Bill Nye On Fame, Family, and How He Became The 'Science Guy' : It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders The one and only Bill Nye the Science Guy (@BillNye) is the subject of a new documentary all about his life. He talks to Sam about the film, how he thinks fame has changed his brain, a troubling degenerative disease that afflicts his family, and his advocacy of climate science. Email the show at or tweet @NPRItsBeenAMin with your feedback. Follow Sam on Twitter @samsanders and producers Brent Baughman @brentbaughman and Anjuli Sastry @AnjuliSastry.

Bill Nye On Fame, Family, and How He Became The 'Science Guy'

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Hey, y'all. You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Sam Sanders, and it's time for a deep dive. Today's deep dive is with someone you might recognize.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Bill Nye, the Science Guy.

Bill Nye, the Science Guy.

SANDERS: Yep - Bill Nye the Science Guy. I don't know about you, but he was one of my favorite teachers growing up. Now there's a new documentary out all about him, and it tells us how the legend of Bill Nye came to be. It all began at a local TV station in Seattle, and it grew into this worldwide phenomenon. And since then, of course, Bill has kind of had a second career.

Now he has a show on Netflix called "Bill Nye Saves The World," and there's this new documentary, which is called "Bill Nye: Science Guy." It looks at how he spends his time now campaigning for climate science, but the film also examines Bill's fame and whether that's changed him. So here's Bill with me. He was in LA, and I was in D.C. Enjoy.


BILL NYE: Greetings.

SANDERS: Greetings. You sound just the way you sounded on TV when I was a kid watching you.

NYE: I hope that's OK.

SANDERS: That's great. I'm sure everyone tells you that, huh?

NYE: They don't always start with how I sound. But yeah, that's good.

SANDERS: Sorry - just because I can't see you, I can just hear you.

NYE: No, well, it's radio, the most visual medium.

SANDERS: That's right, that's right. How are you today, Mr. Nye?

NYE: Fabulous.

SANDERS: I do got to say, it is quite an honor to be able to talk with you. You were a big part of my childhood.

NYE: I love you, man.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

NYE: No, that's great.

SANDERS: So you are a scientist who is very comfortable in front of a camera, talking to the world. You're a very good communicator. Did you know early on that you were going to be a scientist that could be really good at talking to the world?

NYE: No. I loved science, and I became, you know, a mechanical engineer, which, for those of you unfamiliar, means I took a lot of physics - a lot of classical physics. That's what engineering is. But it was after I was encouraged to enter the Steve Martin look-alike contest.

SANDERS: Stop it.

NYE: And I won. I mean, I won the Seattle one. I did not win the national one.

SANDERS: How many people were in the Seattle competition?

NYE: Forty, according to me.

SANDERS: I'm Googling now. Y'all do look alike.

NYE: Well, I just really admired his style and his irony.

SANDERS: Nice. Nice. Nice.

NYE: After that, I started doing stand-up comedy. People wanted me to be Steve Martin at a party or what have you. But then you want to do your own hilarious comedy science gags, and so I tried that for a while. I opened for a lot of people that you may have heard of when they were on the circuit, like Jerry Seinfeld, for example.

SANDERS: You opened for Jerry Seinfeld.

NYE: Well, but this is in Seattle in a very small comedy club, which is still very popular.

SANDERS: But you still opened for Jerry Seinfeld. That's pretty awesome.

NYE: Well, I met him. You know, or he met me, yeah.


NYE: No, and...

SANDERS: Were you good at stand-up?

NYE: No, I was mediocre, but I liked it. I liked being onstage, and telling jokes, and trying to understand what made people laugh and try to make them laugh. It was really cool and, of course, very gratifying when you are entertaining people.

SANDERS: So how do you end up from fair-to-middling stand-up comic to "Bill Nye The Science Guy"? What takes you there?

NYE: Well, first of all, a guy in Seattle who is the program director at KING-TV said, I want to have a comedy show. And it's enough of a backwater where a guy could just do that - local programming, you could just decide to do that. So he hired Ross Shafer, who, if you study game shows, you may remember him. He was the host of a show called "Love Me, Love Me Not." And so Ross - we were in the writers' meeting. He says, why don't you be Bill Nye the Science Guy or something?

SANDERS: But he just gave you that name.

NYE: He was just thinking out loud. And I thought, oh, that's a good idea. So by the end of the week, I come up with the idea for the household uses of liquid nitrogen.


NYE: Classic science demonstration - you freeze things and smash them - great television.


NYE: And it was funny. So then after that, you know, there was an expectation to do a Science Guy demonstration every three weeks or so.

SANDERS: But, like, a funny Science Guy demonstration.

NYE: Yeah. And that was OK, and then I wanted to have my own show. And so I had done a couple videos with some people who became good friends - Jim McKenna and Erren Gottlieb. And then that was very popular. It took about four years to convince anybody to give money to do a show about science, and we did. And their pitch was, "Mr. Wizard" meets "Pee-Wee's Playhouse." And these would be older references for some of you, but...

SANDERS: I get it.

NYE: That was the four-word pitch. The first one was 26 shows for syndication, and then we did 39. Then eventually, you have 65 shows, and you can strip it, as the saying goes. It can be on five days a week. And that's when PBS picked it up. So the reach is still huge, and it's - it is millions.


NYE: It's tens of millions of kids, of people.

SANDERS: You know, when I think back to that show, you were teaching kids about science.

NYE: Still am, peoples.

SANDERS: Now you're in a phase where you're kind of on a different mission. You know, thinking about Netflix, "Bill Nye Saves The World" - it's - you're trying to save the world. This seems different in scope. You are on a mission to educate the world about climate change. Do you see this as a different phase of your career, a different objective?

NYE: Yeah, yeah, I mean, now I'm talking to grown-ups. I mean, there's not...


NYE: On the kids' show, first of all, we did fundamental science.



NYE: (As Bill Nye the Science Guy) The pull of gravity isn't so strong that we can't raise our arms or anything, but it does pull on everything all the time. So if we're standing on the Earth's surface, it pulls us down towards the center of the Earth.

We didn't do ethics or whatever you might call it.


PAT CASHMAN: (As Announcer) What's the matter, Bill?

NYE: (As Bill Nye the Science Guy) Everything. Everything is matter, except energy, of course.

Also, the key idea - a key idea, everybody, if you're a science educator, is what I call the DIV - the discipline in vocabulary. When you're talking to fourth-graders, you have to not use words that a fourth-grader would not be - have been exposed to.

SANDERS: That's true.

NYE: How do you feel about millennia?

SANDERS: Too much.

NYE: Yeah, yeah, that's...

SANDERS: Thousands of thousands of years or a very long time.

NYE: A very long time, yeah - along that line, also, you must not - I strongly encourage people to refrain from talking down to the listener or the viewer. Talk to kids just as you would to another grown-up. And this - people responded to it. So on the new show, on "Saves The World," we just have more complex topics that have, let's say, not a clear-cut scientific answer. We want to give you something to think about.

SANDERS: Yeah. A lot of people hear the name Bill Nye, they think of the show, and they wonder, where have you been all these years? You've been busy, but less visible than during that time.

NYE: Yes.

SANDERS: So for those that haven't been keeping up, where you been, Bill?

NYE: Well, after we did this, we - after I - my colleagues and I did "The Science Guy" show - we did a hundred episodes. I did other things on the Discovery Channel. I did another show called "The Eyes Of Nye." There's a couple episodes of that that are still very popular. Then I did the "100 Greatest Discoveries," the 100 "Greatest Inventions." I did "Stuff Happens" on Planet Green. And so I did a whole bunch of shows that were not watched. They were on higher channel numbers on the cable system. But now I got the Netflix show, man.

SANDERS: Look at you.

NYE: "Bill Nye Saves The World" - we're back at it. Yeah, and I...

SANDERS: Big time.

NYE: It really is big-time. I mean, we have - I'll just - I'm estimating that we have - what? - eight times the budget per episode that "The Science Guy" show had.

SANDERS: Really?

NYE: Yeah. So we're - it's just cool. We fly people in from Australia just to be on the air for three or four minutes and...


NYE: So it's cool. I did not expect, at this point in my life, to have my career, you know, be blowing up.

SANDERS: Yeah. I want to talk a bit about the topic of this documentary that is making the festival circuit right now. It's "Bill Nye: Science Guy." What made you want to do this at this time?

NYE: Well, so my understanding - everybody understand - for me, I signed a contract. I had no creative control over this documentary film about me. These guys followed me around - and one woman - followed me around for two years. And then after the recent presidential election, they re-edited the whole film, changed everything and emphasized my conflict with - a little bit with this guy Marc Morano.

SANDERS: And there's also Ken Ham.

NYE: And well, Ken Ham is a climate-change denier, contrarian. And that's - as I told him on camera, that's the worst thing he does. I mean, he - trying to teach kids that the earth is 6,000 years old is bad, but insisting that everybody believe that the earth is not warming is really dangerous and bad, and it's mendacious. It's lying to people.


NYE: The fundamental thing we disagree on, Mr. Ham, is this nature of what you can prove to yourself. When people make assumptions, they're making assumptions based on previous experience. They're not coming out of whole cloth. I encourage you to explain to us why we should accept your word for it, that natural law changed just 4,000 years ago completely, and there's no record of it.

KEN HAM: Natural law hasn't changed. As I talked about, you know, we - I said we have the laws of logic, the uniformity of nature, and that only makes sense within a biblical worldview anyway, of a creator God who set up those laws. And that's why we can do good experimental science because we assume those laws are true and they'll be true tomorrow.

SANDERS: So people like Ken Ham - he is very deliberately arguing against science. He's a creationist. He built that Noah's Ark theme park. Like, you know exactly who he is, and it's very likely that he's not going to change his mind. Why even debate him?

NYE: Oh, no, he's not going to change.

SANDERS: So then why debate him?

NYE: Oh, because - oh, yeah, so as I tell everybody, my audience was not in the auditorium in Petersburg, Ky. My audience is on the internet, online.

SANDERS: Totally.

NYE: So there's been six - almost 6 1/2 million views of that two-hour debate. And I believe I exposed Ken Ham for the anti-science guy that he is.

SANDERS: Do you think that you won that debate?

NYE: Well, I would say, the internet thinks - by the Internet, I mean people who took the time to chime in on Twitter and Facebook comments believe I won the debate, yeah.

SANDERS: I guess why I ask is because, you know, after that debate and the publicity it caused, he got a bunch of money. He got a lot of donations. Like, is, in some way, your debate with these people that will never have their minds changed on these issues of climate science - are you just magnifying their message, which could have a negative effect?

NYE: Well, this is the question. I - my claim is that eventually, it will catch up with him because I or people have exposed his activities as flawed. And the people that I'm concerned with are the kids who are being raised with this lack of understanding of science - complete misunderstanding of the scientific method.


UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: How did God create us?

HAM: How did God create us? The Bible says he spoke, and it happened because he is all-powerful, because he's the infinite creator, God.

NYE: So young woman, I would say to you that there's a process that humans have developed over millennia by which we know nature, and we call that science. The big thing in science is questioning things.

HAM: So are you telling this little girl that she is just an animal?

NYE: The word just, I disagree with. She's a wonderful, beautiful animal.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I believe with Ken.

NYE: Say again.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I believe with Mr. Ham.

NYE: OK, so as you get older, just look at the world. I really encourage you to go to college.

SANDERS: Then if it's the kids, would you, like - would it be a better use of your time to not argue with that man but to reboot "Bill Nye The Science Guy" for those kids?

NYE: Well, this is - we did a "Science Guy" show about evolution, and it's ok, it's ok. I would - I think this has raised a lot of awareness of the importance of evolution in the way that the single episode of the kids' show - "Science Guy" show - did not.


NYE: Evolution is the most important idea - the fundamental idea in all of biology and all of life science. Without evolution, as the saying goes, biology makes no sense. And so this is a very important idea for everybody to understand.


SANDERS: All right, it's time for a quick break. We'll be back soon with the one and only Bill Nye the Science Guy. He's talking about his career, and fame and this new documentary that talks all about his life. BRB.


SANDERS: I want to step back a little bit and, you know, talk about the arc of your career - you know, watching this documentary. You run the organization that Carl Sagan used to run. You hang out with Neil deGrasse Tyson and drink wine with him. You're probably one of the most popular and most recognizable and famous scientists in the world.

NYE: Wow.

SANDERS: Do you like that? Do you like being famous?

NYE: Yeah, what I want to be is influential.


NYE: Yeah, and when people embrace science and people who watched the show - the "Science Guy" show - become captains of industry and make sweeping changes so that we electrify ground transportation, provide clean water, renewable electricity and access to the Internet to everyone on earth, then I will sit on the porch in my rocking chair and think deep thoughts.

SANDERS: Sit on the porch in your rocking chair, think deep thoughts, but you won't miss the camera? You won't - I mean, like, you won't miss the lights?

NYE: I guess. I love being on the TV, you guys. I mean, I like it.

SANDERS: (Laughter) OK. That's what I'm asking.

NYE: Yeah, yeah, I mean, you....

SANDERS: What do you like about it?

NYE: I - you may have met actors who like acting.

SANDERS: There's that, yeah.

NYE: Well, what is it that drives humans - is storytelling. We all love to tell - I mean, many of us love to listen to stories. Many of us like to tell stories, and it fascinates me. I'm trying to influence people. I want to get people excited about the opportunities we have to make the world better, to leave the world better than we found it. When you're in love, you want to tell the world, people.

SANDERS: So the reason I ask about fame, Bill, is, there's this scene in the documentary where you're talking with this doctor, Heather Berlin, and she's been actually monitoring your brain for years to keep an eye out for this genetic disease that you don't have. But you kind of say to her in this conversation that you regret not ever having a family, and you say that happened because you were doing this whole TV thing.

NYE: Yeah, yeah, I was caught up, for sure, in making the show.

SANDERS: Do you regret that?

NYE: A little bit, yeah, but, you know, you can't go back - second law of thermodynamics. Time - the arrow of time only goes one way. Yeah, so I do regret that, but you got to get over it. So here's...

SANDERS: How do you get over it?

NYE: Well, you got to move on. So Dr. Berlin was talking about in other parts of the interview - but I guess it went on for quite a while. They have done studies where they take an MRI of your brain, then you go into talk therapy for a couple years. You talk to your shrink every week for a few years, and they do another magnetic resonance image, and your brain has changed.

So I have MRIs of my brain from the 1990s, and she wants to compare those to my brain now. And my hypothesis is, having been interrupted in mid-sentence for decades - now people want a selfie - it has changed my brain. I would - I'd be surprised if it's not changed.

SANDERS: For better or for worse?

NYE: You tell me.

SANDERS: I mean, but you know how you feel. Do you - like, do you think the last 20, 30 years of fame have been good for you or...

NYE: Oh, yeah, it's been cool. Come on.

SANDERS: But I'm saying, like, on your soul.

NYE: Well, I - as I say, I think it does shorten your life a little.


NYE: Yeah.

SANDERS: How much?

NYE: ...Maybe not as much as smoking, but a little bit.

SANDERS: So then do you have some regrets about fame?

NYE: Yeah, yeah. But if I had to do it again, this is pretty much what I'd be doing.

SANDERS: I want to talk about another emotional scene from the documentary. You talk about members of your family having a disorder called ataxia. And so your dad had it. Your sister has it. And what does it do to the body?

NYE: Well, you walk like you're drunk. You lose your balance, and also motor skills - your fine motor skills are deeply affected. Like, threading a needle is very difficult, and people have trouble keeping a single image. You get double images. People wear prism-style glasses. So it's a...

SANDERS: And you don't have it.

NYE: Apparently not.

SANDERS: So in the documentary, you kind of allude to having a sort of survivor's guilt.

NYE: Absolutely.

SANDERS: ...That you don't have this disorder, and your family does. Does your family's experience with ataxia - has it affected the way that you view science?

NYE: Well, if anything, I believe in it all the more. This is not something you can will away, but you can compensate for it with science and technology. So my sister wears this odd vest with these weights in it. You actually add weight to yourself, and it improves your balance, and the reason for it is not entirely clear. And you can do exercises to, it is presumed, manage the conditions, but why those work is not fully understood.

Do you really develop new neural pathways - secondary neural pathways? Is it just in your brain or is it in your central nervous system, your spinal cord? And these sort of things are of great interest to us and great interest to a small number of researchers. And a group of them is at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore at Johns Hopkins. So it's all fascinating.

SANDERS: It is fascinating.

NYE: But I was given the impression by two separate physicians when I was in my 20s - which is some time ago, everybody - that the more active you were, the more different things you did, the less likely you were to suffer from this ataxia. So I became very active - running, bicycling, Ultimate Frisbee, throwing balls around, juggling. And it may have had absolutely nothing to do with it.

It's just - you just want to be empowered. You want to feel like you're doing something. But this condition made my dad very stubborn, and this is before ADA ramps, and services, and parking spaces and so on. So he - the way these people deal with it - they say, well, I was just careless. I dropped this, I fell down the stairs because I was careless.

SANDERS: But it's actually something.

NYE: It's actually this thing in your - the back of your brain, the base of your brain, your cerebellum. And so this caused conflict between my mother and father, and this affects you - this - as the twig is bent.

SANDERS: That's right. That's right. So how long are you on this climate change mission? Is this the thing that takes you out of here? Will you be on this ship for the duration?

NYE: You mean till I die?

SANDERS: Well, I don't want to say that word.

NYE: Well, that that's a feature, apparently, of being a living thing.

SANDERS: Is that?

NYE: So - an important feature, by the way.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah. But, like, will this climate change mission take you to the grave?

NYE: Unless people turn it around - then I'll go off on doing something else. And the thing that I think about are - the feature of history I think about continually is my parents were both in World War II. And during World War II, everybody was talking about World War II. That's all they were talking about. The music was about World War II. The style of cars, then what you did with your disposable income, the rationing - everything was about winning the war. If we decided to do something about climate change akin to that, we'd be gettin' 'er done. We'd get 'er done.


TYLER, THE CREATOR: (Chanting) Bill, Bill, Bill.

SANDERS: Bill Nye the Science Guy, thank you.

NYE: Thank you.


TYLER, THE CREATOR: (Chanting) Bill, Bill, Bill, Bill, Bill, Bill, Bill, Bill.

SANDERS: "Bill Nye: Science Guy" - that's the new documentary out on the scientist/celebrity himself. And this song you're hearing is actually a new version of the Bill Nye theme courtesy of Tyler, the Creator. It's for Bill's Netflix show "Bill Nye Saves The World."


SANDERS: All right, guys, back in your feed on Thanksgiving Day - we're going to have a special Thanksgiving-themed episode because Thanksgiving's my favorite holiday - like, seriously, favorite holiday. For that show, I'm going to call a few listeners up and ask them to share their Thanksgiving horror stories, and we'll also have two very special guests, so stay tuned. That is a wrap for today. I'm Sam Sanders. Talk soon.


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