Objective: C (change the world)
Bill Nye is one of my heroes. Like many young professionals in my age group, I grew up watching his science education show. I didn’t realize it as a child, but between the explanations, demonstrations, and cheesy pop-covers which tagged the end of every episode, what I was really learning is that learning should be fun. And it is. In fact, it should be.
I was fortunate enough to grow up with two parents who fostered creative learning. I realize not every child has this. I didn’t know at the time, but all of the science kits, Lego sets, field trips, computer games, and patient explanations helped me develop what is perhaps my most cherished quality: a curious mind.
You see, I was allowed to wonder. And in that wonder, to discover. I can recall the satisfaction I felt upon assembling a crystal AM radio kit I had bought (or, rather, my parents had bought) at a Boy Scout camp: a spool of copper wire wrapped around a cardboard tube and frailly connected to a 9V battery, a tiny piece of quartz, and an ear piece which quickly became a science experiment of another kind.
It was rudimentary, and honestly it didn’t work very well, but I remember the first time I heard the ocean of white static crack and pop into the faint glimmer of a tune. Here was something I had made with my own hands—from raw, unconnected sinews—that connected invisibly to the outside world, to the infrastructure crafted by adults.
No longer just an ordinary child, I was now a participant. Not just an idle, unknowing consumer of the magic once called “radio,” I knew how it worked. And I knew why it worked. I held its secret in my mind. If the radio could be called magic, then I had become its sorcerer.
There was a time when I believed that to be somebody—to really be someone and to accomplish things and be worthwhile, I had to become famous. It wasn’t really the fame itself I craved (I’m ironically quite shy in public), but rather, I sought the affirmation I expected would come with it.
Perhaps it was all the movies that my family watched growing up that led me to look for a different reality inside the screen. I don’t fully know. But as a teenager I gave up my path of scientific sorcery to study acting and the humanities. I chose a Theatre major and practiced Stanislavski, argued over Strindberg, watched Becket and O’Neill, read Chaucer and Donne, Frost and Dickinson, performed Moliére and produced Brecht, all while immersing myself in the vast, rich depths of the English Bard.
From all of this, I learned a funny thing about stories: they’re very mathematical. The scansions of iambic pentameter betray the author’s intent. Beowulf’s 101 stanzas are perfectly mirrored rising and falling action. Every story, every act, every scene, every moment contains a beginning, a middle, and an end: perpetual, nested trinities to the Nth degree.
The very fabric of language is algorithm.
Messages or verbs, receivers or direct objects; past, present, future, pluperfect; predicates, descriptors, syntax, operands, and punctuation—a programming language is just that: a language. On a fundamental level, learning to write computer code is not so different from second-language acquisition: it is just another way of communicating thought.
Back in December I had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Nye speak in the Upper East Side right here in Manhattan. It was slightly unreal to me—here was this formative figure from my childhood, of whom I’d only ever seen flat images on a screen, now lumbering awkwardly onto stage in the form of a lanky yet delightfully bow-tied hominid.
He was there to discuss his recent book “Undeniable” which was passionately inspired by the importance to him of science education and fostering independent thought in schools. It was this same passion which had inspired his TV show two decades ago—the desire to make learning fun, to bring science and math out of the rigidity of a textbook and allowing it to intertwine with the whole complexity of the human experience.
Here was this man with a household name, simultaneously aware of and innocent from his fame, running off on tangents about how amazing dirt can be—about how everything we’ve ever seen or known or touched was at one time held in the crucible of a star—about how incredibly vast the earth’s biodiversity is—about how “we are, you and I, at least one of the ways that the universe knows itself.”
Those words were him paraphrasing his own mentor Carl Sagan, and they’ve echoed in my mind over the last year. Twenty years ago Bill settled upon his idea to change the world in a way that only he could.
Now, it’s my turn to settle upon my own.