How Steve Martin, Carl Sagan, and the Ford Pinto gave us Bill Nye
The 'science guy' tells Tom Power about his unlikely origins and taking The End is Nye on tour
If you're a millennial who works in science, there's a strong chance that at some point in your childhood, you watched a lot of Bill Nye. His TV show Bill Nye the Science Guy aired on PBS in the United States from 1993 through 1998, and was syndicated around the world. It helped make concepts like buoyancy and the properties of light feel accessible to young audiences.
But there's a very strong chance that without the influence of two people — Steve Martin and Carl Sagan — and two terrible automobiles, Bill Nye as we know him wouldn't exist.
Back in the late 1970s, Nye was a young engineer working at Boeing in Seattle, doing some pretty important things in the world of airplane engineering.
"If you're ever on a 747, there's a hydraulic tube that I kind of think of as my tube," he told Q's Tom Power in an interview.
But things changed in 1978, when he won a Seattle-area Steve Martin look-alike contest, which eventually led him to standup comedy. For several years, Nye was designing airplane parts during the day, then hitting Seattle's comedy clubs at night.
"I really like mechanical engineering," he said. "But after you get laughs in front of an audience, you really like that, too."
But something else happened in the 1970s that would influence Nye's career, too: Detroit automakers started trying to make subcompact cars, and doing a terrible, terrible job of it. The Ford Pinto became famous for having a fuel tank that poked out slightly from underneath the car, causing some Pintos to explode when they were rear ended. The Chevrolet Vega was less catastrophically bad, but it still wasn't good. In 1972, they were recalled three separate times. The fact that the United States, the country where automotive mass production was invented, was making such abjectly awful cars made Nye question the state of science and engineering education in the country.
"I was concerned that the United States was, to use a generation-old expression, phoning it in," he says. "Assuming everything would go well without putting in the time, effort and energy to make it go well.… You can't have a society that's increasingly dependent on all this remarkable technology … without a substantial fraction of that society who understands it at some level."
He started imagining a TV show that would get kids excited about science. While at a college reunion, he workshopped the idea with his former professor, and arguably American television's first celebrity scientist, Carl Sagan. The astronomer, who was the host of the original series Planet Earth on PBS, told Nye to make the show about pure science, not engineering.
"He said, 'Kids resonate to pure science,'" said Nye. "At that time, his kids, Sasha and Sam Sagan, were young enough to be watching The Science Show. I think this influenced him, but I took his words to heart."
In the past decade, as kids who grew up watching him have reached adulthood and had kids of their own — and as a wave of science denialism has popped up on social media — Nye has had a second moment fighting disinformation.
"What has happened with social media is people are now able to get access to all information and everybody's voice is about [equally] as loud," he says. "The quality of information from authorities has been undermined."
In addition to an active social presence, Nye has also returned to the small screen. In 2017, he released a limited Netflix series aimed at adults called Bill Nye Saves the World. In 2021, he worked with Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane to create another series, The End is Nye, where he explored the science of surviving natural disasters. The show was released on Peacock last year. Now, he's taking his act to the stage on The End is Nye tour, where he's breaking down things like global warming, natural disasters, and making a better world through science.
In spite of the apocalyptic title of The End is Nye, Nye says he ultimately remains an optimist. Yes, the world is faced with enormous, complex problems right now, but if there's one thing that can save us, it's science.
"Just today, the IPCC Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, issued yet another report saying, again, 'it's desperate, we've got to do something now or it's going to suck,'" he said. But despite the very real dangers we face, Nye believes we need to master our fears and find optimism.
"You have to be optimistic" said Nye. "If you're not optimistic, you're not going to get anything done. If you go into a hockey game thinking you're going to lose, you will lose. I mean, that's just how it is."
The full interview with Bill Nye is available on our podcast, Q with Tom Power. Listen and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
Interview with Bill Nye produced by Mitch Pollock.