He's Bill Nye, the climate-change guy


For a while, Bill Nye was just a goofy guy wih goofy bow ties. He still has lots of the ties (about 500 of them) and still likes humor. But now, at 62, he's in the middle of dead-serious debates about climate change and more. Nye will be profiled in an interesting PBS documentary movie at 10 p.m. Wednesday; here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Bill Nye has taught
kids many skills, including blowing things up and throwing things
down.

But the most
important lesson comes from his own journey: In college, pay
attention to electives.

Nye had a fine major
(mechanical engineering), from a fine school (Cornell), leading to
the start of what could have been a fine career. He even had an
invention at Boeing; he might have been known as Bill Nye, The
Hydraulic Resonance Suppressor Tube Guy.

Instead, he became a
TV personality, first for kids and then -- as shown in a PBS
documentary movie Wednesday -- for grown-ups in hot-button
environmental issues. He's Bill Nye, the Science Guy ... and for
that, he credits an elective course taught by former PBS host Carl
Sagan.

“The guy utterly
changed my life,” Nye said. “I had finished all my engineering
requirements, so I thought, 'Oh, I'll take astronomy.'”

Nye went on to
Boeing in Seattle, but there were other tugs. One was the science
passion Sagan ignited; the other was winning a Steve
Martin-impressions contest and moonlighting in comedy clubs.

He began doing goofy
science experiments on a TV comedy show in Seattle. Then – in 1987,
when he was thinking about doing a science series -- came a brief
chat with Sagan.

“I met him at my
tenth college reunion,” Nye said. “I got a meeting with him for
five minutes. He said, 'When you do this show, focus on pure science.
Don't focus on technology.'

“You know, I'm an
engineer. I'm all about technology. And that really was hugely
important.”

Five years later,
“Bill Nye, the Science Guy” debuted. Produced by Seattle's PBS
station, it had a double life for five years, running of PBS and
commercial stations.

“His show made
science everyone's favorite subject,” said Justine Nagan, whose
“POV” series is showing the Nye film. “His blue lab coat and
bow tie became iconic.”

Both are in the
Smithsonian museum. The series – ranging from a vinegar and baking
soda explosion to hurling things down from a rooftop -- won 19
Daytime Emmys, two for best children's series.

It also may have
stirred young minds. “I grew up thinking the world was about 10,000
years old,” said David Alvarado, co-director of the PBS film.
“Watching Bill on TV was ... like getting out of that community and
thinking about the world in a different way.”

The notion, Nye
insists, is to stick with things that can be questioned and proven
scientifically. Now he spends much of his time – with speeches, two
books and a Netflix series – railing against what he calls
“anti-science” views about climate change and more.

The filmmakers
showed the adulation Nye gets on campuses, but also showed his
troubles. “They get what they want,” Nye said wryly. “They get
Steve Wilson saying that one thing, dear friend of mine.”

What Wilson said
was: “Bill has always wanted to be famous, from the get-go.”

This is a guy who
has kept finding the spotlight – from “Hollywood Squares” to
“Dancing With the Stars” to some poorly chosen battlegrounds.
After his much-publicized debate at a creationism museum, fundraising
soared for construction of a giant Noah's ark. “Kentucky tax
dollars are paying for buses to take kids to that thing,” Nye
grumbles.

The film shows
things out of his control – a “survivor's guilt” for escaping
the ataxia that struck his dad and siblings – and within it. It
shows Heather Berlin, a neuroscientist, digging into his life alone.

“In the middle of
the film, Dr. Berlin (is) grilling me about women and girlfriends
.... I kind of want to kill myself,” Nye said.

Viewers get the
impression he's never married, which is technically true. Seven weeks
after he married Blair Tindall (an oboist whose book is the basis for
the “Mozart In the Jungle” series), the license was declared
invalid; he got an annulment and, later, a restraining order.

His life has been
crowded. He may have overachieved that wish for fame. “Walking with
Bill through New York City is ... like Beatlemania sometimes,”
Alvarado said. “I imagine it takes a toll.”

-- “Bill Nye,
Science Guy,” 10-11:30 p.m. Wednesday, in PBS' “POV” series

-- Part of the PBS
preview of Earth Day, Sunday. “Nova” looks at science and the
weather, from 8-10 p.m. Wednesday; also, the animated “Cyberchase”
has eco-episodes all week.

-- “Bill Nye Saves
the World,” currently on Netflix

-- Previous shows
often appear on-air or in classrooms

-- Two books,
“Undeniable” (2014) and “Unstoppable” (2015), from St.
Martin's Press