In the spring of 1993, Is Bill Nye, the scientist, really a scientist? a 30-minute program called Bill Nye, the learned man first aired on KCTS-TV, the Seattle-based PBS affiliate.
Within months, the show was syndicated nationally, and what followed was life-changing for the show’s titular host: six seasons, 100 episodes and a substantial endorsement from the National Science Foundation and the US Department of Energy.
Bill Nye suddenly became famous – broadcasting into the homes and schools of millions of children to explain science in fun terms they understood. His program won 19 Emmy Awards, spawned a video game and made him a household name in television science programs for decades to come.
But is Bill Nye a scientist? Or, as his classic PBS show suggests, is he just a “scholar?”
Young Bill Nye
Nye was born in Washington, D.C. in 1955 to parents with incredible World War II military stories.
His mother, Jacqueline Jenkins, was a code breaker in the Navy. His father, Edwin Nyewas an airstrip contractor who spent four years in a Japanese POW camp.
The Education of Bill Nye
Fascinated just the way things worked out, Nye later attended Cornell University’s School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering – graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1977. He even took a course in astronomy taught by Carl Sagan.
After college, Nye was hired by Boeing and moved to the Seattle area. There he invented a hydraulic tube to suppress resonance for the horizontal stabilizer propulsion system of the 747. He also took to the skies, albeit unsuccessfully; he applied four times to the NASA astronaut program.
Read more: 4 things we have thanks to Carl Sagan
When did Bill Nye the Scientist start?
Nye’s path to television actually began with stand-up comedy, which he began doing after winning a Steve Martin look-alike contest in 1978. After splitting his days and nights between engineering and comedy for several years, Nye finally quit his job at Boeing to pursue comedy full-time in 1986.
He soon befriended comedians Ross Shaffer and John Keister, both of whom were starring in a new half-hour sketch show on KING-TV called Almost live. Nye became a writer and cast member for the show, where he worked until 1991.
It’s worth noting that he was also a volunteer “science explainer” in Seattle Pacific Science Center during this time.
It was on Almost Live that his “scholarly man” persona first graced the airwaves, with Nye making a classic science demonstrations while wearing a lab coat and safety glasses. Audiences loved it — and it even won an Emmy from the Seattle chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
What did Bill Nye do?
Although new episodes of the beloved PBS show ceased airing in 1999, Nye has been very busy as an ambassador for science education.
He has written eight children’s books for elementary and middle school students, as well as three books for general audiences. He also publicly debated creationist Ken Hamm in 2014 in a widely publicized discussion of evolution versus creationism.
On the air Nye presented a season of Nye’s eyes (a more science-based program for adults) on KCTS in 2005 and three seasons of Bill Nye Saves the World on Netflix from 2016 to 2018. His most recent program, Peacock’s The end is Naifocuses on man-made and natural disasters that could destroy civilization and how they can be mitigated.
But even when the camera lens is missing, Nye stays busy.
Bill Nye, the scientist
Nye helped develop the MarsDial — a sundial that was included in the Opportunity and Spirit Mars rovers. He was also vice president of planetary societythe world’s largest space interest group, from 2005 to 2010 and is currently its CEO.
As for other organizations, Nye is a member of Skeptical Inquiry Committeea non-profit organization that promotes scientific research and critical inquiry into claims, and a member of the advisory board of National Center for Science Education.
Furthermore, Bill Nye holds patents as an inventorincluding an improved ballerina shoe, a device for easily picking up a baseball, a water-based magnifying glass, and a digital abacus that does math with only binary numbers.
Read more: 5 inventions that were discovered by accident
So is Bill Nye a real scientist?
While Nye is absolutely an engineer, the Science Board defines a scientist as “someone who systematically collects and uses research and evidence to make hypotheses and test them in order to gain and share understanding and knowledge.”
A systematic approach
The council says they can be further defined by how they get their information (ie, statisticians or data scientists), what they’re trying to understand (ie, an astronomer seeking to understand the stars), or where they apply their science (ie a food scientist working in the food industry).
But all scientists, the Scientific Council concluded, were united by “relentless curiosity and a systematic approach to its appeasement”.
While Nye may have spent more time on television than in a formal laboratory setting, it would be hard to deny his legitimacy as a scientist—especially when you consider all he accomplished and the profound influence he had on a generation by younger scientists.
Read more: The 10 Greatest Scientists of All Time