The show was about to start with the kind of problem one could only find at a Bill Nye event: All the liquid nitrogen had evaporated overnight. It was one of those tiny things — somebody had forgotten to put a cover back in place from the previous show, and overnight it had all burned off. Nick, Nye’s producer, put it pretty simply. “We’ve got a problem.”
Thankfully, the producers were able to make some last-minute calls on Saturday night. With less than an hour and a half to spare before the doors opened, a new container was wheeled into Irving Plaza.
All three shows at the Union Square concert venue were sold out, with a mix of eager and excited couples, fans in bow ties and lab coats, as well as doctorate students, engineers and small children. When the show began, the crowd wildly cheered his name. Throughout he discussed his upbringing (the child of an engineer and a scientist, both were veterans of World War II; his mother worked on the Enigma code and his father spent several years in a prisoner of war camp) his early career (“There’s a tube in the vertical stabilizer of ever 747 I designed. I think of it as my tube.”) and his early career in the entertainment industry (one of his earliest moments on stage came when he entered and won the regional Steve Martin look-alike contest. He did not advance beyond that.)
Later he discussed his television show and the recent online debate he had with Ken Ham on creationism and the role of science. “It took a lot of concentration not to slap my forehead.” Before the show, he commented on the sometimes adversarial encounters he’s had with in more conservative parts of the country. “Yeah, you’re talking about the climate change deniers. Things like that are what that debate was all about. I say bring it on.” On stage, he would describe creationism as “fine for some people, but please don’t let your kids do it.”
The show ended with several experiments and a question and answer session with the audience. The audience loved it, treating Nye with the kind of reverence and fandom usually associated with rock stars. During the Q & A, nearly every hand in the audience shot up, with people often shouting for the privilege of being able to ask him a question. Several asked for selfies with him on stage (he was able to oblige one or two) while another asked him to sign his fourth grade science test. He discussed the current state of the space program, and why it’s still vital in today’s environment. “You get to solve problems nobody has ever solved before, and you get to raise the expectations of society.”
Before bowing out, he ended with a quote from Jay-Z: “You could be anywhere in the world tonight, but you’re here with me.”
This was what so many people came to see.
The debates with creationists and climate change deniers are worth listening to and talking about, but just as big a draw was the infectious enthusiasm for science that has made him such a popular figure.
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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 21, 2014