For many of us Bill Nye is part of our childhoods, playing that crucial role as educator and illuminator of science when our impressionable minds might not have thought to ask why. With his television show he taught us why science is amazing by examining the details of how everything works, and he continues to be an advocate of science education and exploration.
Picture: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Flickr
Bill is still busy — always busy. His recent book Undeniable examines the details of evolutionary theory in a way that demonstrates how it’s rooted in scientific method — essentially explaining how science works and why a “theory” is not necessarily an ephemeral guess. And Bill has been working with General Electric’s #EmojiScience Lab to continue his history of igniting childhood interest in science, this time utilising new venues of online media.
We caught up with Bill to learn about his methods, his bowties, and how he works.
Location: New York most of the time with visits to Los Angeles often enough.
Current Gig: CEO, The Planetary Society, empowering citizens of the Earth to advance space science and exploration, to know the cosmos and our place within it.
One word that best describes how you work: Focused
Current mobile device: iPhone 6 (regular size)
Current computer: MacBook Air
What’s your workspace setup like?
Desk with keypad lower than desktop surface. I connect large monitor, external speakers, and external keyboard to my laptop at my house in Studio City, at the Planetary Society in Pasadena, and at my apartment in New York. Have the portability of laptop with full capability of a desktop — when I finally sit still.
I have multiple coffee brewing technologies in each location as well.
What apps, software, or tools can’t you live without?
- Microsoft Word.
- Scanners — to make documents into .pdf files.
- Virtually every single day, often twice or four times a day, I use Embark to find subway schedules in New York.
- I rely on weather apps everyday. I take a great many pictures with my phone everyday as well.
- Love Turboscan.
What’s your best time-saving shortcut or life hack?
I scan and email documents like engineering sketches and contract signature pages rather using than postal mail or shipping. I do it because it’s easier, faster, and more reliable. It also requires less energy and fewer resources. Soon electronic signatures will be secure and reliable enough, and soon sketches will be done with styli on my tablet at a level of quality that’s good enough, for electronic transmission. Is that life hacking or changing with the times? I remind everyone, email goes one way. It does not guarantee that anyone will act on it, agree with it, or even read it for hours and days 😉
What’s your favourite to-do list manager?
I rely heavily on note cards and paper with pens to store information outside of my body — but in my pocket. Phone to-do lists often become too long to be useful. My eyes and brain overlook key items. There is subtle information in handwriting and symbols adjacent to line items that still helps me address a list or sequence of tasks or errands. Compare a paper market list with items crossed off with an electronic list from which items have been deleted.
Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without and why?
Coffee makers of various descriptions and capabilities. I like the effect of caffeine, but perhaps more important is the ritual of the warm cup and the delightful aroma.
Being a communicator of science for many years, do you find your methods changing and adapting as media evolves?
Emoji are great. The evolution emoji were charming in that recent video, but most of what viewers get out of that piece comes from the words. Emoji are very much like smiley faces drawn on post-it notes. Animations are great — however, I claim there is still nothing more compelling than a demonstration with physical objects. Seeing animations of mechanisms driving generators are good as far as they go, but they are not as valuable as pedalling a bicycle to power a lightbulb, or better yet different styles of lightbulbs.
Is there any particular methodology you have for distilling complex concepts into easily understandable explanations?
Discuss, argue, analyse, think through, exactly what it is you want the listener, viewer or student to get.
Then, be very disciplined in the words you use to tell the story. I have met dozens of people, maybe hundreds, who do not connect the word “fracking” with the word “fracturing”, for example. Poisonous frogs and venomous snakes use toxins for very different reasons. But if you, as the student, don’t know the word “venomous”, well, I’ve blown it as an educator.
Regarding your recent book, what sort of tools do you use to manage large writing projects?
For most things, Microsoft Word is how I roll; I count words and arrange paragraphs and chapters continually, many times a day or even many times an hour — this along with handwritten notes, notes and more notes. At the Planetary Society, we use a great many Google Docs; they’re well-suited to a shared file.
I also rely on Screenwriter for my screenplay, which may get optioned this week (how cool would that be?!!)…
What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else?
I seem to excel at tying bow ties. That’s from practice and an admitted fascination with knots. I also seem to be especially good at poaching eggs. That my friends and business associates cannot poach eggs is fascinating in a different, and of course troubling, way. Boil water. Add a few millilitres of white vinegar. Crack the egg. Swirl the water. Drop the egg in the boiling swirling water. Adjust the heat. Come back in three minutes and scoop the egg out with your bare hands… no wait, I mean with a spoon, a slotted spoon, if you have one.
What do you listen to while you work?
When I’m recycling the continuous flow of paper that I did not ask to receive and the bits of paper from which I have extracted necessary information, I listen to swing era music. When I’m writing a book, it’s silence — no music. When I’m doing something fun, like vacuuming, it’s the top 20 on satellite radio. I crank Uptown Funk as loud it will go. When I’m working out, it’s a combination of these styles on wireless headphones. When I’m doing something fun and dangerous, like riding my own bike or a Citi-Bike in Manhattan, it’s no music. Riders with headphones are, in my opinion, asking for trauma.
What are you currently reading?
This Changes Everything, by Naomi Klein (and this email from you…).
Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?
I’m an extrovert, I suppose. However, when I’m concentrating, I’m not much for interacting with others.
What’s your sleep routine like?
I’m in between a night-owl and an early riser. I get up about 7am. I seldom need an alarm. When I’m travelling and time zones are a’changin’, I use the alarm on my phone. I can just ask the Siri software to wake me up. I no longer carry a travel alarm clock, which was a staple on the travel checklist for years and years.
Fill in the blank: I’d love to see _________ answer these same questions.
… the girl of my dreams, the one I’m going to marry,
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
People are a lot more alike than they are different; everyone you’ll ever meet knows something you don’t.
Is there anything else you’d like to add that might be interesting to readers and fans?
A good hack lets you do more with less. We need some fantastic enormous hacks to address climate change. So hey everybody, let’s get busy!
We’ve asked a handful of heroes, experts and flat-out productive people to share their shortcuts, workspaces and routines. Every week we’ll feature a new guest and the gadgets, apps, tips and tricks that keep them going. Want to suggest someone we should feature or questions we should ask? Let us know.