Nye began his career as a mechanical engineer for Boeing Corporation in Seattle, where he invented a hydraulic resonance suppressor tube used on 747 airplanes. In 1986, Nye left Boeing to pursue comedy, writing and performing jokes and bits for the local sketch television show Almost Live!, where he would regularly conduct wacky science experiments. Nye aspired to become the next Mr. Wizard and with the help of several producers successfully pitched the children's television program Bill Nye the Science Guy to KCTS-TV, channel 9, Seattle's public television station. The show—which proudly proclaimed in its theme song that "science rules!"—ran from 1994 to 1999 in national TV syndication. Known for its "high-energy presentation and MTV-paced segments," the program became a hit for both kids and adults. The show was critically acclaimed and was nominated for 23 Emmy Awards, winning nineteen.
Following the success of his show, Nye continued to advocate for science, becoming the CEO of The Planetary Society and helping develop sundials for the Mars Exploration Rover missions. Nye has written two best-selling books on science, including Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation in 2014 and Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World in 2015. Nye has made frequent media appearances, including on Dancing with the Stars, The Big Bang Theory and Inside Amy Schumer. Nye starred in a documentary about his life and science advocacy titled Bill Nye: Science Guy, which premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March 2017. In 2017, he debuted a Netflix series, entitled Bill Nye Saves the World.
Nye was born on November 27, 1955, in Washington, D.C., to Jacqueline Jenkins-Nye (née Jenkins; 1921–2000), a codebreaker during World War II, and Edwin Darby "Ned" Nye (1917–1997), also a World War II veteran, whose experience without electricity in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp led him to become a sundial enthusiast. Jenkins-Nye was among a small elite group of young women known as "Goucher girls" whom the Navy had enlisted to help crack the codes that were used by the Japanese and German military. "She wasn't Rosie the Riveter, she was Rosie the Top-Secret Code Breaker," Nye recalls. "People would ask her what she did during World War II and she'd say, 'I can't talk about it, ha ha ha!'"
After attending Lafayette Elementary and Alice Deal Junior High in the city, he was accepted to the private Sidwell Friends School on a partial scholarship and graduated in 1973. He studied mechanical engineering at Cornell University (where he took an astronomy class taught by Carl Sagan) and graduated with a BS in mechanical engineering in 1977. Nye occasionally returns to Cornell as a guest-lecturer of introductory-level astronomy and human ecology classes.
After graduating from Cornell, Nye worked as an engineer for the Boeing Corporation and Sundstrand Data Control near Seattle. While at Boeing, he invented a hydraulic resonance suppressor tube used on 747 airplanes. Nye applied to become a NASA astronaut every few years, but was always rejected.
Nye started doing standup comedy after winning a Steve Martin look-alike contest in 1978. Nye's friends began asking him to do Steve Martin impressions at parties and he discovered how much he loved to make people laugh. Nye began moonlighting as a comedian, while still holding his day job as a mechanical engineer at Boeing. Nye has stated of that time: "At this point in our story, I was working on business jet navigation systems, laser gyroscope systems during the day, and I'd take a nap and go do stand-up comedy by night".
He also participated in Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and would volunteer at the Pacific Science Center on weekends, as a "Science Explainer".
Nye quit his job at Boeing on October 3, 1986 to focus on his burgeoning comedy career.
During Nye's 10 year college reunion in 1987, he went through great lengths to meet with Sagan at Cornell. His assistant told Nye, “Okay, you can talk to him for five minutes.” While meeting him at the space sciences building, Nye explained that he was interested in developing a science television program. "I mentioned how I planned to talk about bridges and bicycles and so on—stuff that, as an engineer, I'd been interested in—and he said, 'Focus on pure science. Kids resonate to pure science rather than technology.' And that turned out to be great advice."
In 1986, Nye began his professional entertainment career as a writer/actor on a local sketch comedy television show in Seattle, called Almost Live!. Nye was invited on the show by John Keister who met him at an open mic night. One of the hosts of the show, Ross Shafer, suggested he do some scientific demonstrations in a six-minute segment. His other main recurring role on Almost Live! was as Speed Walker, a speedwalking Seattle superhero "who fights crime while maintaining strict adherence to the regulations of the international speed-walking association."
One famous incident on the show led to his stage name. He corrected Keister on his pronunciation of the word "gigawatt", and the nickname was born when Keister responded, "Who do you think you are—Bill Nye the Science Guy?"
Even though Nye had become a regular on Almost Live!, he was only doing freelance work for the program. While looking for more TV gigs, Nye was given the opportunity in 1989 to host a short educational program on Washington State's wetlands called Fabulous Wetlands, sponsored by the Washington State Department of Ecology. On Fabulous Wetlands, Nye explained the importance of preserving estuaries and the hazards of pollution. The show became, in many ways, a model for Nye's later show, with "zany camera cuts paired with Nye's humor" that set it apart from the typical scientific broadcast.
Following his stint on Almost Live!, from 1991 to 1993, he appeared in the live-action educational segments of Back to the Future: The Animated Series in the nonspeaking role of assistant to Dr. Emmett Brown (played by Christopher Lloyd), in which he would demonstrate science while Lloyd explained.
In 1993, he developed a Bill Nye the Science Guy pilot for public broadcasting station KCTS-TV in Seattle. Nye collaborated with James McKenna, Erren Gottlieb and Elizabeth Brock to plan and create the show for KCTS. The group pitched the show as Mr. Wizard meets Pee-wee's Playhouse. He successfully obtained underwriting from the National Science Foundation and the US Department of Energy. Nye's program became part of a package of syndicated series that local stations could schedule to fulfill Children's Television Act requirements. Because of this, Bill Nye the Science Guy became the first program to run concurrently on public and commercial stations.
Bill Nye the Science Guy ran from 1993 to 1998, becoming one of the most-watched educational TV shows in the United States. Each of the 100 episodes aimed to teach a specific topic in science to a younger audience, yet it garnered a wide adult audience as well. With its comedic overtones, the show became popular as a teaching aid in schools. When portraying "The Science Guy", Nye wore a light blue lab coat and a bow tie. Nye Labs, the production offices and set where the show was shot, was located in a converted clothing warehouse near Seattle's Kingdome. With its quirky humor and rapid-fire MTV-style pacing, the show won critical acclaim and was nominated for 23 Emmy Awards, winning nineteen. Subsequent research studies found the program to be effective in teaching students science. Those that viewed Bill Nye regularly were better able to generate explanations and extensions of scientific ideas than non-viewers.
In addition to the TV show, Nye published several books as The Science Guy. A CD-ROM based on the series, titled Bill Nye the Science Guy: Stop the Rock!, was released in 1996 for Windows and Macintosh by Pacific Interactive.
Nye's Science Guy personality appears alongside Ellen DeGeneres and Alex Trebek in a video at Ellen's Energy Adventure, an attraction that has been playing since 1996 at the Universe of Energy pavilion inside Epcot at Walt Disney World. His voice is heard in the Dinosaur attraction in Disney's Animal Kingdom park, teaching guests about the dinosaurs while they queue for the ride. He appears in video form in the "Design Lab" of CyberSpace Mountain, inside DisneyQuest at Walt Disney World, where he refers to himself as "Bill Nye the Coaster Guy". His Science Guy persona was also the on-air spokesman for the Noggin television network during 1999.
Following the success of Bill Nye the Science Guy, Nye began work on a comeback project, entitled The Eyes of Nye, aimed at an older audience and tackling more controversial science subject matter such as genetically modified food, global warming, and race. However "shifting creative concepts, infighting among executives and disputes over money with Seattle producing station KCTS," significantly delayed production for years. KCTS was hampered by budgetary problems and wasn't able to produce an Eyes of Nye pilot on time. “KCTS went through some distress,” Nye recalled. “When we did The Eyes of Nye, the budget started out really big, and by the time we served all these little problems at KCTS, we had a much lower budget for the show than we’d ever had for the ‘Science Guy’ show which was made several years earlier.” PBS declined to distribute Eyes of Nye, though the show was eventually picked up by American Public Television. "PBS wanted more serious, in-depth Nova-style shows," explained co-producer Randy Brinson. The show, which eventually premiered in 2005, lasted for only one season and Nye acknowledged ditching his bow-tie on the program was a mistake. “I tried wearing a straight tie. It was nothing,” Nye said. “We were trying something new. It wasn’t me.”
From 2000 to 2002, Nye was the technical expert on BattleBots. In 2004 and 2005, Nye hosted 100 Greatest Discoveries, an award-winning series produced by THINKFilm for The Science Channel and in high definition on the Discovery HD Theater. He was also host of an eight-part Discovery Channel series called Greatest Inventions with Bill Nye. Nye guest-starred in several episodes of the crime drama Numb3rs as an engineering faculty member. A lecture Nye gave on exciting children about math was an inspiration for the creation of the show. He also made guest appearances on the VH1 reality show America's Most Smartest Model.
Nye appeared on segments of Heidi Cullen's The Climate Code on The Weather Channel, relating his personal ways of saving energy. In the fall of 2008, Nye also appeared periodically on the daytime game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire as part of the show's reintroduced "Ask the Expert" lifeline.
In 2008, he also hosted Stuff Happens, a short-lived show on the Planet Green network. In November 2008, Nye appeared in an acting role as himself in the fifth-season episode "Brain Storm" of Stargate Atlantis alongside fellow television personality and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.
In 2009, portions of Nye's shows were used as lyrics and portions of the second Symphony of Science music education video by composer John Boswell. Nye recorded a short YouTube video (as himself, not his TV persona) advocating clean-energy climate-change legislation on behalf of Al Gore's Repower America campaign in October 2009. Nye joined the American Optometric Association in a multimedia advertising campaign to persuade parents to get their children comprehensive eye examinations. Nye made an appearance in Palmdale's 2010 video "Here Comes the Summer"; the band's lead singer Kay Hanley is his neighbor. Nye (as his TV persona) also made a guest appearance on The Dr. Oz Show.
In September 2012, Nye claimed that creationist views threaten science education and innovation in the United States.
In 2013, Bill Nye guest starred in The Big Bang Theory episode "The Proton Displacement." Sheldon Cooper befriends him and brings him in to teach Leonard Cooper a "lesson" after Professor Proton (portrayed by Bob Newhart) helps Leonard out with an experiment instead of him. There was a claim by Professor Proton that Bill Nye made his TV series similar to his show. After he and Sheldon leave, Leonard receives a selfie picture of the two of them having smoothies and later gets a text from Sheldon asking for a ride home stating Bill Nye ditched him at the smoothie store. In a later discussion with Professor Photon, Sheldon stated that Bill Nye gave him a restraining order not to come within 500 ft of his house and can't help him make contact with Bill Nye.
In February 2014, Nye debated creationist Ken Ham at the Creation Museum on the topic of whether creation is a viable model of origins in today's modern, scientific era. In reaction to the debate, Nye published Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation in 2014. In July 2016, Ham gave Nye a tour of the Ark Encounter. He and Ham had an informal debate while touring the structure.
On February 28, 2014, Nye was a celebrity guest and interviewer at the White House Student Film Festival.
On August 31, 2016, Netflix announced that Nye would appear in a new series titled Bill Nye Saves the World, which premiered on April 21, 2017. Nye was honorary co-chair of the inaugural March for Science on April 22, 2017.
In the early 2000s, Nye assisted in the development of a small sundial that was included in the Mars Exploration Rover missions. Known as MarsDial, it included small colored panels to provide a basis for color calibration in addition to helping keep track of time. From 2005 to 2010, Nye was the vice president of The Planetary Society, an organization that advocates space science research and the exploration of other planets, particularly Mars. He became the organization's second Executive Director in September 2010 when Louis Friedman stepped down.
In November 2010, Nye became the face of a new permanent exhibition at the Chabot Space & Science Center in Oakland, California. Bill Nye's Climate Lab features Nye as commander of the Clean Energy Space Station and invites visitors on an urgent mission to thwart climate change. Beginning with a view of Planet Earth from space, visitors explore air, water, and land galleries to discover how climate change affects Earth’s connected systems, and how to use the Sun, wind, land, and water to generate clean energy. In an interview about the exhibit, Nye said:
Everything in the exhibit is geared to showing you that the size of the problem of climate change is big. Showing you a lot about energy use ... It's a huge opportunity ... We need young people, entrepreneurs, young inventors, young innovators to change the world.
Nye gave a solar noon clock atop Rhodes Hall to Cornell on August 27, 2012, following a public lecture that filled the 715-seat Statler Auditorium. Nye talked about his father's passion for sundials and timekeeping, his time at Cornell, his work on the sundials mounted on the Mars rovers and the story behind the Bill Nye Solar Noon Clock. Nye conducted a Q&A session after the 2012 Mars Rover Landing.
Nye holds several United States patents, including one for ballet pointe shoes and another for an educational magnifying glass created by filling a clear plastic bag with water. From 2001 to 2006, Nye served as Frank H. T. Rhodes Class of '56 University Professor at Cornell University. Nye supported the International Astronomical Union's 2006 definitions of the terms planet and dwarf planet, which classifies Pluto as the latter.
Nye is a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, a U.S. non-profit scientific and educational organization whose aim is to promote scientific inquiry, critical investigation, and the use of reason in examining controversial and extraordinary claims. Interviewed by John Rael for the Independent Investigation Group IIG, Nye stated that his "concern right now ... scientific illiteracy ... you [the public] don't have enough rudimentary knowledge of the universe to evaluate claims." In November 2012, Nye launched a Kickstarter project for an educational Aerodynamics game called AERO 3D but it was not funded. His book, Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation, was released on November 4, 2014. His second book, Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World, was published in 2015.
On Earth Day 2015, Nye met with U.S. President Obama to visit the Everglades National Park in Florida and discuss climate change as well as science education.
In March 2015, Nye announced he changed his mind and now supports GMOs. In a new edition of Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation, Nye rewrote a chapter on GMOs reflecting his new position. In a radio interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson, Nye stated "compared to all of the other herbicides, Glyphosate is pretty benign... there's no difference between allergies among GMO eaters and non-GMO eaters... organic farming takes a lot more water... I've changed my mind about genetically modified organisms".
In an interview with Marc Morano, Nye was asked about the prospect of jailing or punishing climate change deniers. He indicated he was open to the idea, saying, "We'll see what happens". Nye then compared the issue to instances in which people were punished for misleading the public, asking, "Was it appropriate to jail the guys from Enron?... Was it appropriate to jail people from the cigarette industry who insisted that this addictive product was not addictive, and so on?" In July 2017, Nye observed that the majority of climate change deniers are older people, and stated, "so we're just going to have to wait for those people to 'age out', as they say".
Nye was a contestant in the 17th season of 17th season of Dancing with the Stars in 2013, partnering with newcomer Tyne Stecklein. They were eliminated early in the season after Nye sustained an injury to his quadriceps tendon on Week 3.
Since 2014, Nye has divided his time between the Encino neighborhood of Los Angeles and the Chelsea district of Manhattan, though he has also owned a house on Mercer Island near Seattle.
Since July 2007, Nye and environmental activist Ed Begley, Jr. have engaged in a friendly competition "to see who could have the lowest carbon footprint", according to Begley. In a 2008 interview, Nye joked that he wants to "crush Ed Begley" in their environmental competition. Nye and Begley are neighbors in Los Angeles and sometimes dine together at a local vegetarian restaurant. Nye often appeared on Begley's HGTV/Planet Green reality show Living with Ed.
Nye enjoys baseball and occasionally does experiments involving the physics of the game. As a longtime Seattle resident, before becoming an entertainer, he is said to have been a fan of the Seattle Mariners, although recently he has voiced his preference (as a D.C. native) for the Washington Nationals. He also played Ultimate while in college and for a period of time while living in Seattle.
In July 2012, Nye endorsed President Barack Obama's reelection bid.
Nye announced his engagement during an appearance on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson and was married to his fiancée of five months, musician Blair Tindall, on February 3, 2006. The ceremony was performed by Rick Warren at The Entertainment Gathering at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. Yo-Yo Ma provided the music. Nye left the relationship seven weeks later when the marriage license was declared invalid. In 2007, Nye received a protective order against Tindall after an incident in which she came onto his property and used herbicide to damage his garden. Tindall admitted this but denied being a threat to him. In 2012, Nye sued Tindall for unpaid attorney's fees he incurred while he went to court in 2009 to enforce the protective order against Tindall after she allegedly violated it. According to Nye's court filings, she was ordered to pay these fees and, to date, has not paid any of it.
Nye is an avid swing dancer and describes himself as agnostic.
In May 1999, Nye was the commencement speaker at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute where he was awarded an honorary doctor of science degree. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by Johns Hopkins University in May 2008. In May 2011, Nye received an honorary doctor of science degree from Willamette University In May 2015, Rutgers University awarded him an honorary doctor of science degree and paid him a $35,000 speaker's fee for his participation as the keynote speaker at the ceremony. In addition, Nye also received an honorary doctor of pedagogy degree from Lehigh University on May 20, 2013, at the commencement ceremony. Nye received the 2010 Humanist of the Year Award from the American Humanist Association. In October 2015, Nye was awarded with an honorary doctorate of science from Simon Fraser University. In 2011, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSICOP) presented Nye their highest award In Praise of Reason, Eugenie Scott stated: "If you think Bill is popular among skeptics, you should attend a science teacher conference where he is speaking" it is standing room only. She continues by saying that no one has more fun than Nye when he is "demonstrating, principles of science." In 1997, CSICOP also presented Nye with the Candle in the Dark Award for his "lively, creative... endeavor".Nye, Bill (2014). Powell, Corey S., ed. Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation. St. Martin's Press. ISBN 9781250007131.
Nye, Bill (2015). Powell, Corey S., ed. Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World. St. Martin's Press. ISBN 9781250007148.
Time magazine has interviewed him for "12 Questions with Bill Nye".