Second cute 20 something: "Really!"
First cute 20 something: "Yeah...I saw this guy in a brown suit, like, walking from the parking lot into the building and I was, like, is that Him?! And then I was, like, Oh my God, I think that's actually Bill Nye!"
Rob and I were walking back from Rhodes Hall after taking a gander at the newly installed solar-noon clock funded by "The Science Guy" when we overheard the above exchange taking place between some Cornell undergraduates. Nye was on campus yesterday to give a lecture and then dedicate the unique clock which is designed to not only give the time of day, but also indicate the point at which the sun is highest in the sky--solar noon. Once per day a complex GPS-controlled system of reflective lenses, ducts, and mechanical doors will direct photons streaming away from the high-noon sun to illuminate a sun-shaped design on the clock's upper face. It will glow for a couple of minutes every day...finicky Ithaca weather permitting of course.
My astronomy buddy Patrick had alerted me to these happenings by email the previous night and when the website instructed attendees to arrive early, I'd guessed that 1/2 an hour ahead would probably be sufficient. Rob and I arrived at 11:00 for Nye's 11:30 lecture, but were discouraged when we encountered the enormous line of college students, parents with young kids, and a few stray professors snaking endlessly through the innards of Statler Hall. The bottom section of the speaking venue had already filled up and we arrived just as staff monitors were about to open the balcony. Once the doors were open the line moved quickly...
...and as we ascended the stairs just a few yards from the balcony's entrance we were actually starting to become optimistic about our chances.
No sooner had we reached the top of the stairs when an usher came to the door and said, "We're full!" A staff member explained to the disappointed crowd that there were no remaining seats for the lecture, but invited us to come back at solar noon for the clock's official dedication a couple hours hence. The star-struck masses dispersed a little deflated, and Rob and I decided to head over to Rhodes for a quick look at the clock before going home.
When we overheard the exchange that started this post, Rob and I both rolled our eyes a little. I guess it's pretty cool that a science person is able to attract so many googley-eyed admirers, but I got the feeling that the overwhelming response to the event was due less to the coolness of the science involved than to the fact that Bill Nye is a TV star. I thought aloud to Rob, "These star-struck undergrads couldn't possibly be 'true nerds'...could they?" And there's no way the crowd of newly-minted sorority sisters that cut in line right in front of us (they didn't get in either...HA!) were actually interested in hearing about solar time keeping...right? I mean, if this sort of thing were really that popular among the student body the membership of the Cornell Astronomical Society would be bursting at the seams...rather than slowly waning. I guffawed at the sudden trendiness of fake nerdiness and felt more than a little swelling of pride that I had been a "real" nerd for long enough to have paid some dues.
I'm more than a little embarrassed by this now. Whatever motives existed behind the overwhelming attendance of Nye's lecture, it's wonderful that so many people (genuinely nerdy or not) came out to celebrate something cool about the mechanics of our solar system. All the times I helped out at star parties back in Utah, the public I enjoyed talking with most were ones who had never looked through a telescope and didn't know you could actually see PLANETS...IN the SKY...With your own Eyes!
Maybe there were some that made it into the lecture yesterday who wanted nothing more than to be able to say to their friends back home, "I was in the same room with that wacky Science Guy from TV," but in all likelihood, there was something that Nye said that made them perk up for a moment and go "Really? I never knew that...cool!" If that happened--even once or twice--then Halleluja! Anything that leads to more support of science in our society these days is more than welcome in my book.