Leave it to Bill Nye (yes, the Science Guy) to make the science of something as serious as a pandemic palatable, if not fun. This is Bill Nye—a man who is funny, quirky, positive-minded and dedicated to science and all the wonders it holds. When the pandemic broke out and lockdowns began last March, Nye started taking to TikTok to explain the science of COVID, mask-wearing and other protocols.
Now, Nye still makes TikToks in his characteristic quippy style, but he has also partnered with Bombay Sapphire (his gin of choice) on their new Bombay Sapphire Gin & Tonic canned cocktails—the company’s take on the classic gin and tonic. Nye sat down with Worth over Zoom to discuss how he became “the Science Guy,” the science behind why gin and tonics taste so good and why science is “the best idea anybody’s ever had.”
Q: How did you become “Bill Nye, the Science Guy” in the first place?
A: So, I went to engineering school because I liked bicycles and airplanes. And the other thing, I went to Cornell because I got in, which was a surprising result. And then I got a job at Boeing. I graduated in 1977 during the disco era before new wave and punk, and Steve Martin was huge. He was huge. Steve Martin’s first two albums I claim are the reason every city in the U.S. and Canada has two comedy clubs.
Anyway, Warner Brothers Records sponsored a Steve Martin look-alike contest. And I won. With respect, I didn’t advance beyond Seattle, but in Seattle, I won. Then you get hooked on it. I started doing stand-up comedy, trying to do stand-up comedy. And at the same time, the U.S. had abandoned teaching the metric system, tore the solar panels off the roof of the White House and produced the Chevy Vega and the Ford Pinto. And I just thought, the U.S. is going to heck in a handbasket, so I eventually quit my job—October 3, 1986 roughly—and started writing jokes for a comedy show in Seattle…Anyway, I got very concerned about the United States. These things were on my mind. And one day in a writers’ meeting, Ross Shafer said, “You know Bill, you could do some songs…” We had to fill six minutes, which is quite a while in television, six minutes of dead air is a lot. So yeah, he said, “Bill, why don’t you [do] the stuff you’re always taking [about], you could be like, ‘Bill Nye, the Science Guy’ or something. I got to go.” Then he closed his briefcase, and he’s got to go. He was the host of the most popular evening drive radio show at the time also. Anyway, it went well. I did just what you’d expect—I did the household uses of liquid nitrogen because we all have liquid nitrogen around. And it was funny! So then, I started doing regular Science Guy bits. I trademarked Bill Nye the Science Guy, and eventually, I was able to work with two other people at KING Television, Jim McKenna and Erren Gottlieb, and we created The Science Guy show. Did the pilot in 1992. And then did five seasons, 100 shows, over the next five years.
What prompted you to take to TikTok to explain the pandemic to the public?
Oh, TikTok’s fun everybody, come on! TikTok is short. That’s my style—crisp lessons expressed in a funny way, that’s my bit. I mean, TikTok is sort of, why didn’t I think of that. And also, my audience is on TikTok, so that’s great. Millennials, Gen Z, these are my people.
How do you decide what you’re going to post about?
You know what really happened…one morning, maybe over the course of a couple days, I just got really frustrated. In Los Angeles, real near me, [I have] a neighbor who runs a textile business, and he manufactures jeans and stuff. So, over a year ago, he tried making masks, protective masks, and he left me a few on my front porch because we weren’t talking, we weren’t getting close to each other, we were socially distant. Anyway, they didn’t work. I mean, they had two layers of cloth, they look like they would work, but you could just breathe right through them. They didn’t stop anything. And so, it got me to thinking that there’s more to it than just wearing a bandana or pulling a scarf over your face. As always, I get frustrated and concerned about my fellow citizens who want to ignore science. It’s crazy. So, I did this candle thing—I blow out a candle through the mask, through a scarf, through stuff. And then I show that if you had a real N95 [mask], or there’s another style that I got involved in, an N99, you can’t blow out the candle. You can breathe but can’t blow out the candle because it creates a labyrinth for the particles of these droplets that are going to carry the virus. So, that’s when TikTok really went wild. Fifteen million views or something of me just messing around in the kitchen. It’s funny and cool in a way.
Science, of course, has been at the heart of a lot of conversations throughout the pandemic. So how do you think we can keep science engaging for the mass public after the pandemic subsides?
Well, how can we not? In the U.S. Constitution, we find Article One, Section Eight, Clause Eight: Congress’ job is “to promote the progress of science and useful arts.” That’s in the Constitution, people. It wasn’t my idea. That was in 1787; they realized the importance of science. If we want to compete economically as a country, if you don’t want to die as a person, science is essential to your life. When I was a kid in New York at the New York World’s Fair, there were three billion people in the world. United Nations had a scoreboard. Well, now there’s almost eight billion people, and everybody’s going to want to eat something. And that food is going to come from agricultural technology, which is going to be a result of science. And so, I’m very hopeful, but hope is not a plan. I’m hopeful that we can keep this momentum going, that science, years, decades of investment in messenger RNA research led to the production of these extraordinary vaccines in a very short amount of time. And that’s a result of continual investment in research and just basic research—why are you guys doing this, what are you going to find, we don’t know what we’re going to find, that’s why we’re doing it. And so, I’m really going to work to keep this momentum going. As I like to say, the U.S. is under new management, and so I think the anti-science movement, which is quite strong, the anti-vaxxer movement, all of that will get set aside as people realize, if you get vaccinated, you don’t die very much. And so that’s, for most of us, a desirable outcome. That’s a joke. That’s irony.
Bombay Sapphire Gin and Tonic. Photo courtesy of Bombay Sapphire
I want to switch gears a little bit and talk about Bombay Sapphire. I’d love to know how you came to partner with them?
Some journalist a long time ago, and by that, I mean four years ago, five years ago, asked me, “I understand you like martinis?” There was some James Bond reference. I think it had to do with the first Daniel Craig James Bond film, Casino Royale. And I said, “Yeah, I like a martini.” Gin or vodka? That’s what people ask, it’s like the second thing they ask. What’s the third thing? Olive or lemon? Anyway, gin or vodka? Gin for me. Vodka, it doesn’t have very much flavor, it doesn’t have nearly the interesting flavor that you get with gin, and Bombay Sapphire is, if I may, my go-to. I very much enjoy an occasional Bombay Sapphire gin martini. And in the summer, when it’s warm, I like a gin and tonic. This is not extraordinary. The world’s lousy with people like that. So anyway, this is four or five years ago, asking me about Bombay Sapphire, and then Bombay Sapphire has been after me, occasionally, but then when this gin and tonic product came out—this gin and tonic in a can, which I have to say is just excellent, tastes great, if that’s your thing—I said OK.
What makes this particular drink unique?
Keep in mind, people will say offhandedly, “Well gin and tonic, that’s nothing, that’s gin and tonic.” True enough. But if you go to make gin, first, you’ve got to harvest juniper berries, then you’ve got to harvest something called grains of paradise, then you need lemon, you need seven other ingredients to get this crazy perfect flavor of Bombay Sapphire. It’s one ingredient with 10 ingredients and hours and hours of messing around to make it come out with just the flavors, the botanicals, that everybody who tries it is so fond of. And then, you go to make tonic, my goodness, you need quinine, from the bark of the quinine tree, it’s like not trivial. Carbonate it, and then there’s some other secret ingredients…And so, although there’s two things you mix together, ultimately, they are a result of a whole bunch of other ingredients and a great deal of distilling technology.
From a science perspective, what actually makes gin and tonics taste so good?
Do you know the fad, and if you’re a science teacher, it’s not a fad, it’s something you’re going to do every year, where you drop Mentos and Coke? If you try that same demonstration with just soda water, without the Coca-Cola flavor or Pepsi flavor, it doesn’t work. I mean, hardly anything happens because these essential oils, as they’re called, and essential oil is an old, I guess, chef’s term for the thing that is the essence—it’s the essence that gives it the flavor. Anyway, these oils make the bubbles smaller. These oils make the bubbles smoother on the palate. And so, the people at Bombay Sapphire have dialed this in, in my opinion, so that the bubbles are just right. And it’s really appealing. I’m not a foodie, but they call it the mouthfeel—the mouthfeel of gin and tonic is pretty good, of the canned gin and tonic is pretty good.
Photo courtesy of Bombay Sapphire
So, what do you think would surprise people about the science behind this classic cocktail?
Oh, I think the complexity. I mean, it must be years of dinking around to get it to come out right. And I’m no expert, we had a meeting by Zoom with the master distiller [Dr. Anne Brock] in Leicester, England. She is quite cool. She’s the expert, and she’s been elected [as head of] the Gin Guild. And it’s doesn’t surprise me because I really, no kidding, you guys, Bombay Sapphire is just an excellent gin. There’s more going on, it has more flavor than other brands. And there is a fad, if I may whine and complain with a first world issue, there is a fad to make things botanical…You can overdo it; you can have too many ‘tanicals. I want to taste the juniper, that’s what makes the gin go, is those juniper berries.
What can we look forward to from you and your partnership with Bombay Sapphire?
Well, we did three videos, which I think are pretty funny. And I hope you enjoy them. The first one’s out, and we’ve got two more coming in the next few weeks. And I think they’re funny, and they’re based on a premise that I came up with talking with my agent a few months ago, where I’m talking to myself. It’s something you do during the pandemic. So, it’s Bill and Chill Bill, and they’re talking to each other, and then we work with somebody who has just become a good friend. Cece Pleasants, man, she is brilliant…Cece just came up with some cool little twists, and so it’s funny, I think it’s funny. I hope you enjoy it, and I hope people try the gin and tonic in a can. I think it’s a good product!
Apart from Bombay Sapphire, what have you got going on? What can we expect from Bill Nye, the Science Guy?
Well, I do a podcast, Science Rules!, and every two weeks, we do a version Science Rules: Coronavirus Edition. We had Christian Glaser on the other day. He has, to me, the most satisfactory hypothesis about how this virus got out and became worldwide. It was really interesting, fascinating. And then we had Clifford Johnson, who is a cosmologist. These people try to decide what happens to the energy that goes into black holes and how black holes are able to radiate, and it’s just cool. So, podcasts are cool, and then I have a television show coming out, which the working title is The End is Nye; it’ll be out sometime in the spring , and I’m working again with people I just really enjoy working with. What I still love about television is it’s handmade, even though there’s all these electronics, all these amazing digital effects, all this crazy stuff, it’s still storytelling based on ideas, and it’s about people. And so, I really like that.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Well, when people asked me about Bombay Sapphire or the pandemic or climate change, Earth Day is [this] week, these are all science issues, science-based issues, opportunities through science. And I just like to remind everybody, science is the best idea anybody’s ever had for knowing nature, for knowing the cosmos and our place within it. And so right now, the Perseverance Rover is on Mars, and it is very reasonable, not for sure, but very reasonable in the next 10 years, we will find evidence of life on another world. And that will change the course of human history—that will be profound, if we find evidence, let alone something alive. I’m CEO of the Planetary Society, the world’s largest non-governmental space interest organization, advocating, innovating, collaborating and educating people of the world about the science of planetary exploration, so it’s the discovery and the adventure of the planets. So, check it out! It was started by Carl Sagan. I’m a charter member. I left the room at a board meeting, now I’m CEO.
In light of it being Earth Day soon, and I know climate change is something that you care very much about, what would you say people should start doing right now to begin making a change?
Alright, everybody wants me to say, “recycle water bottles.” Yes, do that. Everybody wants me to say, “recycle your paper.” Yes, do that. People want to hear “drive less,” “buy a car that gets better gas mileage.” Yes. “Get an electric car.” Yes, yes, yes. But if people were just talking about climate change, if we were talking about climate change the way we are talking about other very important issues. And what are we all talking about right now, as we should be, we’re talking about racism. If we were talking about climate change the way we’re talking about that and mask-wearing, talking about the pandemic. If we were talking about climate change, the way we’re talking about the pandemic, we’d be gettin’ ‘er done, we’d be gettin’ ‘er done! So, everybody, talk about it. Here’s one thing you can do: Don’t waste food. That’s a real lifestyle change for many people, don’t waste food. How many times have you seen all that extra ketchup next to the French fries? How many times have you seen that extra jam on the plate that gets thrown out [with] that last scrap of toast? People—don’t waste food. And talk about climate change, and then we can change the world!
One thing we know that happened, at least at the beginning of the pandemic with the lockdown, is we kind of saw nature starting to heal. What do you think of that as life starts to get moving again? Do you think we’re going to just regress right back?
Well, what I think we’re going to do is one thing, what I want to work that we don’t do is mess things up as much as they were messed up before. Here’s the big idea, everybody: We have to accept that we are in charge now. And by that, I mean, humans are running the planet. This was not the way it was in Aug’s time, my mythic cave guy idea, Aug and Augette…Anyway, nature was in control of their lives. If there was a flood, their lives were a mess. If there was a drought, their lives were a mess. If lion and tigers and bears showed up, their lives were very troublesome. But now the situation has reversed; humans are now in charge of the whole earth. And so, we have to make decisions that preserve the environment for everybody, and by that, I mean, not just every human, but all these species.
In a bigger sense, we have three problems: we have climate change, where these extra greenhouse gases are getting the world warmer; we have food insecurity, which is leading to all sorts of trouble; and then now we have this possibility of the pandemic. We have this climate change, loss of biodiversity and the possibility of a global pandemic. Those three things are just huge, serious threats, and what’s everybody’s favorite adjective? “Existential.” They’re existential threats…humans will go out of business if we don’t address these issues, so we are in charge now. As we come out of the pandemic, and people are interacting again, let us make better decisions about plastic, about food waste, about carbon dioxide and methane. Let’s make better decisions. And we’ve got some big, old problems to solve. I’m all for recycling water bottles. Yes, that’s great, but we have huge problems, huge problems, and they’re going to take more than what any individual can do. This isn’t just about picking up your trash. This is bigger—this is going to take huge policy changes, and so I’m excited about the future because young people are going to be running the show. And people like me are going to age out, and young people can make better decisions about the environment. It’s exciting!