It was just another day at Cornell University for Nye as an energetic, Ultimate Frisbee-playing undergraduate student. He was chatting with fellow students when in walked their professor—the legendary astronomer and author Carl Sagan—with an unexpected request. Sagan asked the class which Chuck Berry song should be included on the Voyager Golden Record, the collection of songs and images placed aboard the two Voyager spacecraft launched in 1977. (If extraterrestrial life forms ever encounter the Voyager spacecraft, the Record is intended to reflect the culture and diversity of Planet Earth.) Sagan was chairing the committee responsible for selecting the music for NASA, and he told his class that he thought Berry's 1956 hit "Roll Over Beethoven" was the song the aliens should hear. This was when Nye and his classmates led a much-needed revolt.
"We all said, 'No, professor!'" Nye recalls. "'It has to be 'Johnny B. Goode! That's the definitive Chuck Berry song!'...Berry was the guy who took blues and turned it into rock n' roll, after all. So we thought we needed to send a message on that spacecraft."
Sagan took his students' advice, and to this day, "Johnny B. Goode" is aboard the Voyager spacecraft, alongside the work of Bach and gospel blues artist Blind Willie Johnson.
Sagan left an indelible mark on Nye, but his his love for science and engineering was inspired much earlier. "The spark was before kindergarten," Nye says. His mother, Jacqueline, was a codebreaker during the Second World War, fighting fascism with math and science. You can see evidence of some of her work, declassified in 1992, at the NSA-affiliated National Cryptologic Museum in Maryland. The Smithsonian in Washington, DC, had an exhibit dedicated to enigma machines, and it included a photo of Jacqueline. "She worked in a bunker, waiting for Nazi bombs to drop or something," Nye jokes. Meanwhile, his father, Ned, was held in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. "Now that sounds like it sucked," Nye says. "If you ever have the chance, I wouldn't recommend it. Not one bit."