One of the most famous science geeks, Bill Nye (aka "The Science Guy"), guest-stars on CBS' Numbers tonight (at 10 pm/ET), but his connection to the mathematics-based procedural appears to be much, much deeper than that. TVGuide.com (tried to) put on our thinking cap and quizzed Nye on his Numbers ties, on bow ties and more.
TVGuide.com: So what's this about you inspiring Cheryl Heuton and Nick Falacci to create the series Numbers?
That's what they claim — and that's quite an extraordinary claim. I don't know if that's true, but.... I read it first in Wired magazinelast spring. After that article came out, I met with them. One of the first thing that Cheryl and Nick embraced when we had breakfast was this idea of sundials. There is so much information in the shadow of a stick, if you know what you're looking for, and they used it in an episode to determine the place in Los Angeles where a shadow cast by a basketball goal was.
TVGuide.com: I take it you're a fan of the show?
Oh, yeah. I'm kooky for it. In the same way [in which] people now believe in forensic science on account of CSI, Numbers makes many viewers accept the idea that mathematics can uncover patterns in the universe. Albeit, it's a cop show, but there always have been cop shows. Sherlock Holmes is a cop show, for crying out loud.
TVGuide.com: Sum up your role for our readers.
I play an engineering professor who investigates combustion — and I will tell you, I am an engineering professor and I have taught combustion engineering. [Laughs]
TVGuide.com: A-ha! I sensed that you were not so much acting as doing your shtick on a set.
Well, what can you do? That's the way it was written. And if you notice, my character's name is Bill! That's the coolest thing in the world. What I really like about the show is the relationship between the natural world and the math, the physics. I hope that "Bill" shows up again; it was really fun.
TVGuide.com: Your big scene is with David Krumholtz, whom I understand impresses you greatly.
David Krumholtz is an actor, but he hopes that some day somebody comes up to him and says "I became a mathematician..." or "I went into science because I watched Numbers." He's really passionate about it, ever since they went to the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics meeting. I'm so happy to be a part of the show, it makes me feel like a million bucks.
TVGuide.com: Was it a bummer that you didn't get to blow up anything during your on-screen backdraft demo?
Well, I had embellished it in a couple of the outtakes, but the whole idea of a backdraft is that smoke carries fuel, which is cool and remarkable. Under the right conditions — or, if you're a firefighter, the wrong conditions — that fuel-laden smoke starts to burn really fast, and you get an explosion.
TVGuide.com: In real life, where are you teaching these days?
I am now a visiting professor at Cornell through an endowment from the Class of 1956, and I go back once a semester to give them my hilarious and charming insights. I took astronomy there from Carl Sagan, and now I am in front of the same lecture hall.
TVGuide.com: That has to be surreal for you.
I tell myself, "I'm not going to cry, I'm not crying to cry," but I do get choked up. Most of the students now don't know who Carl Sagan was, so I tell them. One of Sagan's ideas was if you're going to throw a spacecraft into outer space, write something on it, like a message in a bottle. So these two rovers on Mars now, Spirit and Opportunity, there's a sundial on them, and on the edge is this inscription: "To those who visit here we wish a safe journey and the joy of discovery." I think that's just fantastic.
TVGuide.com: It's a very fitting sentiment.
But these two rovers are costing like $440 million, sitting on Mars — and they're not even locked. Anybody could walk right up and take one! [Laughs]
TVGuide.com: Is it true that you own six dozen bow ties?
Oh, I own more than that. I own more than 100.
TVGuide.com: Does Sharper Image even make a motorized rack for bow ties?
The standard tie rack is suitable for bow ties, but we at Nye Labs have two standard tie racks mounted to the wall much closer together than they normally would be, since bow ties are shorter.
TVGuide.com: Your NyeLabs.com bio says that your favorite science was physics, but now it's evolutionary biology. What did poor physics ever do to you?
I still love physics. I make my living on physics; I have nothing against physics! [Laughs] It's just that evolutionary biology, lately, has unlocked the secrets of the universe. It's amazing what people are discovering. It essentially comes to this: Not only are your size and shape a result of evolution, but what you feel is a result of evolution, which is spooky! You think you have free will, but.... That first day of summer in New York, when the women come out in those skirts, they twist your neck. You just can't help but look at them. And there's something deep, deep in the brain [causing] that. And there is something deep in their brain motivating the women to dress that way, as well.
TVGuide.com: And here I just thought it was the warm weather. Do you think the prevalence of computers and the Internet is helping kids get more science, or focusing too much on computer science?
I think it's helping kids get more science — but there is no substitute for a good teacher. The Internet is a fantastic resource for research — you can look up the word "backdraft" and it will say "smoke explosion." What's sort of troubling is that people don't learn computer science like we did in the old days.
TVGuide.com: You mean with 1s and 0s....
Yes, what we called assembly language. Higher-level [programming] languages are so reliable and extant that you don't have to learn that stuff, but somebody in some place has to know how transistor logic and chips work. There are blogs.... I don't mean to go off on some tangent, but for how long can a country like China keep its form of government when Chinese bloggers become savvier? With all this information being exchanged so readily among all these different people, it's going to have to change.
TVGuide.com: Um, on an entirely unrelated note, I read the Question of the Week at your website and now will never look at a basketball without thinking of cows and urine.
That's right. But these days, basketballs are hardly made of [leather]. The NBA still uses them, but the WNBA doesn't and very few college teams do, because the modern urethane balls feel better, they feel broken-in when you get them.
TVGuide.com: I always noticed that as a kid, the real leather basketballs are so slippery!
Once on the old show, I played with Nate McMillan, who is now the coach of the Supersonics, and these guys, they pick the ball up and get their fingers across a seam instantly, as if by magic. That's much easier to do with a slippery leather ball, to slide to that seam a little quicker. It's fascinating, those details.
TVGuide.com: What's the importance of finding the seam?
Because it helps them put backspin on the ball when they shoot or pass....
TVGuide.com: Ah, so that's why my game was always lacking. I thought it was because I'm 5-foot-7.
Backspin is the key. You could have played pro ball, damn it!