Science Rules: Brad Efford on Bill Nye the Science Guy, Episode 4: "Skin"
The science guy wants to horse around. More accurately, he wants to play horse.
But it’s Mr. Sonic who shows up on the court today. Long time no see, Mr. Sonic says. You still doing that show?
Yeah, the science guy says, like an afterthought. He tosses a basketball up and down casually with one hand, watching it rise and drop, acting like he couldn’t care less about any of this. You still playing basketball?
Mr. Sonic won’t even warrant this with an answer. He makes a face that falls somewhere between really? and fuck you. Mr. Sonic plays point guard for the Seattle Supersonics. His rookie year, he made 25 assists in a single game, a league record that still stands. He is wearing what he would wear to play a nationally televised basketball game. Mr. Sonic isn’t here to fuck around.
To show how much he sweats each day, Mr. Sonic pulls from the duffle bag at his feet four glass, one-liter jars of his own perspiration. The yellow liquid catches the light like coin money. Comes right out of my skin, Mr. Sonic says. The science guy feels ill but keeps it together. This intimidation shit is nothing new.
The science guy rubs his hands together. Enough with the chatter. Wanna play horse?
Actually, Mr. Sonic says, I was hoping we would do something a little different. But he only makes it halfway through the end of the sentence before he’s hoop-bound.
He takes the ball around the science guy and makes an easy slam. He gets his own board, sinks a jumper from beyond the arc. He has the ball again immediately and backs the science guy all the way up to the net, makes a left-handed hook shot.
This is embarrassing. The science guy came to play one game and is being flayed, roasted, in another. He’s too short. He’s too slow. He’s a science guy, not a sweathog.
This gives him an idea. Science, he thinks. Science.
He and Mr. Sonic both have hands on the ball. They pull and wrestle for possession. What else you know about skin, McMillan? the science guy asks. The science, he thinks, will throw off the jock. The science, he thinks, will get the blood pumping from Mr. Sonic’s legs to his brain. Maybe Mr. Sonic will fall down, paralyzed, from the science. It’s worth a shot.
But it’s no use. Mr. Sonic’s smart as shit. It has three layers and it lasts your whole life, Mr. Sonic says. Science is very important to athletes. He takes the ball and moves down the court again. What do you know about basketball? He sinks another shot. It hurts, but not worse than the taunt.
The science guy trips over himself and goes skidding across the floor. His skin makes a sound like rubber on rubber. It reddens in patches across his body. He’s too tired to feel humiliated.
Maybe we should have played horse, the science guy says, swaying now on his feet. Mr. Sonic makes the fuck you face again and tosses the ball backward over his head, not even looking. Nothing but net, twenty-four feet from the goddamn rim.
Maybe not. The science guy is hunched nearly halfway over, panting, defeated. He hangs his head and walks off the court. He will never speak of this to anyone.
Did we get it? the science guy asks hopefully.
He’s just been sprayed down with cold water from a hose in an alley. The cold water’s made his skin pull tight to keep from losing heat. Goosebumps have risen to the surface of his legs, uncovered as they are by a skimpy swimsuit. On top: a long-sleeved rugby shirt. The science guy looks ridiculous. For science, he gladly will.
This is recognizable. In the classroom, your method, if there is one, is a similar debasement. You teach middle-school boys, a culture powered almost exclusively by saving face. Last week, a kid slipped on the icy soccer pitch and broke a rib. He tried to walk it off, his face completely devoid of color. Tomorrow, someone else, a different kid, will bitch you out for asking him to stop talking during a quiz. His parents are going through a divorce; he needs this more than you. It’s hard to deny him this little bit of power. You must—of course you must. But it’s hard.
The science guy understands this just as much as you do. Which is to say, he’s trying his best. Teaching, it turns out, is all balancing control. It isn’t half the struggle it can be if you begin by allowing yourself to admit you are an idiot. If you have to—and you do—talk big and then get on the court and back it up with a terrible game. This is not an analogy. Most of your boys will wipe the floor with you.
Did we get it? There is no answer. This might be the science guy’s eighth cold-water take in the hour. He will keep going. For science, he gladly will.
Your skin is thickest on the soles of your feet. It is thinnest on your ears.
Logically, you understand this to be true. When you feel the skin on your feet, the skin on your ears, you get it. It makes sense.
But what also makes sense is skin thickness based not on location but on willingness. If you were a superhero, you think you’d like to be able to dictate how thick-skinned you were at any given time. Nothing any supervillain could say would hurt you. Even if you died, at least you’d be okay.
Skin can control its own temperature, but you struggle just to feel in control. The science guy takes a bucket of water to the face to prove what skin can do, chases after a much bigger man toting a bright rubber ball to show he’s unafraid. He is not a superhero, but he’s got the right idea.
Brad Efford is the founding editor of The RS 500, a project pairing each of Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time with an original piece of writing. His writing can be found in Puerto del Sol, Pank, Hobart, and elsewhere. He teaches English and history in Austin, TX.
Original Artwork by Lena Moses Schmitt.