Bill Nye smiled and waved to the row of people seated along the outside of Langford Auditorium at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University last week. Bow-tie wearers down and around the corner were hopping to their feet with excitement; you could sense they were almost willing to lose their spot in line to run to him. Without stopping to chat, Nye was ushered into the lobby where several dozen well-dress students were eagerly gathered to welcome him to the reception, a pre-event meet & greet for the Vanderbilt Speakers Committee members and a handful of contest winners. Nye confidently walked straight into the crowd, shaking hands, nodding his head with every introduction until he had gone to one end of the room and back.
You may have noticed there are a lot of selfies of The Science Guy on the Internet these days. That’s because he has somehow made it his “thing.” He’s often the one holding the phone — I’m guessing this is because the fans shake too much when they’re on a Nye-high. That, and he’s got arms that extend out like Inspector Gadget. Nye then reminds his fan to look at the camera lens, not the screen, and then he’ll hit the shutter three times, making sure to capture at least one Tweet-worthy pose. That’s the standard routine I observed for several selfie-cycles while monitoring from the front of the line that was naturally forming out from where he was standing. (The picture below is a rare exception to that routine.)
The advisor to the Speaker’s Committee, Bridgette Kohnhorst, and I stood there speculating that there would be no way Nye would have time to selfie his way through the swarm before his soundcheck. She then put a brief halt to the line and introduced me to the man himself. Although this was our second introduction of the hour, it was a more thorough one.
Back story: Nye and I have corresponded in the past, but he wasn’t familiar with my face. He uses my question card from the Nye/Ham debate in his presentations and refers to it often in interviews: “What, if anything, would ever change your mind?” (During the debate, Nye famously responded by saying “evidence.” Ham, on the other hand, said nothing would change his mind.)
As soon as the switch flipped on that I was the human behind that question, well, it was more warmth than I ever expected from him. After a series of hugs and maybe a bit of a confusing scene for the waiting students, The Science Guy pulled his own phone from his pocket and took a selfie with me. I was flattered, to say the least.
A little later, just before he went on stage, I had some time to chat with him one-on-one. Nye apologized for not immediately recognizing me earlier. I responded with a raised eyebrow, “Are you kidding? I don’t expect you to know my name.” He pulled out his phone and took one more selfie, which quickly made its way onto Twitter:
At one point, I asked him about a picture I had seen earlier that day online, of him on a bike posing with a newly-wedded couple. “No, That was a couple weeks ago. People recognize me no matter what. I’ll have a helmet and glasses on, riding my bike, and people still say, ‘Hey, it’s Bill Nye!'”
“BILL! BILL! BILL!” is the only acceptable audience reaction when Bill Nye is taking the stage. The energy was so intense I would have thought something was on fire if I had accidentally stumbled into the room. Leading up to the main event, every student I talked to attributed the Bill Nye The Science Guy show to their current enthusiasm for science — and often their major. This particular group of college students is very likely the demographic most impacted by Nye’s popular ’90s T.V. series. The show was raking in the Emmy Awards right about the time their generation was entering middle school, the show’s target audience. So here they were, taking all the excitement Nye gave them about the world and lovingly sharing it back. They soon simmered down and Nye launched into his beloved persona.
He’s a comedian through and through and has his timing laid out, if I may, to a science [cue groans]. The whole talk was a stand-up routine with a crisp message in favor of curiosity, innovation, space exploration, and renewable energy. He’d often invoke the body motions of a muppet to exaggerate a point and get a laugh, which I’m sure is all carefully orchestrated for optimal effect.
When the image on the screen flipped to Bill standing on the Creation Museum stage, the audience combined laughter with groaning. Bill prefaced his segment on the debate by informing the audience that this particular night was very special, that someone who played a very important part in the outcome of the debate was in the room, and not even he expected her to be there. My face felt like it was on fire, undoubtably a bright shade of red.
He flashed a slide of a Tennessee-plated minivan with “Bill Nye the Science Lie” written on its window before clicking over to a photo of my handwritten question card. After talking about the differences in responses between him and Ken Ham, he asked, “Tracey Moody, where are you?” I bashfully raised my hand. “Please stand up!” The auditorium light flipped on and I turned around clumsily and waved to about 1,200 cheering people… which is probably what Nye experiences every night on stage. I bet it’s exhilarating when it doesn’t completely catch your off-guard.
Although a lot of the lessons implanted throughout the slides are basic enough to have been learned in middle and high school, the point wasn’t to teach the audience individual facts. Rather, it was to show why we should care about them, and why we should remain in pursuit of knowledge. Time will tell, but it seems it’s an effective step for Nye to again reach out to the young people he once kneaded into budding scientists and further inspire their path as they leave college and enter the workforce. The sea levels are rising, asteroids may collide with our planet, our country is falling behind in innovation; these are all things we can work to change if only we recognize how little time we have to act on them. We must take the threats seriously. That message is what motivates Nye to be out there everyday, shaking hands, posing for pictures, making the interview rounds — he’s head cheerleader for Team Science. I have yet to hear of an encounter with the man that didn’t involve the word “science” or the phrase “Let’s change the world!” rolling off his tongue. His sincerity is undeniable, his persistence admirable. A standing ovation was in order, followed by the Q&A portion.
Many of the questions involved people wondering how they could do more to help. Nye’s responses were contingent on what the audience members wanted to do with their lives so that they could impact the world in their own way. There was an even more exuberant standing ovation for the finale, but this time Nye removed his iPhone from his pocket and scanned it across the thunderous audience for a video souvenir.
After the talk I headed back to the green room where a small group of us were meeting up before dinner. Bill was leaning with his back against a wall and his hands in his pockets. I walked up beside him and asked if I could take a picture of the Planetary Society pin on his blazer, which has become an iconic finial of his wardrobe — second to the bow-tie, of course. He said, “I’ll do you one better.” He unclasped the pin and brought it to my blouse, “May I?” My mouth was almost definitely hanging open as I responded, “Of course you may!”
We were all escorted out the back door into the mild night where we were supposed to get into a car and head to dinner. Since Nye’s car hadn’t arrived yet, that left all of us outside with nowhere to go. Not far away was a gathering crowd of fans, shouting praises in hopes that Bill Nye would approach. Unlike earlier in the evening, though, there was an urgency on Nye’s face that suggested we should go back inside the building. Fortunately, the car drove up to the corner and we all hastily hopped in. As we rode through the winding turns on campus, people were waving at the car, still hoping for one last glimpse.
I rather blatantly asked him why he seemed so anxious around the fans outside of the controlled area. He paused before saying, “It’s easy to make enemies.” He explained that it was hard to fulfill everyone’s expectations even if you tried, and if one person felt slighted because you couldn’t give them what they wanted, they would make you out to be a bad person and say bad things about you.
“So you try to stay away from them so you don’t risk one of them leaving with a bad impression?” I asked.
It helped make sense of how differently he behaved inside the building, where he was jovial and fatherly, spreading his attention around without hesitation. Outside, though, there were no limits, no cut-off to the line due to time constraints. It’s a vulnerability very few of us can relate to. It’s no fault of either side, I suppose. Nye is incredibly warm and receptive, which might understandably lead people to think there’s no harm in running around to his car to try to get their program signed. Isn’t that a perfectly reasonable expectation to have of someone you believe ranks a notch above human?
In Nye’s defense, he’s already very generous with his time. From what I hear, he never turns down people who manage to approach him in his personal time. He has segments of most days that are solely dedicated to being his public persona. Like all of us, though, he also craves some private time where he can let down his guard.
At the restaurant, I had the good fortune of sitting at the head of the table beside him. The menus arrived with his face printed on them, which he assured me wasn’t a typical occurrence. I also sat near a couple of the committee members who invited Nye to speak and learned that they had no idea the tickets would sell out so quickly (in 39 minutes, to be exact). Originally, the tickets were going to be offered to students, and the remaining seats would be filled the following week through open sales to the public. They never made it off campus. In the committee’s 50-year tradition of hosting influential speakers including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, and (fairly recently) Neil deGrasse Tyson, they said they never had an event sell out as quickly as this one.
What followed was a more intimate free-for-all of questions from the student leaders and faculty members who were in our group. Every response was infused with humor, anecdotes, and the token “Science Guy” tone-of-voice which would rise as if to signal the end of that particular explanation. It was delightful to see his comfort level peak with the smaller crowd, and he became even more relatable when the occasional curse word cropped up in his vocabulary. The conversation inevitably turned to the Creation “Museum” debate, which prompted Bill to say, “The thing about their museum is it doesn’t have any artifacts.” He recalled his tour of the facility and explained the various animatronics: comical but alarming. I asked, “Have you been challenged to any other debates since?” to which he responded, “Ken Ham asked me to debate again, only this time he wanted to call it… what was the first called? ‘Is Creationism a Viable Model of Origins?’ He wanted to call the next debate ‘Is Evolution a Viable Model of Origins?'” Bill made it clear to the table that he didn’t even entertain the offer this time around.
Somehow, while constantly talking (and breathing), Nye finished off a four-course meal with ease. It’s like he’s been forced to adapt to getting nourishment while entertaining. I also wondered how someone who knows so much about virtually every science-leaning topic finds time to plug in to the constant stream of new information when he’s busy being the stream for so many others. (I’m not ruling out the possibility that he’s a cyborg.)
After the dessert plates were collected, and as people were rising to their feet, Bill rolled out one last fun fact about the Science Guy show. If you were ever a fan of the series, you’ll know that each episode ended with a science-themed parody of an actual pop song. For a particular episode, the writers wanted to change the lyrics of “My Sharona” to “Bright Corona,” but they were unable to reach The Knack to gain permission.
When we stepped out into the night, the moon was so bright it pulled my eyes up to the sky. I remembered there was an impending lunar eclipse that I had planned on waking up early for. Well, I didn’t have to wake up early, because my brain was too excited to let me sleep. I drove to a hilltop a good distance outside of the city, relocated my Planetary Society pin to my jacket, put Debussy on the stereo, and lay on the hood of my car. There was light overcast, but sticking with the theme of my night, it parted just in time for me to catch the show.