Bill Nye challenges a sold-out Jesse Auditorium crowd to 'change the world'

Saturday, March 15, 2014 | 4:44 p.m. CDT; updated 10:15 p.m. CDT, Saturday, March 15, 2014
Bill Nye speaks Saturday at Jesse Auditorium for the 10th annual MU Life Sciences and Society Symposium.

COLUMBIA — His hair was grayer than it had been when he rose to fame more than 20 years ago, but Bill Nye still had the same energy, simplicity and humor that made him so accessible on his show.

Nye, a scientist and educator most famous for his show, "Bill Nye the Science Guy," lectured for an hour to a packed Jesse Auditorium on Saturday as part of the weeklong MU symposium on "Decoding Science."

Although the symposium brought speakers to discuss how to communicate science to the public effectively, Nye focused more on why that communication should happen. He spoke generally about the importance of science in the future.

His message throughout the talk was simple: Use your passion for science and your joy of discovery to change the world.

As Nye took the stage, he was greeted with thunderous applause and a gift from MU Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin. He gave Nye a bow tie with maps of Missouri on it, which the Science Guy, who's known for his tweedy look and penchant for bow ties, promptly switched out with the one he was already wearing.

In his talk, Nye often directly addressed the younger generations in the crowd and combined heavy topics — climate change, evolution and the possibility of an asteroid strike — with his signature wit and theatrics. He used a mocking, feigned scholarly voice when using scientific jargon, and a wheezing, nostalgic voice when referencing historical events. Whenever he used the catchphrase for the lecture, "change the world," he spoke in a booming, epic voice reminiscent of a movie trailer.

Although his tone was light and parodic at times, Nye had a heavy message for the crowd. To illustrate that point, he showed the crowd a picture of a van in Columbia that had "Bill Nye The Science Lie" written on its back window. Both he and the crowd were able to share a laugh at the van's message, but he also wanted to make a point about how that vision of science had serious consequences.

"It would be OK, but this is a family vehicle," Nye said. We don't want to raise a generation of people that don't accept science, he said.

But if we want people to take science seriously, we need to be passionate about it, especially in the way it's taught. It's a teacher's passion that makes them our favorite because it's what best engages students, he said.

"You want to show and then tell," Nye said. "My claim is that when you can see it, that's when it becomes compelling."

Nye, who never formally trained as an educator, built his career by teaching a generation of American children about science on his show “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” which aired from 1993 to 1998 on PBS. It was famous for making science simple and enjoyable for millions of children.

But television was not where the Science Guy started out. Nye started out as an engineer at Boeing. He later hosted a “Bill Nye the Science Guy” show on a local Seattle radio station in 1986 before the idea took to the television screen. He said he made the show because he wanted to get people excited about science.

His lasting impression on young people drew many to his sold-out lecture Saturday.

"I've always been interested in his videos," MU senior Elizabeth York said. York, who is majoring in biology at MU, said Nye's show is what fed her interest for science. 

Nye's lectures and debates have kept him in the public eye more than a decade after his show ended. In February, he made news by sparring with creationist thinker Ken Ham.

During the question-and-answer period, Nye was asked about how he deals with trying to convince people like Ham to accept evolution and science. He said it's something you have to chip away at.

"You have to accept that people won’t get what you’re driving at the first time," Nye said. "You have to act like it’s going to be a process."

Nye told another person that he was a bit nonplussed at why he'd become a "science rock star." But, he said he wanted to cultivate that persona for something good. 

"I just try to get the PB&J, the passion, beauty and joy (of science) across to people," Nye said, but the rest is up to his audience. "I'm still waiting for you guys to change the world."

Supervising editor is Edward Hart.

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