Bill NyeMar 07, 2014

That time I took a selfie with Neil Tyson and the President of the United States

From time to time, I get a message from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) inviting me to attend certain events: I’ve been to two White House Science Fairs, and I attended a White House Holiday Party. It is an honor to speak with young people, and it’s just plain exciting. Last week, my fellow Board Member Neil deGrasse Tyson and I were invited to be presenters at the first edition of the White House Film Festival. It is a competition for students to create their own films about how technology is helping them in school.

The entries were marvelous. Neil and I, along with the actor Kal Penn, hung out with the student winners for a few minutes. Then, Neil and I were escorted from the White House Gold Room (most of the furnishings are gold) through a hallway to the Blue Room, which is, no kidding, next to the Green Room.

It became clear that a White House staffer, who is a friend of the Society (and a member), was juggling things so that Neil and I stood last in line next to Executives from the Prezi Adobe software companies. Neil and I, half-whispering, fantasized about getting a custom, selfie-style picture with the President. I admit that this was a bit of a crazy thing to even imagine. I am pretty sure the President has a photographer with him almost all day all the time, someone with quite a few more megapixels and more compositional skill than we have with our iPhone cameras. Furthermore, I am pretty sure the President has a great many more important things to do than stand still for every Neil, Bill, and Helle (Danish Prime Minister) that comes along asking for a selfie. Nevertheless, Neil took the chance. “Hey, Mr. President, can we get a selfie with you?” I immediately remarked, “Let’s break the Internet!” For whatever reason, the President was charmed by our honesty and enthusiasm.

Neil produced his phone, reached way out in front of us...and his phone’s memory was full. I’m not kidding. Doctor Gear-Head-Tech-Savvy-Astrophysicist’s phone cam was not available -- and, we’ve managed to sandwich The President of the United States between us! Stuff happens sometimes, but there is not a moment to lose -- less than that maybe ;-). For cryin’ out loud! My O My!! Thinking as quickly as I ever have, I instantly produced my phone and got the shot. I took four pictures in quick succession. The one that I posted is number 3.

That time Bill Nye took a selfie with Neil Tyson and Barack Obama
That time Bill Nye took a selfie with Neil Tyson and Barack Obama Best selfie ever?Image: Bill Nye, The Planetary Guy

In those few moments, the President, Neil, and I spoke about science and space exploration. I offered that when we explore the cosmos, we come to believe and prove that we can solve problems that have never been solved. It brings out the best in us. Space exploration imbues everyone in the country with an optimistic view of the future The President agreed.

Here’s hoping we planted a reminder, a thought that will stick with him as he negotiates the NASA budget. And, we hope he remembers our selfie moment as a fun one.

For those of you, who seek selfies, I have just a few things to recommend. First, have your phone charged up enough to take the picture. Second, have enough space in the memory (Neil!). You may have to delete one of your five hundred pictures of your shoe or sidewalk that you took by accident. Third, have the phone camera lens that faces you...facing you. Fourth, get ready by reminding everyone in the picture to look at the tiny dark lens over on the end of the phone rather than at themselves, as seen on the phone’s screen. Then, reach way out with the phone horizontal. Shake your hips and bump into the other people; it makes them laugh and smile. Now, push the button -- again and again. Take multiple shots so that one of them will, if I may: click. Many selfie-seekers, who come up to me, are not aware that the iPhone’s upper volume button also operates the phone’s camera. It’s a time saver, because you can hold the phone with your thumb and fingers and click the shutter single handedly.

Getting a selfie with the most powerful man on our planet was a thrill. Judging from the shot, he had a good time, too. This thing went viral. It preserves a great moment for planetary science!

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