With his trademark humor, much of it at his own expense, Bill Nye ’77 – known to a generation as “The Science Guy” – captivated and delighted alumni and others with his Reunion Weekend talk, “Everything All At Once – How Cornellians Will Save the World.”
The title of his talk was a nod to his new Netflix show, “Bill Nye Saves the World,” the first 13 episodes of which are available now.
Some of the people with whom he attended Cornell were front and center at Bailey Hall June 10, as he and his classmates celebrated their 40th reunion over the weekend. He saluted his class, which organized the presentation, in his opening remarks.
“Unlike you guys,” he joked, “I went to Cornell because of a mistake, because of a clerical error in the admissions department … and nobody noticed for all that time. The people I went to school with were so freaking smart – there’s no way I could get into Cornell today.”
Nye then read a quote from Cornell’s first president, Andrew Dickson White, that had been shared with him by a colleague.
“‘To afford an asylum for science, where the truth shall be sought for truth’s sake,’” Nye said. “My friends, there has never been a time in my recollection when this idea is more important.”
It was with that juxtaposition of comedy and concern for the future of Earth that Nye set off on a wide-ranging hourlong talk.
President Martha E. Pollack introduced Nye, noting that in watching coverage of the March for Science in April, her favorite sign read: “Without science, Bill Nye would be just a guy.” She also noted that in addition to filling Bailey Hall, Nye’s talk attracted a full house at Kennedy Hall’s Call Auditorium, where the talk was livestreamed.
Nye, whose “Science Guy” show won 19 Emmy Awards from 1993 to 1998, explained that it was a meeting with one of his former Cornell instructors – another science legend, astronomer Carl Sagan – that set him on the path he took.
“He told me, ‘Kids resonate to science,’” Nye said. “And that one comment from that one professor led to the whole thing.”
Nye began doing science education on TV in Seattle while working as an engineer at Boeing, then “one thing led to another, I met some people and started doing the ‘Science Guy’ show,” he said.
It was his Cornell education – including a single astronomy course taught by Sagan, which he took his senior year – that made all the difference, he said.
“I say this all the time: Cornell changed my life,” Nye said. “For those of you who are working on your Cornell degree now, it will be worth more two days after you graduate than the day you graduate. It really is an amazing gift that we are given.”
He spent much of his talk defending the scientifically proven fact that the Earth’s climate is warming, a process that has been accelerated over the past 250 years by industrialization and a population boom. He also mentioned a few notable climate change “deniers,” most notably Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and President Donald Trump.
He proposed that young people should belong to “Generation S,” for science, and that education is the key. “I claim that science literacy will help us address objective truths, and we will – dare I say it? – save the world,” he said to applause.
Nye sees three prerequisites for the future: clean water; reliable, renewably produced electricity; and access to information. “If we can get these three things for everybody on Earth, we will improve the quality of life for everyone,” he said. “And I submit to you that there will be much less conflict. The world will be more peaceful and more productive.
“We can do this; we can change the world,” he said. “And I claim that Cornell – and, of course, I may be biased – is ideally suited to this. When we get out of Cornell, we have this liberal arts point of view, this rudimentary understanding of philosophy, of science, of language that empowers us to do cool things. I am so thankful every day for my Cornell education.”
Nye, who took several questions following his talk, has a new book book coming out in July, “Everything All At Once: How to Unleash Your Inner Nerd, Tap Into Radical Curiosity and Solve Any Problem.” He is also co-author of a children’s book series, “Jack and the Geniuses,” the third installment of which will be available in the fall.