Fair use photo from en.wikipedia.org

What Made Bill Nye Really Succeed


By Samuel Chesky |Enviromental Science Major

CEO and science educator Bill Nye scrambles around back stage at a local Seattle tv station KCTS 9. The current program on the air is the home cooking show. The phone rings… bad news the guest star chef can not make it. The producers are scrambling asking everyone back stage who could fill in. Nye reluctantly steps forward having only a few house hold tricks up his sleeve. Minutes later he walks out on stage and cracks a joke the crowd roars in laughter. He is an instant hit with the crowd; giving tips, tricks and short cuts to making things in the kitchen through the power of science.

Nye collected and observed sun dials as small kid, watching and learning from his father. His father also biked across the state of Washington taking Nye with and starting the fire of wanting to know more about the world around us. His parents gave him the greatest tool to unlock these answers a magnifying glass (Kornelis 2). Also bring him to the 1965 worlds Fair or vacationing on the Delaware shore spotting a dolphin swim by (Nye 2–3).

Nye being the CEO of the Planetary Society and host of the Famous Bill Nye The Science Guy show plus many other shows ranks as one of the most famous scientist of the 21 century and using this power to push controversial issues such as climate change. However, as Outliers: The Story of Success and The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big difference author Malcolm Gladwell shows how this was not all just hard work and luck. Nye’s special opportunities that he received from his family legacies and parents’ social status receiving opportunist that aided in his race for 10,000 hours, giving him an advantage over everyone working towards the same goal and giving his show the stickiness factor that makes it so popular to this day.

Nye’s special opportunities that he received from his family legacies and parents’ social status receiving opportunist that aided in his race for 10,000 hours, giving him an advantage over everyone working towards the same goal and giving his show the stickiness factor that makes it so popular to this day.

On November 27, 1955 William Sanford Nye was born to Jacqueline Jenkins and Edwin Nye. He grew up in the Washington D.C. area attending local schools. As he grew old he did normal teenage things like going to high school football games, hanging out with friends and exploring the world on the weekends. After graduating high school from Sidwell Friends school Nye attended Cornell University where he received a B.S. in Mechanical engineering. Shortly after graduating Cornell he landed a job at the Seattle based Boeing company where he worked to design new and improved aero technology. This may seem like Nye had an average life growing up and that assumption is wrong.

In 1819 a small town called Harlan was founded on the southeastern corner of Kentucky. Located right on the Cumberland plateau of the Appalachian Mountains. The town of Harlan founded by eight immigrant families from northern British Isles, it was never a very wealthy area as many of the first settlers were farmers and sheep herders. Fast forward to the late nineteenth century where Harlan is the center of a bloody feud between the Howard and Turner families, but it was a lot broader of a subject then just Harlan. All over the Appalachian Mountains there are feuds between families that were so deadly the Kentucky and West Virginia court systems did not have enough room or man power to process all these cases. But why was this area just one big blood bath? The answer was in the original inhabitants and where they came from. When looking at all of the settlers from Virginia to the northern reaches of Alabama and parts of Georgia they were mostly all Scottish-Irish. One of the most aggressive cultures of horror on the planet. The people born into the this region of the Appalachian Mountains had violence in their blood the day they saw the light of this earth.To this whole question was their cultural legacies, what they had inherited from their ancestors that caused all these bloody feuds to break out across the eastern coast of the United States (Gladwell 161–167).

Lets go back over his life but with a fine toothed comb. First his parents, both of them were WW II vets. His mother Jacqueline was a decoder and his father Edwin was an enlisted man. His father Edwin was captured and stuck in a Japanese P.O.W. camp where he developed his love for sun dials which he used to calculate the time of day. Both these key abilities aided young Nye in and outside of school. His dad began sharing some of his tips and tricks with Nye at a young age. Many of these had house hold science answers behind them for instance the sun dials. This started the curiosity about the world and universe around him. His mother had a much different effect on him, Jacqueline taught Nye advanced mathematics when he had homework that she had used when she was in the military for code breaking. Nye excelled through classes and quickly was taking 2 grades higher mathematics classes. Shortly after he stopped attending public schools “He graduated in 1973 after being on partial scholarship for STEM credits at Sidwell Friends School.” (A&E 1). After being in middle school for only a year he was granted a half scholarship for his excellence in mathematics and science abilities. All this success at a young age as a student landed him a position at Cornell University as a mechanical engineering student. This is where he was granted a very special opportunity.

Bill was taking classes under Carl Sagan a very powerful and influential scientist of the 80’s and 90’s. This again reignited the passion for science in his heart taking many of Sagan’s classes about natural sciences as he worked towards his major. As Angela Duckworth would say “ grit, passion and perseverance for a very long term goal” (Duckworth). This right here was proof of a product of special opportunities that all starts with his parents teaching him little tricks at a young age that were fueled by science and math. Those goals for being surrounded in knowledge were now paying off all due to his grit for his goals to succeed. Soon after graduating Cornell Nye hooked a job at Boeing where he developed a hydraulic pressure resonance suppressor that is still used in Boeing planes today. One night after work Nye and a couple co-workers went to a local bar, that night they were having a Steve Martin look alike contest. They dared Nye to go up on stage even tho he looked nothing like Martin. Surprisingly he won with his great jokes and went on to be an engineer by day and stand up comedian by night. Eventually he quite his job at Boeing to take on his comic career head on. He started off writing jokes for the local Seattle news station that had daytime shows. Soon he was the star of his own daytime show of Almost Live which he wrote mostly by himself… it was an instant hit with the local daytime television watchers. This is where he acquired the nickname “The Science Guy” (A&E 1–2). This great hit did not go unnoticed behind the scenes Disney was trying to get Nye to call back because they had one big idea for him. Just before leaving for a summer long bike trip around the western coast of the United States he answered the phone that changed his life for ever. He became the host and writer of his very own show. Behind parts of Bill Nye’s success was his parents legacies of excelling in math and science and their special opportunities given to him from their service in the military services. This paired together was a mix for success just waiting to happen.

Bill Nye The Science Guy, the show, was known for its cheesy but funny jokes. It pushed the boundaries of what a education show could do or be. The show was one of a kind and inspired many kids to pursue science in their young age because Nye made science fun and funny all at the same time. if you thought it was all due to Nye being naturally funny think again.

To answer this question we look to Bill Gates on of the greatest computer programmers to walk this planet. His story seems to be as normal as any other success story, how he made it on his own but again this is not the whole story. He too started out in public school but was sent to Lakeside in seventh grade. During his second year the Mothers Club had it’s annual garage sale where they sold things to raise money for summer programs for the inner city kids, but this year they used part of the money to buy a computer lab for the school. This was on of the first schools outside of a college to have a computer lab available for the kids. This was his way into the world of programming and he was only in the eighth grade. But there was downside to this the internet time. Not cheap at all and the money from the sale soon ran out. Then as luck would have it the University of Washington formed a group called the C-Cubed which leased local companies computer time and would you know that one of Gates classmates parents worked for a company that tested out computer programs. The parent of this classmate wondered if the Lakeside computer club would want to test out these programs in exchange for free internet time. The answer was a absolute yes and Gates took a bus everyday to go program at the university many times late into the night. This is how Bill Gates got his 10,000 hours of practice before it was his time to shine the world of computers (Gladwell 50–55).

Back to Bill Nye. The year is 1979. He has just landed his first big job at Boeing and could not be happier with where is is just being out of college. After a long day at work Nye and a couple of co-workers head to a local bar. That night the bar is having a Steve Martin look alike contest, they all look at Nye and haggle him to go up on stage knowing he has some funny jokes up his sleeve and to everyones shock he actually won. Shortly after winning the contest Nye went back to the bar for their open mic night were he tried his hand at stand up. It was a immediate hit with the audience. Nye tells Allan Brown of Tech Buzz “ I was engineer by and stand up comic by night” (Brown 19). It was such a success that the bar scheduled him almost every night to come preform. This engulfed Nye’s thoughts so much with jokes and comedy that he quite his job at Boeing and took on the role of a comic as a full time job. eventually his practice of being a comic landed him is own show on a local network called Almost Live where he used his comic relief to make the show light hearted and relaxing to the viewer. Eventually Nye got his a bigger spot light with being a guest on the Mickey Mouse Club and Late Night with David Letterman (Croix 2). Nye may have had a naturally funny side but it did not get him on the Letterman show it was his practice of this art that got him there. Gladwell states “ Practice isn’t something you do once you’re good. It’s something you do that makes you good. (Gladwell 42). This exactly what Nye did knowing it or not he got his practice in to get his 10,000 hours to reach the mastery level of being a comedian.

The Science Guy show was also known for drawing in people of all ages even though it was aimed at the youth of America. Nye used his wacky child within and arguably unconventional ways to bring the view a one of a kind show. But was this really what brought viewers back wanting more the science guy after each episode? the answer again is no not even close.

In the late 1960s television producer named Joan Ganz Cooney had an idea of starting an epidemic to educate three to five year olds. The way she would spread this was through the power of the television and she would call it Sesame Street. The reason behind spreading knowledge was to give children of disadvantage homes the chance to be at the same level when they got to kindergarten as those of kids who had the opportunities to be exposed to knowledge of the outside world. The only problem was that television was not used as an educational medium and many were skeptical at first, but still they set out to create the perfect show for young kids. They took ideas and flashy icons from cartoons to teach kids how to count and recognize numbers. The show succeed because Cooney discovered a way to make critical adjustments to the show to make up for televisions weakness and make the show sticky. The team behind Sesame Street realized that they had to make a statement about numbers lets say but keep bring it up in different ways so that kids could understand and stay focused. Gladwell explains “ Kids don’t watch when they are stimulated and look away when they are bored. They watch when they understand and look away when they are confused. If you are in the business of educational television, this is the critical difference. (Gladwell 102). This was the key behind why the show took off and captured the attention of kids for so long.

Bill Nye The Science Guy the show was one of the edgiest shows of the 90s especially being aimed at preteens. Croix states “ You’re channel surfing through Saturday morning cartoons when you hear… rave music? and guys chanting, “Bill! Bill! Bill!” in the background, a voice says, science rules.” (Croix 1). Nye used the rave music to catch those flying through channels to stop and wait to see what will happen next making it seem like there is a party going on. Then you see him jumping out of a plain or hiking next to a volcano explaining the science topic of this episode. This was something no other show had done to push science on Americas youth or to get the attention of the audience. Nye then encompasses what the Sesame street show used to make the viewer continue to watch. He would explain the theory behind the science and demonstrate a experiment that used this theory tone preformed. Also the show cast kids around the age of the viewers so that the view could see him or herself doing that exact experiment. Nye did this all while using his comic back ground to keep the show light heated and make science fun for once. He combined skits, songs, jokes and experiments to become the most watch and used television show in science class rooms around the Untied States (Donnelly 1) . The biggest thing that made this show a hit was the way Nye used the stickiness factor to draw in viewers of all ages every episode.

Bill Nye a man who looks at the world as though he might still be a little kid, always wondering what the world around him will bring him next. His family legacies and special opportunities that granted him access to tools that were always present through out his younger years. Or using his Grit to pursue his comedic career for a couple years gaining his 10,000 hours leading his show to have a stickiness factor untouched by any show of its time. Even when people doubted Disney on their choice to make a science educational show, Nye proved them wrong making science fun and grown ups not boring people watch.

Work Cited:

Bill Nye Engineer, Television Personality. New York City: A&E Television Network, June 8, 2010. Webpage.

Brown, Allan, S. “Q&A Bill Nye The Science Guy”. Tech Buzz. 2014. Journal.

De la Croix, Christine. “Bill Nye The Science Guy” Child Life. 1995. Magazine.

Donnelly, Tim. “ 5 Reasons to Watch Bill Nye The Science Guy”. New York Post. 20 May, 2015. Online Journal.

Duckworth, Lee, Angela. “The key to success? Grit”. TED Talk. April, 2013.

Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: Stories of Success. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008.Print.

- — -. Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference. New York, Little, Brown and Company, 2000. Print.

Kornelis, Chris. “Gear & Gadgets 20 Odd Questions: Bill Nye The Science Guy”. The Wall Street Journal. 2014. Journal.

Nye, Bill. “Bill Nye to Grads: Change the World.” Time. Rutgers University. May 19, 2016. Oral Presentation

Photo by Conrad Engstrom.


Sam Chesky, a freshmen from Bloomington, Minn., would one day like to work as a DNR officer or a national park ranger. Chesky likes watching sports, being in the outdoors of northern Minnesota and coaching youth lacrosse.


I’ve learned that writing outside of what is comfortable is how you get your best work.

Always name that dog because once you give something a name you become more attached.

People don’t actually rise from nothing on their own.

Gladwell reemphasized, “Practice isn’t something you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.”

People only pay attention to television when they understand what’s going on.

“All you have to do is find it” -Gladwell’s The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.

Thanks to Brad Pitt’s character in Moneyball, “If we play like the Yankees in here then we will lose to the Yankees out there”.

Write a sentence that only you would write.

Be more specific.

Don’t be a fancy pants and pull big words out of a dictionary.

Make the story about the underdog.

Finish were you start. Start the story with a powerful story and end it with another just as powerful.

Be a Picasso for the reader.

Every paper I wrote before this I thought was the best it could be until Professor Scott wrote on the chalk board “Old, Ugly Car”. At first I thought he was just making a statement about a car he saw that morning. What he really was doing was changing the way I write papers forever and I didn’t even know it. The next thing he wrote “A 1973 Ford F150, two toned green pick up truck.” Scott had just named that dog. Giving us a mental picture of what his car looked like. Forcing us to imagine. Why? I thought to myself and his explanation was, “My dad always told me, ‘Scott don’t name that dog because the second you give something a name you connect to it.’”

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