Saving the world, one tweet at a time

Andrew Katsis never expected that a lone tweet would send him on a 13,000km journey to meet science communicator Bill Nye.

 
  Bill Nye and   Andrew Katsis (in his second blue shirt) shoot the breeze after wrapping up a successful shoot.  © Rebecca Sirmons

Bill Nye and Andrew Katsis (in his second blue shirt) shoot the breeze after wrapping up a successful shoot. © Rebecca Sirmons

 

It’s not every morning that an overworked PhD student wakes up in a fancy hotel in Los Angeles, California, ahead of his television debut. Although still slightly jet-lagged from my 14-hour flight, I stumbled out of bed and tried to make myself look respectable enough for a media appearance — no mean feat, if you’ve seen how I usually dress. I showered, shaved (very carefully) and ironed my clothes, including a brand-new blue business shirt I had bought precisely for the occasion.

At 10:30am, my snappily-dressed chauffeur, Stanley, collected me from the hotel. I sat in the back seat, enjoying free mints, and chatted to Stanley about his life-changing 1981 encounter with Muhammad Ali.

Our car passed through security at Sony Pictures Studios. I received my “talent” ID card, and was led through a giant, bustling warehouse towards my dressing room. Almost immediately, a producer took one look at the patterns on my shirt and declared, “No, you can’t wear that”. She steered me towards the wardrobe department, where I was presented with more appropriate attire — another blue shirt that felt a bit tight-fitting, but I wasn’t willing to put up a fight about it.

After sitting through hair and makeup, I wandered downstairs and nibbled away at the generous catering table, too nervous to eat much. Then into the studio sauntered the man I had travelled across the world to meet: science communicator Bill Nye, host of the Netflix programme Bill Nye Saves the World.

 
 

My Bill Nye adventure had begun, as do many adventures, with a hashtag. A few months earlier, when I was relatively new to Twitter and not quite sure what to do with it, I came across a trio of prolific tweeters (among them Lateral contributor Melissa Márquez) who were discussing popular voices in science. They concluded that big-time science communicators like Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye should include more real-life scientists in their shows. This kickstarted the hashtag #BillMeetScienceTwitter, and soon my Twitter feed was ablaze with scientists spreading the word of their research.

Keen to get in on this action, I tweeted my own contribution:

 
 

Overnight, my tweet garnered 50 likes and nearly a dozen retweets, which seemed to me a respectable outcome. What I didn’t expect was to receive a mysterious email, one month later, from a producer at Bunim/Murray Productions, the creators of Bill Nye Saves the World.

 
“We’d like to have you on the show,” she said to me when I called up in response to her email.

“You mean, on a satellite link?” I asked.

“No, we’d like to fly you to our studio in Los Angeles.”

I considered this for a few seconds. “You do know that I’m in Australia, don’t you?”

The producer laughed. “Yeah, I can tell that.”
 

One month later, I shuffled onto the Bill Nye Saves the World stage at Sony Pictures Studios. I was allowed only a single rehearsal — “to keep it fresh”, in Nye’s words — during which I stumbled nervously over my answers. Involuntarily, I flashed back to all the times in my life I had said something stupid in front of an audience. There was no shortage of incidents: Perhaps the most memorable was my third appearance on “The Science Hour” (broadcast live on SYN 90.7FM in Melbourne), when words tangled in my throat and I responded to the hosts’ friendly welcome with, “Thanks, it’s great to be black.”

Despite my shaky practice run, Nye was completely friendly and welcoming throughout; he seemed thrilled with my research topic, and thanked me for coming all the way from Australia. After our rehearsal, he glanced down at my feet and gestured towards the wardrobe department: “Get the ladies to shine your shoes; you’ll feel like a million bucks." My wardrobe was really taking a hit that day.

My episode of Bill Nye Saves the World was filmed before a studio audience of about 200 people. Reassuringly for me, there were lots of pauses during the taping, while the set was revamped, or make-up was applied, or Nye bungled a line and had to reshoot. As my segment approached, I was whisked away for a final cosmetic touch-up.

 
  Lounging casually on the Emmy Award-nominated set for Bill Nye Saves the World.  © Andrew Katsis

Lounging casually on the Emmy Award-nominated set for Bill Nye Saves the World. © Andrew Katsis

 

All things considered, my appearance seemed to go well. I described my lab group’s work on prenatal communication in zebra finches, and what this type of research can tell us about learning in human fetuses. The crowd oohed and aahed at all the right moments. I even got a laugh with my ad-lib, “I think any self-respecting fetus would love to hear The Cat in the Hat inside the womb”, which sounds absurd out of context, and perhaps that's why it was edited out of the episode.

And then, three minutes after it started, my illustrious Hollywood television career came to an end. It was hard to believe I had travelled across the world, nearly 13,000km, for such a fleeting contribution. A producer swooped in to ask if I had said anything scientifically inaccurate, but, in all honesty, I could scarcely even remember what I had said. The audience dispersed, and the set was rapidly cleaned and dismantled. During our post-show chat, I mentioned to Nye that I had only one more day to explore Los Angeles, and he insisted that I visit the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum, in the heart of the city.

 
 

Back in Australia, I returned to the post-fame drudgery of PhD work. I was not allowed to publicise my appearance until the show was released, so over the next nine months I told only a handful of family members and colleagues. One friend, a New Jerseyite who grew up with Bill Nye the Science Guy, was a particularly tough sell. I explained to him that a famous science communicator had discovered me on Twitter and invited me onto his show. “You might have heard of him,” I said. “His name is Bill Nye.”

My friend looked astonished — his eyes lit up, and his mouth hung agape — but then he relaxed and laughed. “You almost had me for a moment,” he said.

I let the moment hang for a few beats, and then I returned his smile. “You believed me for a second, though."

Andrew Katsis appears in the “Evolution" episode of Bill Nye Saves the World, which is now available to watch on Netflix. Edited by Tessa Evans.