News & Politics

Bill Nye the Science Guy on What It’s Like to See His Lab Coat in the Smithsonian

He grew up going to the museum where a piece of his own history is now on display.

“The idea of the Science Guy show is to empower viewers to use science to know their place in the cosmos,” says Nye, seen here at the National Museum of American History. “The coat is a symbol of that.” Photograph by Jaclyn Nash, courtesy of National Museum of American History.

Before he was “the science guy,” Bill Nye was just a standup comic with an engineering degree. Then he pitched PBS a kids’ science show, which premiered in 1993, and it became one of the most popular educational series of all time. On Bill Nye the Science Guy, he wore a baby-blue lab coat, which has been in the collection of the National Museum of American History since 2016. A DC native who recently moved back from New York, Nye told us what it’s like to see his lab coat in a museum he often visited as a child.

“A few years ago, a curator at the Smithsonian sent me an email wanting to collect some of my artifacts from the Science Guy show. He came to Los Angeles, went through my storage unit, and took a bunch of stuff—scripts with my notes on them, educational toys like the up-close-ifier. Among the things he selected was my lab coat.

“I bought that coat at a uniform store in Seattle, where doctors and nurses get their scrubs. It’s what I wore in the pilot, which we shot in 1992, and on the first couple of seasons. In those days, there was an unquestionable sentiment that you must not wear white on camera, so the coat is light blue. The curator took it back to the Smithsonian, and now it’s on display.

“I grew up in Washington and instead of formal childcare, grownups would put me on a bus and send me to the Smithsonian for the day. One of the very popular exhibits is the First Ladies’ gowns, where you see that these are clothes that were worn by actual people—it makes their role in history that much more compelling and real. I’m not saying I’m Jackie Onassis or something, but having my lab coat there is empowering. You, the viewer: You can be a scientist, you can think like a scientist, you can understand nature.

“The premise of science is that the universe is knowable. With science, we can pursue the two deep questions: “Are we alone in the universe?” and “Where did we come from?” If we’re going to get answers to those, it will be through science. It will not be dogma or accepting things on faith. So the idea of the Science Guy show is to empower viewers to use science to know their place in the cosmos. The coat is a symbol of that. To find it in the same museum I grew up visiting—it’s overwhelming. It’s wonderful. It’s hard to believe.”

This article appears in the August 2023 issue of Washingtonian.

Sylvie McNamara
Staff Writer