When I taught in England, I wore a bow-tie every day to work, because I was not down with neckties. They are too long and floppy. While I was, in part, emulating the Eleventh Doctor, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give some credit for this sartorial preference to a much older role model: Bill Nye the Science Guy.
My favourite line of Everything All at Once comes in the very first chapter: “Thinking like a nerd is a lifelong journey, and I am inviting you here to take it with me.” This is so true. More to the point, we must remember that different people nerd out over different things. Pop culture occasionally creates a myopic vision of nerdery as something restricted to technology, video games, science fiction and fantasy settings, etc. But you can be a nerd about basically anything. When I go back to work after the holidays, the question I’m going to pose to my new classes on day one will be: “What do you nerd out about?” Because everyone is probably a nerd about something.
Bill Nye’s memoir is very different from his previous book that I read, Undeniable. Whereas that was focused on laying out the arguments for evolution and, more largely, rational considered use of the scientific method to make policy, Everything All at Once is more philosophical and personal. It’s part memoir, part autobiography, part self-help/motivational text—it’s Nye using his own personal experiences to explain how he thinks humanity could be better, if only we looked at the world slightly differently and acted slightly differently. It never sugarcoats the challenges that we face as a species, but it is also brimming with Nye’s trademark positive and optimistic outlook.
It’s hard not to love Nye for his enthusiasm and passionate views of how science and engineering can improve our lives when implemented humanely and with foresight. This is where this book excels: Nye always links the technological improvements in our society with social improvements, not suggesting that the former lead to the latter, but that the two must go hand-in-hand. In some ways, Nye’s tone and ferocity have much in common with a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher at the pulpit—but instead of holding eternal damnation over our heads, Nye is simply exhorting us to be better—and that’s a moral I can go along with.
I really enjoyed hearing the personal anecdotes about Nye’s own life. I knew, of course, that he had a career as an engineer before turning to edutainment. But it’s something else to hear about it from him, personally. I love hearing about how engineers and scientists had to unravel problems prior to the widespread availability of personal computers and the Internet, and Nye’s stories certainly hit that spot. Similarly, hearing how he slid from engineering into television by taking a huge chance on his comedy career was inspiring. Just think how close our world came to never having Bill Nye the Science Guy on our TV screens….
Along with the anecdotes come reminders about humility. In some cases, it’s Nye describing times he made some interesting mistakes. In other cases, he describes learning from other people—whether they are fellow engineers, scientists he admires or works with, or people in entirely different fields. Nye reminds us that everyone can have something to teach us—everyone, as he quotes one of his mentors, knows something you don’t know. We are all nerds about different things, and sometimes it is worthwhile stopping and listening to people nerd out.
The chapters in this book are short, which makes it easy to read this a little bit at a time. However, the overall impression I got as a result was a little bit scattered. Nye addresses so many topics—and occasionally goes off on so many tangents—that at times the book feels like it’s lacking a single, unified message. I suppose this is to be expected from the title (though Nye himself admits that multitasking isn’t what he means by “everything all at once”).
The tone in parts of this book also rubbed me the wrong way. By and large I didn’t have any problems, but on occasion, it felt like Nye was yelling at the sky. I had the same problem with Bill Nye Saves the World and did not, in fact, finish watching that series—there were too many moments when I felt like Nye was just haranguing the audience; it was no longer, “wow, isn’t this so cool, don’t you want to learn more about how this works?” but instead “c’mon people, it’s really this simple, we just need to act, don’t you see?” I guess what I’m saying is that the kid in me with nostalgia for The Science Guy wants lab-coat-wearing-smiley-Bill and not older, wearier, let’s-just-save-the-planet-Bill.
Still, Everything All at Once is pretty inspirational. I’m glad I read it. It’s not a stunning memoir, by any means, but it’s a solid work that underlines Nye’s ongoing legacy of outreach, education, and pushing for change through action in addition to words. It contains practical ideas about what we can do, how we can think and act, as well as plenty of stories about how Nye became who he is today—Science Guy, bow-tie–wearer, CEO of the Planetary Society, and generally cool dude.