Science Rules: Brad Efford on Bill Nye the Science Guy, Episode 15: "Earth's Seasons"
Percy Washington, PhD is a fishery biologist, an instructor at Western Washington University, and president of GAIA Northwest, Inc., a Seattle-based consulting business specializing in aquatic ecology and civil engineering. In a 1996 directory/encouragement for prospective marine biologists, Marine Science Careers: A Sea Grant Guide to Ocean Opportunities, Percy Washington opens the door to his life: a love of fishing and writing, a drive to leave an “environmental legacy for future generations,” the heroism behind his young son’s “intense desire to succeed” despite an unnamed learning difference. He reminds readers that “learning, knowledge, and wisdom...are lifelong commitments.” In a moment that is the short interview’s simultaneously most bleak and optimistic, he even faces death without prompting: “I’m over 50 and may only have another 20 to 40 years of productive work life.” Guess what. Right now, today, it’s 20 years later. You dig and dig, and can’t come up with any reliable information about where Percy Washington, PhD is now, about what he’s doing, if anything, about how he’s doing, if he’s doing at all. You hope he’s still got some productive work life left. You hope no news is good news. You hope Western Washington University students share stories about Dr. Washington’s Intro to Marine Bio lectures, the old man tough on grading but easy going, natural, in the classroom. A little cantankerous, brilliant, seriously like a hundred years old but kind of adorable tbh.
Mostly, you wonder what he makes of his brief, unforgettable time on TV.
It is 1993. Percy Washington introduces himself on camera. With his salt-and-pepper goatee and dark sunglasses, he looks like a midlife Laurence Fishburne. He is working with a gaggle of curious kids, maybe fifth, sixth grade, at a Seattle salmon hatchery. He grabs a salmon the length of his full arm and tips its back end over a glass bowl while squeezing from the middle. If any eggs pop out, they’re uh, they’re ready to spawn, he says. Wet orange beads fall from the squeezed salmon into the bowl—this one is ready. He hands the fish to an assistant with a knife, who holds it from the gills and slices down the middle. Eggs cascade into a waiting bucket, a brief, entrancing waterfall. This, uh, all looks very gruesome but it’s part of a, uh, natural process, Percy Washington reassures us. It takes advantage of the fact that these fish are going to die anyway.
Then: he observes that, of course, the eggs aren’t fertilized yet. Then: one health class and you’ve got a clue as to what’s coming. We need to do the, uh, male next. One kid holds the glass jar beneath the tail end while three others get in on squeezing the salmon dry, massaging its middle like a Reebok Pump. The jar quickly fills one inch, then two, with milky sperm. Good job, Percy Washington says. Good job. Ewww, the kids say, really meaning it, making faces mixing raw disgust with raw fascination.
When the sperm’s been collected, Percy Washington guides the children through pouring it over the bowlful of luminous eggs. These are now in the process of fertilization, he says. The sperm penetrating the egg. He goes on to explain the seasonal habits of salmon at this hatchery, how they’ll incubate and hatch through the fall and into winter, how they’ll be released into the nearby, man-made lake come late spring, how the rest is pretty much up to them.
On camera, Percy Washington’s wonderful, a natural. No. Not at all in fact. He’s completely awkward, full of vocal tics and unsure about how to talk to kids. Even when he looks into the camera and says Science rules, as they all do, as is customary, he seems to wince. He belongs in a lecture hall, intoning, rather than giving demonstrations to bored elementary schoolers. It’s not impossible that he’s just taught this particular group of them how babies are made. Their faces say they’re not particularly sure how they feel about that.
And in 1996, in 2016, it’s difficult to know how he looks back on that day. If he’s ever watched the episode, or if he prefers the image of it that he’s cast for himself in his mind. If this image is heroic or comedic or complete shit. It’s difficult to know if Percy Washington is even still alive, but that conjecture’s too upsetting to consider. You wonder if he is, was ever, a man of God. To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die. Eccleasiastes 3:1-2. You just had to look that one up to remember the exact KJV phrasing of it. You wonder if Percy Washington knows it, and if he doesn’t, you wonder if he feels it anyway.
The man is a scientist who loves to fish and write, whose disabled son inspires him on the daily, who believes that knowledge truly is power, who loves his work and wishes only for a few more good years. The man is a fishery biologist who once received a phone call. When he picked up the phone the voice on the other end asked if he wanted to be on television. Basic cable, but still: television. The man is a man who said sure, why not, though clarified first that it was understood what exactly he did to study spawning salmon. Of course, yes, yes, the voice on the other end said, so the man signed a form, welcomed the children to the hatchery, and mumbled through the proceedings. Salmon eggs. Salmon sperm. Mix thoroughly and voila. Science rules. A couple hours and the day’s done. The man is Percy Washington, who continued through the rest of his seasons the same man he’d always been, for whom nothing changed, contentedly.
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.