How Bill Nye Became a World-Famous Science Guy
William Sanford Nye is a scientist, engineer, educator, television presenter, comedian, author and inventor, best known as Bill Nye the Science Guy. His mission in life is to make science accessible to everyone, adults as well as kids, and to make learning science fun and entertaining.
He’s recognizable as the tall, lanky man who wears bowties and bears an uncanny resemblance to the actor and comedian Steve Martin. Nye started as a mechanical engineer and then had a brief career in comedy and comedy writing before reinventing himself as the Science Guy.
Nye is best known for his “Bill Nye the Science Guy” TV series for kids. In 2017, Nye launched a new Netflix series aimed at adults, which takes a scientific approach to everyday issues that affect our lives, such as climate change, aging and food.
Nye’s Early Life
Nye was born Nov. 27, 1955, in Washington, D.C., where he grew up. Both his parents were active in the military during World War II: his mother, Jacqueline Jenkins, worked as a code breaker, and his father, Edwin Darby Nye, served in the U.S. Navy and spent time in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps.
Edwin made sundials to tell time while he was a prisoner, which inspired Bill’s own fascination with sundials later. Nye attended the Sidwell Friends School, where he tutored fellow students in mathematics and discovered he had both a talent for, and enjoyed, teaching.
Nye Loves Bikes
When he wasn’t studying as a kid, Bill was out riding a bicycle or taking apart the bike to see how it worked. His fascination with bicycles and mechanical machines (including airplanes) led him to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering.
Bill still commutes to work on a bike.
His College Years
Nye went to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where he studied Mechanical Engineering, earning his Bachelor’s degree in 1977.
He Worked for Years as an Engineer
After graduating from Cornell, Nye was recruited by the Boeing Corporation in Seattle, Washington, to work on airplane design. He also worked for several engineering firms in the Seattle area, including Sundstrand Data Control (now Honeywell).
He Looks Like Steve Martin
Nye got his start as a comedian when he won a Steve Martin look-alike contest.
His Nickname Started on a Comedy Show
When he was based in Seattle, working for Boeing, Nye began doing stand-up comedy some nights after work. In 1986, he took a job as a comedy writer and performer on a local comedy program, “Almost Live,” (and quit Boeing) where he first appeared as Bill Nye the Science Guy.
He Has a Lot of Degrees
Nye holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Cornell University as well as honorary doctorates from six universities: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Goucher College, Johns Hopkins University, Quinnipiac University, Willamette University and Lehigh University.
His Series Has Won Many Awards
Nye has won seven Emmy Awards for writing, performing and producing his well-known “Bill Nye the Science Guy TV” show between 1992-1998. Overall, the show won 18 Emmys. The lab coat that Bill wore in the show is now on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
He’s Passionate About Science and Math Education
He believes strongly in teaching kids science, math and critical thinking. Nye aims to stop the spread of anti-scientific thinking; he thinks this starts in schools.
He Writes Science Books for Kids
Nye has written eight books for kids on science and the natural world, for kids up to middle school. His books cover topics including oceans, dinosaurs, germs and tropical rainforests. Nye’s “Jack and the Geniuses” series features three smart kids who use science and engineering to solve mysteries.
He’s a New York Times Best-Selling Author
Nye has written three science books for grown-ups, and they’ve all been New York Times best sellers. He wrote his first book for adults after having a debate with a creationist who believed the world was only 6,000 years old. The debate led to Nye writing “Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation” about the discoveries and principles behind the theory of evolution.
His next two books for adults were “Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World” and “Everything All At Once: How to Unleash Your Inner Nerd, Tap Into Radical Curiosity and Solve Any Problem.”
He’s an Activist for Science
In support of science activism, Nye was a co-chair of the inaugural March for Science in 2017, a series of rallies and marches held across the world that advocated for governments to mandate science-based policies in addressing climate change. More than 1 million people marched in over 600 cities. The March for Science has held more than 1,000 public demonstrations to date.
He Wants to Save the World
Nye’s newest series, launched on Netflix in 2017, is called “Bill Nye Saves the World.” The show is geared at adults, and highlights the scientific approaches to tackling climate change, as well as a host of other issues, from addiction to aging to food. In the series, Bill brings scientific experts and well-known guests into his lab to talk about the science of these issues.
He’s an Inventor
When he worked for Boeing as an engineer, Nye invented an aircraft part — a hydraulic resonance suppressor tube — that is still used on the 747. Nye holds patents on a more supportive pointe shoe for ballerinas, a collapsible convex lens that fills with water to form a magnifier, an abacus that does math like a computer using binary numbers and a device that makes it easier to pick up baseballs.
He’s Been Both a Fictional Teacher and a Real One
Nye was the Frank. H.T. Rhodes Visiting Professor at Cornell in real life. He also played a fictional science teacher on the TV crime drama “Numb3rs.”
He Loves Outer Space
Nye is currently CEO of the Planetary Society, the largest non-profit dedicated to space exploration in the world. The Society was co-founded by famed astronomer Carl Sagan in 1980 to advocate for space and planetary science funding, educate people and finance and develop new space technology and science.
Nye’s Space Inspiration Came From...
He took an astronomy class taught by Sagan (pictured), which inspired his life-long love of space.
He Worked on Sundials for Both Mars Rovers
He helped develop the MarsDials for the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. These are sundials that calibrate the cameras, determine the Sun’s position in the Martian sky, and are engraved with the message: “To those who visit here, we wish a safe journey and the joy of discovery.”
He’s the Subject of a Documentary Film
Nye was profiled in the film “Bill Nye: Science Guy,” which debuted at Austin, Texas’s South by Southwest Festival in 2017. The documentary also showed at HotDocs, the Los Angeles Film Festival and AFI Docs, before opening in theatres and airing on PBS later that year.
He’s Got an Eco-Geek Rivalry With Ed Begley, Jr.
Nye is involved in a friendly but competitive contest with his Studio City neighbor, actor and environmentalist Ed Begley, Jr., over which of them can produce the most energy and have the lowest carbon footprint in their homes.
Their weapons of choice are such things as solar roof panels, solar-boosted hot water systems, low-water use gardens, double-paned windows and underground cisterns.