Bill Nye, the Frisbee Guy

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On a recent visit to campus for mechanical engineering’s 150th, the famed ’77 alum and ultimate fan fits in a round of disc golf

By Joe Wilensky

There are two sports centered around a flying disc—ultimate and disc golf—and “Science Guy” Bill Nye ’77 is an aficionado of both. “It’s all about aerodynamics,” Nye explains while prepping for a throw on the Robison Disc Golf Course in late April.

The mechanical and aerospace engineering alum has fond memories of childhood play with the first mass-produced Frisbee—the Wham-O toy company’s “Flying Saucer Pluto Platter” disc, which had the names of the sun and planets inscribed around its circumference.

When he arrived on the Hill in 1973, Nye joined Cornell’s then-new ultimate team, the Buds, and has played and followed the game ever since.

(Originally known as “ultimate Frisbee,” the self-refereed sport comprises teams of players competing to move a disc down the field and into the opposing end zone.)

Bill Nye on the Cornell Buds Ultimate team in the ’70s
On the Buds in the ’70s. (Provided)

He’s is also a fan of disc golf—a game similar to regular golf, except that it uses a variety of Frisbee-type saucers instead of a ball, and each “hole” is a pole-mounted metal basket.

Nye—who’s current work includes serving as CEO of The Planetary Society, the space interest group co-founded by Carl Sagan—was back on campus in April to celebrate the 150th anniversary of mechanical engineering at Cornell.

Bill Nye playing ultimate Frisbee in the 1970s
Disc action as an undergrad. (Provided)

He delivered the keynote address and took part in a panel discussion on the future of space exploration—then swapped his jacket and trademark bowtie for an athletic pullover and headed over to the disc golf course on North Campus to play a round before dinner.

Nye was joined by a couple of Engineering staffers and the current captains of Cornell’s ultimate teams: Tomer Poole-Dayan ’24 (who’s studying applied economics and management in the Dyson School) of the Buds and Eve Lesburg ’25 (a materials science major in Engineering) of the Wild Roses.

On the nine-hole course, Nye was upbeat and chatty, self-deprecating and funny, while offering historical facts and scientific tidbits and shouting encouragement to his companions.

Of the Buds, he recalls, “We were really good; we won a lot of games,” adding: “I was just a medium player. I didn’t suck, but I wasn’t great. I just got a lot of joy out of it.”

He notes the legacy of Jon “JC” Cohn ’77, BA ’76, who founded the Buds in 1973—making it one of the first university ultimate teams.

On the nine-hole course, Nye was upbeat and chatty, self-deprecating and funny.

(Cohn, who majored in math in Arts & Sciences and went on to coach the Buds to the national finals in 1978, is a member of the Ultimate Hall of Fame.)

“People were calling it ‘Frisbee football,’ and there were downs and stuff early on,” Nye says. “But when JC showed up, he said, ‘Nah, that’s not how you do it.’”

Nye went on to co-found Seattle’s first men’s ultimate team, the Olympic Windjammers.

Bill Nye throws a Frisbee at a disc golf goal on the Cornell campus.
Taking a shot. Lindsay France / Cornell University)

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And in 2023, he came back to campus for the 50-year reunion of ultimate on the Hill.

“It was cool to have him there,” says Lesburg, “and to see him play with all of the guys from his time.”

On the course, Nye is asked about the physics of disc golf.

He deftly describes and demonstrates twist and torque, and how the distribution of a disc’s mass away from its center will influence its flight characteristics.

“This balance between lift, drag, and the stability induced by the spin is the dark art of disc golf,” he intones, fully in Science Guy mode before returning his attention to the game.

Bill Nye '77 delivers his keynote address at the Sibley 150 event, celebrating 150 years of Mechanical Engineering at Cornell, on April 25, 2024
Delivering the keynote at the Sibley 150th event. (Alex Bayer / Cornell University)

“‘Almost’ doesn’t count, people!” he shouts.

“Nice! Jeez Louise!” he calls out after a great throw by Lesburg.

Finishing up the round, Nye and his companions come across members of the disc golf team, who are delighted to discover a celebrity strolling the grassy slopes, discs in hand.

He good-naturedly poses for a few photos before heading off.

As they prepare to leave the course, Poole-Dayan presents Nye with a Cornell Ultimate T-shirt.

Tomer Poole-Dayan ’24, center, of the Cornell Buds Ultimate team, presents an Ultimate T-shirt to Bill Nye ’77, left, as Eve Lesburg ’25 of the Cornell women’s Ultimate team the Wild Roses looks on
Poole-Dayan gives Nye a parting gift as Lesburg looks on. (Lindsay France / Cornell University)

“So, do you still do the energy circle?” Nye wants to know.

Poole-Dayan asks him what that is, and Nye cracks a smile.

“You just hold hands and … ‘I love you, man!’” he demonstrates, arms outstretched, head tilted to the sky, eyes closed.

Then he explains: “It’s an out-West hippie thing.”

(Top: Nye on Cornell's disc golf course. Photo by Noël Heaney / Cornell University.)

Published April 30, 2024


  1. Bill Altmann, Class of 1976

    How about a story about freestyle Frisbee on the Quad in the 70s? I was there, learning one shot after another. As an engineering undergrad (’76 BSEE), it was the best way to unwind and relieve stress.

  2. John D Rees, Class of 1969

    A Frisbee contest was held on the Arts Quad at Cornell (see Cornell Daily Sun October 28, 1968). I won the long-distance competition with a throw of 246 feet which, at the time, was farther than the record listed in the then current edition of the Guinness Book of Records. I submitted my throw to Guinness and they responded that someone else had since thrown one further. With the more aerodynamic flying discs (“Drivers”) now in use, throws often exceed 700 feet with some in excess of 1000 feet.

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