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'Science Guy' takes Ithacans on Interstellar Tour


Larry Klaes


Bill Nye, "the Science Guy" and two-time graduate of Cornell University, made his latest trip to Ithaca and his alma mater this past week, where he gave a lecture to a packed audience and capped off his visit with a guided tour of the Solar System.

Anyone passing through the Commons on a chilly but clear afternoon last Friday, would have encountered a group of at least 80 adults and children surrounding the Sun monument of the Carl Sagan Planet Walk. Nye stood next to this tribute to Carl Sagan and the star that sustains Earth. Sagan was Nye's teacher and mentor when he took graduate courses at Cornell in the 1970s. This was the first time that Nye had led a tour of the Planet Walk but not the first time he's seen the Planet Walk. He was one of the speakers at the monument's dedication ceremony in November of 1997. Nye said that walking through the memorial was "like going to church" for him.
Nye went on to garner fame as "the Science Guy" who explained science to children on PBS in the 1990s. At least one group of surprised college students exclaimed "Oh my God, it's Bill Nye!" upon recognizing the man they watched on television when they were youngsters.

Nye and his entourage visited each planet in our Solar System, which is honored and marked by a monument placed at the proper scale across Ithaca, extending north from The Commons to the Sciencenter. At each planet, Nye stopped to explain to the crowd through a megaphone the unique features of our celestial neighbors. He spoke in terms that any Earth native would understand, regardless of their age. For example, he said the surface of Venus is "hotter than your kitchen oven" thanks to the planet's thick, enveloping cloud cover of sulfur and carbon dioxide. And Mars is reddish in color because the soil is "rusted" due to its iron oxides.
Earth was literally depicted as the "pale blue dot" that Sagan made famous in describing our small but precious world. Nye quoted Sagan saying, "Everyone you have ever known lives on that pale blue dot" to bring home to the crowd our tiny but important place in the grand scheme of existence.

Children explored each planet monument, climbing over the informative slabs and peering at the often tiny representations of the planets encased inside a clear Plexiglas disk within the concrete obelisks.

The vast di**stances between the worlds became evident once Nye's fellow travelers left the close proximities of the terrestrial planets in the Commons and headed out into the realm of gas giant worlds. Jupiter sits at the corner of the DeWitt Mall, where Nye taught young Meara MacGregor that the largest planet in the Solar System "sucked up all those meteors" and comets that might otherwise have struck Earth and gave us as bad a day as the dinosaurs had 65 million years ago.
The rest of the planets grew even more distant from each other as the group walked to the icy edge of the solar system. By the time Nye's group reached the outermost world - tiny, icy Pluto just outside the Sciencenter - the ground-based astronauts had walked almost one mile from the Commons and over five billion scale miles from the nucleus of the solar system to its farthest known orbiting planet.

Had the crowd wanted to carry on to the nearest star system, 25 trillion miles distant Alpha Centauri, they would have had to go all the way to Hawaii. But for many, the scaled down trip from the Sun to Pluto gave them enough of an idea just how big the Solar System really is.

The tired travelers made their final journey into the Sciencenter's new Wall of Inspiration room, where they refueled with cookies and apple cider. They also talked to Bill Nye, who took some time to answer their questions and sign autographs.

Nye comes to Ithaca to teach. He has served as a Rhodes Professor at Cornell University since 2001. He quipped that his purpose on campus was to "wander around and be fun and charming." Nye also relayed his passion for science and his strong desire to get others interested in the field, which he demonstrated at his Oct. 21 lecture titled "Galileo's Grapes: A Cosmological Perspective."

Nye began his talk at Kennedy Hall on the possibilities of life beyond Earth. Nye pointed out that Galileo's Grapes referred to the Renaissance scientist's comment that nature was not made to nurture just one grape in a field of such fruits. Neither was the Universe designed for just one intelligent species on one planet out of many billions.

Nye developed an interest at science at an early age. He went on to become an aircraft engineer. He also tried his hand at stand-up comedy, which led Nye to combine his talents to create his Science Guy persona for the PBS show.

, 2003
Larry Klaes

Published in Ithaca Times Article, October 29, 2003


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