Science is cool in Bill Nye's hands

Times Staff Writer

Any parent who has escorted a child to a "mad scientist"-themed birthday party knows the same thing I learned when struggling to find a copy of "Bill Nye the Science Guy" video at three libraries: Science rules!

It seems that Nye has elevated science to the "recent releases" category.

"I thought scientists were supposed to be old," my 5-year-old daughter says when we finally find one of his videos that isn't already checked out. Clearly, she's impressed with Nye.

Perhaps it's because the lanky, Latin-spewing host of the long-running series, currently carried on the Noggin cable channel, is not just passionate about science, he's also cool. Cool being a definite plus for younger, not to mention tougher, audiences. In creating videos and writing books, Nye, 47, is able to explain complex scientific situations using easily understood scientific facts, kid-speak ("Way cool!" "Dino-mite!") and comedy.

"We never talk down to the viewer," Nye said recently from Phoenix, where he was shooting an episode for the upcoming adult-oriented PBS series "The Eyes of Nye." "We always treat the viewer with great respect."

Nye recently released the book "Bill Nye the Science Guy's Great Big Dinosaur Dig," will have a DVD with 20 episodes of his show available online through Disney Educational on March 15 and will hold a family science workshop on Saturday at the Museum of Television & Radio in Beverly Hills.

Question: How did "Bill Nye the Science Guy" evolve?

Answer: I was working as an engineer during the day and doing stand-up comedy at night. Then I quit my job to write for a local comedy show in Seattle. I did a couple bits on the comedy show and they were successful.... It took me from 1987 to 1992 to get the show on the air. There was a confluence of events. A key factor was people were very critical of children's television at the time. So my co-workers and I produced this pilot using Department of Energy and National Science Foundation funds at this one moment in history where somebody would take an interest in it. The Disney Channel carried it in syndication for two years and then PBS. We did a total of 100 shows over five years.

Q: Are kids scared of science?

A: In my opinion, kids who are scared of science have parents who are scared of science. You just have to let them do it. Go for it. You have to get it when you're a kid.

Q: Your bio lists you as a licensed mechanical engineer. Children view you as a scientist. How do you see yourself? As an educator? An entertainer?

A: I see myself as an educator. And it's entertaining. If it's not entertaining, nobody's going to watch it.

Q: What do you hope kids take away from your books and videos?

A: An appreciation for the passion, beauty and joy of science. If they get some actual science out of it, that's fantastic. If they could just get hold of the astonishing amount of time that's passed -- 65 million years -- since the ancient dinosaurs became extinct, that would be fantastic. It's difficult to understand. It's overwhelming.

Q: Your upcoming PBS series, "The Eyes of Nye," is geared toward adults. Are you planning on teaching adults differently than you teach kids?

A: Yes. We're taking on nominally more complex issues. Global climate change, traffic, urban development, search for cures, which is basically about the trouble we're having with the resistance of bacteria to antibiotics. They are sophisticated topics which are aimed at people old enough to vote and pay taxes. We still aim to make it funny.

Q: What do you have planned for your workshop this weekend?

A: The thing I stand by in my books is that the demos -- the little experiments that you do at home -- actually work. It's very easy to go to a library and find elementary science books where the experiments don't function. We're going to do three experiments from my new book, "Bill Nye the Science Guy's Great Big Dinosaur Dig." We'll show that large dinosaurs had to have thick legs just like elephants do. Doing hands-on experiments is the most important thing in the world. There's nothing cooler than vinegar and baking soda and inflating a balloon. What's cooler than that? When you chip a chicken bone out of plaster it's fun. It's cool. It's amazing. When you do it for yourself, it's like being told about it a thousand times, as the old saying goes.


Nye's science workshop

Where: Museum of Television & Radio, 465 N. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills.

When: Saturday, 1:30 to 3:30 p.m.

Cost: Free: limited seating; reservations required.

Info: (310) 786-1035.

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