​Bill Nye the Science Guy: Here to change the world

Bill Nye the Science Guy has gone from changing the way kids look at science, to trying to change the way some adults deal with climate change. It's a campaign that begins close to home, as Rita Braver discovered:

On a quiet, residential street in water-starved Los Angeles sits Nye Labs. It's the home of Bill Nye the Science Guy.

And here, everything is a science project, from the composter to the solar panels to the vegetable garden (which he calls a "xeriscape," which requires about 1/20th the amount of water).

Nye offered Braver some of his kale: "Everybody eats kale, and it's great, and it just grows like crazy. It's good. There's nothing better for you!"

And inside, he showed her the periodic table he used on television ("The Smithsonian wants this!").

"So, this is a historic thing I'm looking at here?"

"Yeah, well, I mean, if you're a Science Guy show fan, yeah!"

And there are many.

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Correspondent Rita Braver with Bill Nye the Science Guy.

CBS News

The 1990s show "Bill Nye the Science Guy" made him a star, all in the service of teaching kids science. The show ended in 1998 -- but 60-year-old Nye's work as a bow-tied science educator has not.

Only now, his focus is on adults.

"I feel we have a real problem of anti-science right now," Nye said. "If you have people who are voters and taxpayers who don't believe in science, we're gonna fall behind as a society."

Hence his high-profile debate a while back, defending the theory of evolution against attacks from creationists who believe the universe was created in six days:

Creationist Ken Ham: "I believe it's the creationists that should be educating the kids out there, because we're teaching them the right way to think."
Nye: "Mr. Ham, how could there be billions of stars more distant than 6,000 years if the world's only 6,000 years old?"

But he is most passionate about the dangers of climate change, the subject of his latest book: "Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World" (St. Martin's Press).

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St. Martin's Press

"Climate change is real," he said in an online video. "Let's keep in mind that there's something about which you should give a f***."

Braver asked, "Have you become politicized?"

"Yeah, well, people look at me as a political figure, for sure."

"And is that okay with you?"

"Well, what's the alternative?" Nye replied. "I mean, if climate change is objectively an enormous problem, and if you think it's because I'm a progressive and you're a conservative, then that's you putting it on me. I really work to be open-minded. And genetically-modified food is a classic example."

Yes, he's down an about-face on these foods which he once opposed.

"I was really impressed with how thorough agricultural testing is," he said. "It's really amazing. It's amazing. It changed my mind."

"You've kind of alienated some people who have been supporters and fans in the past."

"I'm doin' my best here, people! I've looked at the data, and I've changed my mind. What more do you need from me? That's science."

So says the Science Guy. But it may surprise you to learn that he's actually William Sanford Nye, the Mechanical Engineer.

A Cornell graduate -- rejected four times for the astronaut program -- Nye joined Boeing in the 1980s working on the 747.

Then one day he won a Steve Martin look-alike contest, which led to TV gigs doing his own brand of comedy.

And somehow it all led to "Bill Nye the Science Guy."

Almost 30 years later, the Science Guy is no act. Nye's day job is CEO of the Planetary Society, a space enthusiast organization. It's set to launch the first-ever solar-propelled spacecraft next year.

But while Nye dreams of outer space, it's his own DNA that worries him.

"My family has an affliction called ataxia," he said. "My sister has it real bad. You walk like you're drunk. And my sister has a walker. That's how she goes everywhere. And apparently it's not a strength thing. It has to do with your balance, which comes from your cerebellum."

"But you don't have symptoms of this?"

"Yeah, I do. Two years ago I noticed it."

"For someone who sees this from a scientific viewpoint is this a bit scary for you?" asked Braver.

"If you're not scared of this, I don't know what you're scared of."

But one thing he thinks can stave it off is exercise, which is why you'll often find Nye at Rusty's Rhythm Club at a local Elks Lodge, swing dancing the night away.

Braver said, "The last place most people think Bill Nye the Science Guy would be is on a dance floor at an Elks club!"

"It's a blast!" he said. "I like the music, and the joy of movement with your body. It feels great. And then you get to hold the woman, which is priceless!"

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Bill Nye cuts a rug swing dancing.

CBS News

"You're single. Do you have a significant other these days?"

"Maybe ..." he laughed. "I've had a lot of girlfriends. And looking back, it would've been better to get married and have kids. But I was doing this other thing."

This "other thing," Bill Nye says, is summed up in a single line he wrote for the staffers of his old show: "Change the world."

"Heck, yes. If you don't think you can, then what are you doing here? Come on, people! Let's make the world better than we found it!"


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