — created all this just to fool me? ... I believe that [people who believe these things] haven't been well enough educated in the process of science and the generally accepted — for lack of a better term — truths about the universe, about nature.

Your on-air persona is so likable and clean and fun. Are you a foul-mouthed, drunken, cigar-chomping degenerate offscreen?

I'm not a big cigar guy. They make me sick. I've tried them, of course. I like cussing, and I do like — I'm able to drink alcohol without becoming addicted, apparently. But it's not appropriate on a television show. I mean, show a little discipline, man!

You do a lot on the show with what looks like not much money.

Oh yeah, that's it, boy, I'll tell you — man, reporter guy! We're very low-budget, and this is what led to friction at KCTS. This is what we call in genteel company "misunderstandings." My information said it was going to be $400,000 per episode. "No, it's two-hundred-something-thousand." What?! And then you tip over the table and the poker chips go on the floor. So that was very disappointing to me and led to some angry discussions.

Favorite Muppet: Beaker?

I'm sorry — "It's hard to be green" is still my Muppet guy. Kermit, I mean he's the Muppet. You say he's overexposed. I say no, Kermit's a genius.

Carl Sagan was one of your instructors in the '70s. What was he like?

He was pretty much what you see is what you get. Very serious, yet wry wit and very passionate about planetary exploration. I had dinner with Annie Druyan last week, his widow, when I was in Ithaca. And we talked about the Solar Sail Project, and this is really one of Carl's dreams. I call him "Carl" now. Now I'm the vice president of the Planetary Society, which is an organization that he started along with two other guys.

By now you must have cultivated a decent Sagan imitation.

No, not really. One time, there was a show called "Edgewise" on TV. Anne Druyan said to me, "Bill, you can say ,'billions and billions.' You have permission." And I got a little weepy. You can see it on the video tape. I got a little teary.

What's with the bow ties?

Well, when you get a little older and see more of the world, you will wear them yourself. They do not slop into your soup. They do not fall into your flask or, sometimes I say, flail into your flask.

What happened was, at the girls' athletic banquet in high school, the boys have to wait on the girls. I said, "If we're going to be waiters, let's wear bow ties." So my dad, who's very good with knots, taught me how to tie a bow tie, and I tied everybody's bow ties. After I had this idea to be Bill Nye the Science Guy, I wore straight ties the first couple times, and then I got this thing going and I started wearing bow ties. Cuz, I'm not joking with you: If you're working with liquid nitrogen and your tie falls into it, it's funny in a way to the audience but it's also — pun intended — a little bit of a pain in the neck.

You have a patent pending for a ballet slipper. Please explain.

We did a show on bones and muscles, and I'm standing there on the sidelines at the Pacific Northwest Ballet, and these women, these young women, these girls, have bloody shoes. And I kind of get to talking to them. And I talk to the ... it's not called a coach. That guy, the dance instructor, the class leader or whatever he's called.

The term is "sadist."

The women were all saying, "This happens every day. I have to throw shoes away because they're bloody." So I just got to thinking about it and I just realized that traditional pointe shoes — first of all, they're traditional. You can't mess with the look of them. And this business of the pain being part of the rite of passage, I totally get that. But there's another aspect to it, and that is they haven't changed in years and years and years, and so couldn't we make a new shoe? They're centuries old. And so what I like to say is Bill Nye's improved ballet shoe is to the old shoe as the Nike running shoe is to the Chuck Taylor Converse All Star Basketball shoes.

Did the research involve you wearing a tutu?

No, no. No. I have dressed as a woman on the old show, "Almost Live." And I thought I did fine. I wasn't doing it as a ballet artist.

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or mrahner@seattletimes.com


"The Eyes of Nye"

Episodes repeat frequently on KCTS. Check the daily TV listings for specific times.