A few weeks ago, I discovered that Bill Nye, the famous scientist, comedian, and television host, was speaking at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as part of their Geek Week and part of The Distinguished Lecture Series. Being that I grew up as part of the generation which watched his show Bill Nye the Science Guy, I knew I wanted to go. Fortunately, I was able to secure tickets, and last Monday, my boyfriend and I sat ourselves in the back of the large conference room where the event was to be held. It was with an almost childlike anticipation and excitement that I waited with baited breath for his appearance.
As Bill Nye stepped out onto the stage, the audience erupted in applause and even gave him a standing ovation before he could utter two words. It was then I realized that many of them must have felt the same way I did. Almost everyone in the room were students and graduates in their late teens to mid- to late-twenties, the right age group to have grown up with Bill Nye the Science Guy. Here standing in front of us was our childhood hero, the reason many of us looked forward to videos in class, and the one who taught us to look at the world around us with curiosity and wonder.
His lecture covered a span of topics from stories of his father’s involvement with sun dials and his work with the Planetary Society (of which he is the Executive Director) to his recent debate with Ken Ham of the Creation Museum and some discussion on climate change. The talk lasted around an hour-and-a-half with some time left at the end for questions. I battled internally with myself for a few minutes before taking the few steps to join the queue for questions. It was one of those moments I’d regret if I hadn’t. I mean, it isn’t everyday that I could ask a question of my childhood idol.
I was impressed with the variety of questions that students posed to Mr. Nye. These ranged from curriculum- and education-related questions to more scientific ones. My nerves lessened as I listened to the depth of the answers Mr. Nye gave to the students and decided that surely he wouldn’t think there are such things as stupid questions. Around 9:15pm, an announcement was made that he could only take four more questions due to timing, and there was widespread muttering throughout the crowd. At least a dozen people remained in line, myself included, and we had been waiting a fair amount of time for our questions to be asked. To his credit, and something I am still pleased and impressed by, Mr. Nye asked if he could answer the questions of those remaining in line and not accept any others if he kept his answers brief. With about four students in front of me, I remained optimistic that I would ask my question…
…but alas, it was not to be. With two more students in front of me, staff pronounced that no more questions could be asked. Even Mr. Nye’s request fell on deaf ears. I must say that I was crestfallen. I, and many other students besides, had waited at least a half hour (if not longer) to ask a question, a chance that probably would not come our way again. Normally speakers will request only a certain amount of questions, bu that was not the case with Mr. Nye. I understand the need to take down after huge events, but the fact another 15 or 20 minutes could not be spared was disheartening. That being said, I am very thankful to have had the opportunity to see Mr. Nye. He is a very engaging and inspirational speaker, and I left the lecture feeling like I could change the world.
And that was indeed his central message. Someone asked what his biggest piece of advice was, and he said, “Pursue your passion, make a good living, change the world”. That was the most important thing I took away from that night. I left with my childhood sense of wonder again.
So, though I doubt Mr. Nye will ever read this, I want to take the chance to say thank you: thank you for making me believe in myself again and believe I could have a say in the future (I feel that young adults my age often lose our sense of wonder and sense of self-confidence); thank you for inspiring interest and love in science and making us realize that science is not just about the details, it is about the bigger picture; thank you for being so reasonable and willing to answer questions of dozens of audience members despite circumstances not allowing all of them to be answered; and thank you for having made our childhoods and elementary school educations a little more exciting and awesome.
Oh, and the question I wanted to ask? “What role do you see the humanities playing, if at all, in the future of science?” We often see the arts and sciences being two separate things though I would argue they can be viewed side-by-side (I am not going to divulge my thoughts about this here). I was curious to see what his perspective on it was.
All in all, if there is anything I could pass along to someone who remembers Bill Nye as fondly as I do, it is his central message: Change the world!