In the spring of 1993, a 30-minute program called Bill Nye the Science Guy aired for the first time on KCTS-TV, a Seattle-based PBS affiliate.
Within months, the show was being syndicated nationally, and what followed was life-changing for the show’s titular host: six seasons, 100 episodes and substantial underwriting from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy.
Bill Nye was suddenly famous — broadcast into the homes and schools of millions of children, to explain science in entertaining terms they could understand. His program won 19 Emmy Awards, spawned a video game and made him a household name in television-based science programming for decades to come.
But is Bill Nye a scientist? Or, as his classic PBS show suggests, is he just a “science guy?”
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 Navy codebreaker. His father, Edwin Nye, was an airstrip contractor who spent four years in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp.
Bill Nye's Education
Fascinated simply by how things worked, Nye later attended Cornell University’s Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering — graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1977. He even took an astronomy course taught by Carl Sagan.
After college, Nye was hired by Boeing and moved to the Seattle area. There, he invented a hydraulic resonance suppressor tube for the 747’s horizontal stabilizer drive system. He also set his sights on the heavens, though unsuccessfully; he applied to NASA’s astronaut program four times.
Read More: 4 Things We Have Thanks to Carl Sagan
When Did Bill Nye the Science Guy Start?
Nye’s path to being on 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 Shafer and John Keister, who were both part of 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” at Seattle’s Pacific Science Center during this time.
It was on Almost Live that his "science guy” persona first graced the airwaves, with Nye doing classic science demonstrations while dressed in a lab coat and safety glasses. Audiences loved it — and he even won an Emmy from the Seattle chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
What Did Bill Nye Do?
Though new episodes of the beloved PBS show quit airing in 1999, Nye has kept plenty busy as an ambassador for scientific learning.
He’s 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 Ham in 2014, in a widely-publicized discussion of evolution versus creationism.
On the air, Nye presented a season of The Eyes of Nye (a more adult science-based program) on KCTS in 2005, and three seasons of Netflix’s Bill Nye Saves the World from 2016 to 2018. His latest program, Peacock’s The End is Nye, focuses on human-made and natural calamities that could destroy civilization and how they can be mitigated.
But even when a camera lens is absent, Nye has remained busy.
Bill Nye the Scientist
Nye helped develop the MarsDial — a sundial that was included on the Opportunity and Spirit Mars rovers. He was also vice president of the Planetary Society, the world’s largest space interest group, from 2005 to 2010, and is currently its executive director.
As for other organizations, Nye is a member of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, a non-profit that promotes scientific inquiry and critically reasoned investigation of claims, and an advisory council member of the National Center for Science Education.
Additionally, Bill Nye holds patents as an inventor, including an improved toe shoe for ballerinas, a device to easily pick up a baseball, a water-based magnifier and a digital abacus that does math with only binary numbers.
So, Is Bill Nye a Real Scientist?
While Nye is absolutely an engineer, the Science Council defines a scientist as “someone who systematically gathers and uses research and evidence, to make hypotheses and test them, to gain and share understanding and knowledge.”
They can be further defined, the council says, by how they get their information (i.e., statistics or data scientists), what they’re trying to understand (i.e., an astronomer seeking to understand the stars) or where they apply their science (i.e., a food scientist working in the food industry).
But all scientists, the Science Council concludes, are united by a “relentless curiosity and systematic approach to assuaging it.”
Though Nye may have spent more time on television than in formal lab settings, it would be hard to deny his legitimacy as a scientist — especially after taking into consideration all that he’s accomplished and the profound influence he’s had on a generation of younger scientists.
Read More: The 10 Greatest Scientists of All Time