IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The Science Guy’s latest experiment

The Washington Post: Bill Nye, keeper of the Science Guy persona, pays tribute to history's top scientists in a new TV series called "100 Greatest Discoveries."
Bill Nye ("the Science Guy") is framed by a display showing a DNA sequence at the Marian Koshland Science Museum of the National Academy of Sciences.
Bill Nye ("the Science Guy") is framed by a display showing a DNA sequence at the Marian Koshland Science Museum of the National Academy of Sciences.Michael Williamson / The Washington Post
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Bill  Nye, science guy, indeed the Science Guy, sits in a coffee shop in downtown Washington, talking about science. He's still thin, still wearing the starched shirt and the bow tie and the droopy jacket that looks vaguely like a lab coat. When you're the Science Guy, you're always the Science Guy — it's a lifetime role. You can't be the Science Guy during the week and a horoscope-reading New Age astral-projecting past-life-recaller on the weekend.

"I'm always on," he says. "And that is the 'blurse.' The blessing and the curse of being Bill Nye."

Nearly 20 years after he invented the Science Guy persona on public radio in Seattle, and then moved it to PBS — becoming perhaps the most recognizable populizer of science — he's back on TV. Starting Wednesday on the Science Channel, one of Discovery Communications' niche networks, he's hosting an eight-part series called "100 Greatest Discoveries." What's intriguing about the Top 100 is that most are probably completely unknown to the average American — or even to those of us who think we're pretty savvy about science.

Who remembers Humphry Davy?  Gustav Kirchhoff and Robert Bunsen? Amedeo Avogadro? Sure, most of us know that George Beadle and Edward Tatum figured out that genes are responsible for the production of enzymes, and you'd have to be a moron not to know about Andrew Fire's and Craig Mello's discovery of RNA interference. But the achievements of Hans Krebs (conversion of sugars etc. into energy) and August Weismann (cell meiosis) and Jan Ingenhousz  (photosynthesis) and Bernard Brunhes (magnetic field reversal) are starting to feel a little bit obscure.

Does Bertram Boltwood ring a bell? Right! The radiometric decay guy.

Thanks for the science
Nye's list reminds us that humans are consumers of scientific advances, not eulogists of them. We use, but don't say thanks. Society is built on the labors of the forgotten. That's Nye's challenge, to bring these folks back into the cultural memory, to make us appreciate the origins of the things we use every day.

Nye looks out an arched window at the passing scene here in his hometown (Sidwell Friends, class of '73), all the morning-rush commuters, the pedestrians on cell phones, the grumbling cars, the ant-farm industriousness of a technological society.  At the root of it all, he figures, is science.

"We don't appreciate science enough. If I could be king of the forest" — Nye sings this last part in the voice of the Cowardly Lion from "The Wizard of Oz" — "we would be talking about science all day long, instead of Britney Spears's tattoo. Look out the window. Everything got there because of an understanding of science!"

Darkons and the deniers
Sometimes he hears people say that science is boring or abstruse, that something like the search for "dark matter" is not that interesting. That drives him crazy. He finds it all enthralling and wants to make that feeling contagious.

"What can be cooler than dark matter? Darkons! What could be more interesting than the universe? Like Carl Sagan said, if you're in love, you want to tell the world."

What really irks him are the science deniers, the people who think evolution should not be taught in schools, or should be framed as a mere hypothesis. He doesn't hesitate for an instant in naming evolution as the No. 1 discovery of all time. But a century and a half later, a lot of people still don't buy it.

No 'aha!' moments
Nye discovered something while talking to discoverers. Without fail, they reported that they never had an "aha!" moment. The breakthroughs are not accompanied by the sound of trumpets and crashing cymbals. Discoveries tend to dawn slowly — at first with a surprising result that surely can't be true, then a creeping suspicion that perhaps this is the real deal, and finally, after about three months, the wondrous confirmation, delivered by an outside party: You did it. Great job. This is new. And the discoverer thinks: I knew it was new! But I just didn't know for sure it was new.

"They don't believe it until someone else tells them," Nye says.

This is the great skill of scientists: They doubt everything, including their own discoveries. They know that the rest of the scientific world will be only too happy to grind the discovery to bits on the great stone wheel of the scientific method.

The burden of being Bill
Nye keeps a lot of names and facts in his protean brain at any given moment, but he's not a walking encyclopedia, quite. The conversation drifts into an informational quagmire on the matter of Einstein's Nobel Prize — he won for his 1905 paper on the photoelectric effect, but did he win later in life, as Nye suggests, for the 1905 theory of relativity? Nye wishes he could look up the answer on his cell phone, via the Internet, but he's not quite as fully wired as a science guy would be in an ideal universe.

One would think that it would be a rather high-pressure thing, being the Science Guy, always with the associated implications of infallibility, the expectations of precision, the requirements for remembering who the heck Gerhard Domagk was. Nye will sometimes preface a remark by saying, "My understanding is not complete." (Plate tectonics for 400, Alex: His mapping of the ocean floor revealed the spreading of oceanic crust at mid-ocean ridges. Who was Harry Hess? Got it!)

Being the Science Guy is a trademarked identity. Once in a while Nye's attorney has to fire off a threatening letter to would-be, fraudulent, phony, cheesy knockoff science guys. Nye's great contribution to the field is enthusiasm. He's not just an explainer, he's a demonstrator, a promoter, a cheerleader.

Teacher Guy and Inventor Guy
Every so often he swoops into Cornell University as a visiting professor, taking someone's lecture notes and delivering the lecture himself, working at times out of the office of one of his former professors, Sagan, who was probably the best science explainer of the last quarter-century, yet scorned by some colleagues for his obvious love of the camera.

Nye says that he is adopting an auxiliary persona: Bill Nye the Inventor Guy. He's the inventor of, among other things, something called the Fango. Across America, baseball coaches hit "fungoes" in practice, usually with a short, narrow bat, over and over, pounding ground balls to infielders and fly balls to outfielders. The Fango is a plastic ball-grabber that fits on the end of a bat and makes it possible to pluck a ball off the ground without bending over.

Okay, so maybe that's not as great an achievement as Anton van Leeuwenhoek stumbling upon the discovery of microorganisms in 1674, but then again, what did Leeuwenhoek ever do to improve baseball practice?