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14 Deductive Facts About Bill Nye, the Science Guy

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Consider the following: Through careful observation, you may have learned a number of things about William Sanford "Bill" Nye over the years—that he’s a famously funny scientist, educator, and author, perhaps, or that his 2013 stint on Dancing With The Stars ended with injury and a final performance to “Get Lucky” that left judges lukewarm. His public appearances and the show Bill Nye the Science Guy are just the tip of the iceberg, though. Here are a few facts that even the most Nye-hard fans might not know.

1. HIS MOTHER WAS A WORLD WAR II CODEBREAKER AND A SCIENCE WHIZ.

Jacqueline Jenkins-Nye was finishing up her psychology degree at Goucher College in 1942 when she and several other young women were called to the dean’s office for a hush-hush meeting. The U.S. Secretary of War was scouring women’s colleges “seeking their best and brightest for a project so secret that none of the participants was allowed to know its purpose,” according to The Baltimore Sun. After graduation, Jenkins joined an elite group of people whose work as cryptanalysts, or codebreakers, helped finally crack the Japanese and German militaries’ very crafty communication codes.

Science, education, and dedication were major themes throughout her long life and career—ones that had an “infinite, immeasurable” influence on her son, Nye told The Baltimore Sun:

"She taught me how to cook—and how to make the famous family salad dressing that her grandmother taught her to make, which was pure chemistry. She taught me how to sew, even. To this day, I still own a sewing machine. And to this day, I can still hear her chanting in my ear: 'Sit up straight! Shoulders back! Now train, train, train! Do it till you get it right!'"

2. HE WENT TO SIDWELL FRIENDS SCHOOL IN HIS HOMETOWN OF WASHINGTON, D.C.

In an opinion essay he wrote for the Huffington Post in 2009, Nye said that he attended D.C.’s Sidwell Friends School—a private Quaker institution where Chelsea Clinton, Sasha and Malia Obama, and many other politicians' kids have studied—for middle and high school. Nye attended Sidwell thanks to a partial scholarship and his parents’ determination, which helped him transfer from a public school where classrooms were packed, spitballs flew freely, and bullies harassed bussed-in students from nearby schools that “were really not separate, and most especially not equal,” Nye wrote.

3. HE TOOK A CLASS WITH CARL SAGAN ...

While at Cornell University, Nye took an Astronomy class taught by Carl Sagan, and the older man’s enthusiasm and penchant for innovation helped ignite Nye’s lifelong charge to achieve the same. At a reunion years later, Nye also mentioned his TV plans to Sagan, and received good, matter-of-fact advice from his former professor that would help make Bill Nye the Science Guy such a success: "Focus on pure science. Kids resonate to pure science."

4. ... AND FOLLOWED IN HIS FOOTSTEPS.

Nye became a member of The Planetary Society, an organization dedicated to extraterrestrial exploration that was co-founded by Sagan in 1980. After taking on other roles in the organization following Sagan’s death, as Nye explained to NOVA, "There was a dinner party, there was wine, or something, and now I'm the CEO, I'm the head guy of the Planetary Association, so Carl Sagan is deep within me. I am part of his legacy.”

5. HE APPLIED REPEATEDLY TO BE AN ASTRONAUT.

Nye applied four times for NASA’s astronaut training program, but he was always rejected, which he blamed on his lack of a Ph.D. (Nye has a degree in mechanical engineering from Cornell.) Or, maybe, he joked to AOL last year, “it could be because I was completely unqualified.”

6. HE'S MADE HIS MARK ON MARS, THOUGH.

Nye was part of a team that designed the MarsDial, a tool installed on the Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity rovers that helps calibrate color in photos taken of the planet from inside its thinner, different-colored atmosphere.

7. NYE HAS A NEED FOR SPEED.

"I really like to go fast,” Nye told the St. Petersburg Times, “but you know how many speeding tickets I have? That's right. Zero. A car is a weapon. If you have a loaded gun you have to treat it with respect. The same is true of a car, and I'm not saying that I won't get a speeding ticket this afternoon, I'm not saying that I'm some kind of driving genius, but I do respect it and understand how fabulously dangerous it is."

Aside from his love of speed, Nye is a huge proponent of electric vehicles, and has even called for NASCAR to get on Team Green and use electric whips instead of gas-guzzlers.

8. HIS HIT TV SHOW WAS BASED ON A COMEDY SKETCH.

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Prior to making a splash with Bill Nye the Science Guy in 1993, Nye was doing his quirky-yet-educational experiments on the comedy show Almost Live, which aired on Seattle NBC affiliate KING-TV from 1984 to 1999. In one 1990 Almost Alive episode (above), he uses the studio’s less-than-professional-grade equipment (or, as Nye puts it, its “Mickey-Mouse Science Guy” setup) to tease chemistry lessons out of glasses of Coca Cola for the benefit of the show’s live audience and the scene’s less-than-impressed host. In addition to being the show’s go-to science expert, he also filled out the heroic role of “Speed Walker” on the program.

9. THE RENOWNED SCIENTIST IS “KOOKY” FOR STEVE MARTIN.

In addition to his shenanigans on TV, Nye’s comedic resume includes a decade of performing stand-up, and he’s quick to cite his “hero” Steve Martin as a major influence. "I'm kooky for Steve," he told the St. Petersburg Times in 1999. "I hope to meet him someday. I wrote him a note, but I never heard back from him: ‘Dear Steve, I'm Bill Nye. I owe my career to you. I'd like to buy you lunch sometime. Your friend, Bill.' … I'm sure he's like, ‘This guy's insane. He's a stalker.'" Before he became famous as the Science Guy, Nye even won a Steve Martin lookalike contest.

10. HE MADE A BACK TO THE FUTURE TV SHOW WITH CHRISTOPHER LLOYD ...

From 1991 to 1992, Nye helped organize live-action science experiments on Back to the Future: The Animated Series as Christopher Lloyd’s (nonspeaking) onscreen assistant.

11. ... AND HAD A HAND IN BATTLEBOTS, NUMB3RS, AND STARGATE: ATLANTIS.

Given his range of talents, it might not be too surprising that Nye has played a number of roles in bringing science-friendly programming to the small screen. From 2000 to 2002, he served as the technical expert on the robot fighting show BattleBots, while a math education lecture he gave helped inspire the detective show Numb3rs and led to his recurring cameos on it. In his free time, he also produced Solving for X, an algebra-teaching series of DVDs, and even showed up in an episode of Stargate: Atlantis to give one character a little nerd-style bullying with the help of Neil deGrasse Tyson.

12. HE’S BEEN CAMPAIGNING FOR BETTER EDUCATION FOR DECADES.

Nye promotes education shape-ups and the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) learning any chance he gets—and he makes sure there are plenty. In addition to speaking and writing widely on the topics, he’s a frequent speaker at conferences of the National Science Teachers Association. In 2000, shortly after a study ranking the world's schools was released, Nye told audiences that "If the U.S. was ranked 17th in the world in track and field or in Olympic swimming [instead of science and math abilities among eighth-graders], there would be a tremendous outcry ... Imagine the money that would be spent to fix that."

13. HE AND ED BEGLEY JR. ONCE ENGAGED IN A BATTLE TO HAVE THE GREENEST HOUSE.

Nye has put a lot of time and thought into making his house as eco-friendly as possible, and when they lived next door to each other, he and actor/environmentalist Ed Begley, Jr. enjoyed some friendly competition where minimized footprints were concerned. In 2008, Nye was winning: Solar panels and various home upgrades meant his house put more energy back into his local power grid than it took out. Then, in late 2015, Begley moved. It’s difficult to determine who ultimately won their green-off contest, but when he moved, Begley had nine kilowatts of solar panels on his roof to Nye’s four, because, as Nye told National Geographic, “a different neighbor’s house blocked the sun at certain times of the day. I’ve thought about cutting that part of her house down,” he said, laughing, "but it probably wouldn’t be the most neighborly thing."

14. HIS COMFORT FOOD IS ONE SLICE OF BACON.

Last but not least, you might be wondering what kind of snack the famous science fan, who the Seattle Times once described as always “[spinning] like a dynamo, power source unseen,” enjoys when he finally unwinds. The answer, he told The New York Times, is a “single slice of organically raised bacon, from the froufrou hippie grocery down the street. Fry that with a few leaves of my homegrown chard. That’s living. You get the bitter with the fat and the salt.”

All photos courtesy of Getty Images unless otherwise noted.

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Bleat Along to Classic Holiday Tunes With This Goat Christmas Album
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Feeling a little Grinchy this month? The Sweden branch of ActionAid, an international charity dedicated to fighting global poverty, wants to goat—errr ... goad—you into the Christmas spirit with their animal-focused holiday album: All I Want for Christmas is a Goat.

Fittingly, it features the shriek-filled vocal stylings of a group of festive farm animals bleating out classics like “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The recording may sound like a silly novelty release, but there's a serious cause behind it: It’s intended to remind listeners how the animals benefit impoverished communities. Goats can live in arid nations that are too dry for farming, and they provide their owners with milk and wool. In fact, the only thing they can't seem to do is, well, sing. 

You can purchase All I Want for Christmas is a Goat on iTunes and Spotify, or listen to a few songs from its eight-track selection below.

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15 Things You May Not Know About Close Encounters of the Third Kind
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We are not alone. Here are a few facts about Steven Spielberg’s 1977 UFO classic, on its 40th anniversary.

1. IT WAS INITIALLY A VERY DIFFERENT FILM.

Spielberg’s initial story outline involved UFOs and shady government dealings following the Watergate scandal, which became a script entitled “Watch the Skies.” The idea involved a police or military officer working on Project Blue Book, the Air Force’s official study into UFOs in the 1950s and 1960s, who would become the whistleblower on the government cover-up of aliens. There were numerous rewrites—Taxi Driver scribe Paul Schrader even took a crack at it, penning a political UFO thriller titled “Kingdom Come” that Spielberg and the movie studio rejected—before the story we know today emerged.

2. IT’S NAMED AFTER LEGITIMATE UFO RESEARCH.


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Spielberg partly based his idea on the research of Dr. J. Allen Hynek, a civilian scientific advisor to Project Blue Book who eventually admitted that 11 percent of the study’s findings about unidentified flying objects could not be explained using science.

The title (which is never specifically explained in the movie) is actually derived from Hynek’s own alien close encounter classification system: A close encounter of the first kind is sighting of a UFO; the second kind is physical evidence to prove the existence of an alien; and the third kind is actual contact with alien life forms.

3. THERE’S A CAMEO FROM THE GODFATHER OF UFO RESEARCH.

Hynek, who also served as a technical advisor on the movie, makes an uncredited cameo in the final scene of the movie. You can spot him pretty easily—he’s the goateed man smoking a pipe and wearing a powder blue suit who pushes through the crowd of scientists to get a better look at the aliens.

4. NOBODY WANTED THE STARRING ROLE.

Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Columbia Pictures

The director first offered the part of Roy Neary to actor Steve McQueen, who turned it down because he said he couldn’t cry on cue, something he saw as essential to the character. Spielberg then went to Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman, and James Caan who all turned him down as well before asking his friend Richard Dreyfuss, who previously worked with Spielberg on Jaws, to take the part.

5. BUT IT WASN'T THE MOST DIFFICULT ROLE TO CAST.

Spielberg approached French actors like Lino Ventura, Yves Montand, and Jean-Louis Trintignant to play Claude Lacombe—who was based on famous UFO researcher Jacques Vallée—before settling on director and sometimes-actor François Truffaut. The initially skeptical Truffaut, who was nervous about appearing in a big budget Hollywood movie, accepted the role because he wanted to compile research for a book about acting (he never did write the book).

6. MERYL STREEP COULD HAVE PLAYED ROY'S WIFE.

Many actresses—including a then-unknown Yale Drama School grad named Meryl Streep—auditioned for the part of Roy’s wife Ronnie, but he ultimately cast actress Teri Garr because he saw her in a coffee commercial and loved the way she was able to convey a wide range of emotions in a 30-second clip.

7. THEY SHOT IN A DISUSED AIR FORCE HANGAR.


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Spielberg wanted to shoot in real suburban locations rather than studio backlots, but the production had trouble finding locations. The biggest question: Where could Spielberg shoot the climactic canyon sequence with the mothership?

The production looked for huge indoor enclosures that would allow for the massive scale of the scene, though they only found ones with center support dividers that spoiled the openness Spielberg wanted for the UFO runway. The only location producers found without center dividers was a 300 foot by 300 foot disused hangar that had been used for dirigibles during World War II at Brookley Air Force base in Mobile, Alabama.

8. THE TEAM BOUGHT A HOUSE FOR THE PRODUCTION—AND SOLD IT FOR A PROFIT.

The Nearys' house, which is located at 1613 Carlisle Drive East in Mobile, was actually purchased by the production for $35,000 so they could do whatever they wanted with the interiors. It was later sold for $50,000 after production wrapped, netting a $15,000 surplus that went back into the film’s budget.

9. THE MEMORABLE 5-NOTE TONES TOOK A LONG TIME TO FIGURE OUT

Composer John Williams worked with Spielberg to come up with the movie’s distinct five-note musical method of communication between humans and aliens—which Spielberg partly based on the Solfège system of musical education—a year before shooting began.

Williams initially wanted a seven-note sequence, but it was too long for the simple musical “greeting” Spielberg wanted. The composer enlisted a mathematician to calculate the number of five-note combinations they could potentially make from a 12-note scale. When that number proved to be somewhere upwards of 134,000 combinations, Williams created 100 distinct versions, and they simply whittled the combinations down one by one until they had a winner.

10. SPIELBERG USED TRICKS TO GET THE PERFORMANCE OUT OF HIS CHILD ACTOR.


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Cary Guffey, who plays little Barry Guiler, had never acted before, so Spielberg set up ways to coax a performance out of the 3-year-old. To get a shot of Guffey reacting to the aliens first approaching the Guiler house, Spielberg slowly unwrapped a present for the young actor just off camera, making him smile. Guffey even exclaims “Toys! Toys!” in the final take.

To get the boy to react to the aliens offscreen, Spielberg had Guffey walk up to his mark where—unbeknownst to the little actor—two crewmembers were dressed as a gorilla and a clown standing behind cardboard blinds. When Guffey entered the kitchen, Spielberg dropped the first blind revealing the clown to scare him, and then dropped the other blind to reveal the gorilla, which scared him even more. The gorilla then took off his mask, revealing the film’s makeup man, Bob Westmoreland, who Guffey recognized, causing him to laugh and smile in the final take.

11. THE MOVIE NEARLY FEATURED VERY EARLY CGI.

Spielberg originally toyed with the idea of using computer generated images to create the aliens and their ships, even going so far as to have animator Colin Cantwell create a CGI test of three UFOs floating over a stadium. The single-shot test, which took three weeks to complete and was one of the first computer generated images ever created for a film, proved to be unfeasible for the whole movie—so the idea was dropped.

12. THERE WERE SOME UNORTHODOX IDEAS FOR CREATING THE ALIENS.

Spielberg wanted the aliens to be non-human beings that glided instead of walked, and he had a weird idea to pull it off: An orangutan dressed in a specially-made suit. For a screen test, the production team outfitted an orangutan in grey spandex and strapped it into roller skates. The orangutan immediately took off the skates and crawled to its owner, so a full test couldn’t be completed, and the team scrapped the idea. The majority of the small aliens in the final movie were played by local elementary school girls from Mobile in specially made grey suits and masks who were heavily backlit to create the final alien silhouette effect.

13. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS FEATURES A PRECURSOR TO E.T.


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To create the alien who bids farewell using the musical hand signals at the end of the film, Spielberg enlisted the help of Italian special effects artist Carlo Rambaldi, who designed a fully articulated steel, aluminum, and fiberglass animatronic puppet that Spielberg nicknamed “Puck.” Puck’s expressions were based on photos of Guffey. The puppet was operated by a crew of seven puppeteers, with Spielberg himself controlling the final articulation before the alien leaves to go to the mothership.

Puck would help inspire E.T. after Spielberg asked himself, “What if this little guy didn’t get back on the mothership?” Rambaldi would also go on to design the character of E.T.

14. SPIELBERG BET AGAINST HIS OWN MOVIE—AND REALLY CASHED IN.

Spielberg and his buddy George Lucas both had new movies coming out in 1977; Lucas’s was a little movie called Star Wars. Lucas thought his ramshackle space movie wouldn’t make back its budget, and he knew his friend’s new movie would break box office records just like Jaws had done, so he offered Spielberg a friendly wager. Both agreed to give the other 2.5 percent of the profits of their respective films. Lucas grossly underestimated his movie, which went on to become the second highest grossing movie of all time if adjusted for inflation (in comparison, Close Encounters is #71). The difference ended up being $40 million.

15. SPIELBERG DIDN'T LIKE THE VERSION THAT WAS INITIALLY RELEASED.

Spielberg wanted to release Close Encounters in the summer of 1978, which would have given him ample time to edit the film and finish its special effects—but Columbia Pictures, which was going through major financial troubles, insisted he have it ready for a November 1977 release, leaving the director with a final cut on a movie he didn’t feel was completely ready. 

Three years later, the company allowed Spielberg to “finish” the movie under one condition: That he show the inside of the mothership, which would give the studio’s marketing department an angle to sell this new version. The director capitulated, adding new scenes and cutting others to create a “Special Edition.” The director was unhappy with the scene, though, and later cut it for the Collector's Edition home video release.

ADDITIONAL SOURCES:Blu-ray special features; Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Making of Steven Spielberg’s Classic FilmClose Encounters of the Third Kind Diary.

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