Bill Nye the Science Guy released the first installment in his best-selling middle grade series, Jack and the Geniuses, co-written with Gregory Mone, this past April — and now he’s gearing up for a second book.
Jack and the Geniuses: In the Deep Blue Sea follows Jack, his genius siblings Ava and Matt, and their pal, inventor Dr. Hank Witherspoon, as they investigate a project by tech billionaire Ashley Hawking and engineer Rosa Morris that’s mysteriously being sabotaged. While they meet a wide cast of suspects (including surfers and a cat-loving former Navy SEAL), they also learn all about the ocean and green energy.
EW can reveal an exclusive excerpt from this second installment, in advance of the book’s Sept. 12 release date. Check it out below.
Excerpt from Jack and the Geniuses: In the Deep Blue Sea by Bill Nye and Gregory Mone
Inside the Underplane
The cliffs of Nihoa Island stood tall as we soared above the calm blue water. Nihoa means “toothed” in Hawaiian, but the jagged mass of gray-green rock jutting up out of the Pacific Ocean looked like the rotten molar of a sea monster. We were flying low in a small six-seater airplane, and I really, really didn’t want to crash into that tooth. For about the fifteenth time, I checked my seat belt.
Our pilot, the bazillionaire computer scientist Ashley Hawking, was rambling about the annoying birds that nested on the island. But I didn’t care about finches or swallows. An eagle could have chest-bumped my window and it would not have shifted my focus. If we continued on our current course, we were going to smash into the jagged wall like an egg launched from a slingshot.
The plane’s engine roared.
My stomach spun.
Next to me, my brother was staring straight ahead, eyes bulging, with his thin black notebook computer open on his lap. I grabbed his shoulder. His muscles were as solid as rocks and his face was a greenish shade of white. “Matt?” I asked. “Is she pulling up?”
His mouth barely opened. “I hope so,” he mumbled.
Our sister, Ava, was sitting in the row behind us, watching the flashing red and green numbers on the electronic control panel. A vein on the side of her head pulsed. She didn’t notice me staring back at her. Meanwhile, Ashley Hawking was grinning so wide I could see the edges of her smile from my seat directly behind her. Our mentor, the geek-famous inventor Henry Witherspoon, or Hank, glanced back at me from the co-pilot’s seat, his awkward smile flashing too many teeth. Was he trying to make us feel better? If so, he was failing.
Hank leaned over to Ashley. He held his hand out flat and swooped it up toward the roof of the cockpit. “Should we, you know, ascend?”
“What?” Hawking asked. “No! Of course not. Ascend? I thought you knew!”
Hawking let go of the controls and waved her hands in a sweeping motion. She sighed with disappointment. “This is one of yours!”
“One of my what?” Hank asked.
“One of your designs!”
Hank spun in his seat, scanning the interior. His mouth was all bunched to one side. He was squinting. And he was completely stumped. Only Hank Witherspoon would struggle to recognize one of his own inventions. His mind was so productive that he dropped out new ideas with about as much thought as a chicken laying eggs.
Matt reached forward with one of his long arms and pointed. “Ummm . . . cliff?”
“What was that?” Hawking yelled back.
We couldn’t have been more than a few football fields away from the rock wall. “I think he’s wondering if we’re planning to avoid that cliff,” I said.
Below us, out the left side of the plane and far from the island, a large dock with two boats tied to the sides floated in the middle of the ocean. The water was neon blue and smooth as glass. We probably could’ve landed on it, but I hadn’t noticed any pontoons when we climbed into the aircraft that morning. The thing clearly wasn’t a seaplane. So the only safe choices were up, right, or left. And if Ashley Hawking didn’t pick one of those soon, we’d keep heading straight. Into the cliffs. We’d be smashed to bits, and all the headlines would read, “Four Geniuses Die as Plane Crashes into Tooth.”
No, I wouldn’t be the fourth. That honor would belong to Ashley Hawking. The world would mourn the loss of the two accomplished adults and my brilliant brother and ingenious sister. Me? I might be mentioned in the story somewhere, but I’m no brainiac. I’m average. Maybe a little above, but not by much, and only through effort. I have to work hard, and read all the time, to keep up with the geniuses.
But anyway. Back to that nasty nine-hundred-foot-tall cliff sticking straight up out of the water in front of us. Maybe the Millennium Falcon could have made the turn, swooping up at the last second, but I wasn’t liking our chances. “Ms. Hawking?”
“Ashley! I told you already. Ashley. And not because I think of you as an equal. Not at all.” She laughed to herself. “I simply prefer the sound of my first name. Now, honestly, Hank, someone of your intelligence . . . I assumed you’d see.”
Hank was panicking now, his head turning from side to side in jerks, like a broken sprinkler. “I don’t . . . when . . .”
Suddenly my sister leaned forward and pointed at a large orange button in the ceiling, covered by a clear plastic case. “Are you serious?” she said with excitement. “Is this the underplane?”
“Yes!” Ashley fake head-butted the dashboard a few times, then looked up to the ceiling. “The child gets the answer. Finally!”
Although Ava was relieved, I found this news to be more than a little frightening. “You made a plane out of underwear?” I asked.
The moment the words escaped I realized I’d probably misunderstood. But no one noticed. Or at least no one bothered to make fun of me. Not yet, anyway. Ava and Matt were pretty skilled at remembering my mistakes, though.
“This is the underplane?” Hank asked. His eyebrows rose so high they nearly touched the top of his head. “You actually built it?”
“I did. But enough talk. You’re right, Jack,” she said, swiveling around to look me in the eye. “We are getting awfully close, aren’t we?” I nodded. The acknowledgment was nice, but I really wanted her to turn back around. “Are we buckled? Good. Would you like to do the honors, Hank?”
“You’ve tested it?”
“Of course! Once. But it worked beautifully. Go ahead. Press it. Do it. Now.”
“You’ve only tested it once?”
On the dashboard between them, a number in the center of the screen was blinking red and decreasing rapidly. “Yes, once, and a thousand times in simulation. Be confident in your ideas, Hank! Press the button already.” She pointed to the flashing red number, which just kept dropping. “Really. Now. Three hundred meters is pushing things. I haven’t felt this much adrenaline since I climbed Everest.”
Matt mumbled something about the cliff.
Ashley had Manga eyes.
I don’t know what Ava was thinking or doing.
But this was no time to sit and wait. I slouched forward in my seat, reached up with my right foot, flicked open the plastic covering, and kicked in the orange button with the heel of my high-top sneaker.
Ashley let out a long, almost disappointed breath. “Finally,” she said.
Hank had his right hand out, three fingers extended. He counted down from three. A moment later, the engine stalled. The aircraft turned strangely quiet, as if we were suddenly flying in a giant paper plane.
“Now the chute?” Ava asked.
Before anyone could respond, something exploded behind us.
Yet nobody but me panicked.
Ava put her hand on my shoulder. “A rocket-launched parachute,” she explained. “Don’t worry. That was supposed to happen.”
Firing a parachute out with a rocket didn’t make sense to me, but the plane slowed, rattling like an old roller coaster, then began circling to the left. Away from the cliffs. So I exhaled. The lonely floating dock came into view ahead of us. Out through the window, I noticed two wooden boats rounding the corner of the island. Matt was staring at his computer screen again, mumbling to himself. He had a big test coming up, and he’d been studying constantly. One of the downsides of being a genius is that everyone expected you to ace all your tests. I don’t think Hank cared, though. Matt put more pressure on himself than anyone else did. But was this really a good time to prepare for an astronomy exam? No. So I reached across and closed his laptop. He didn’t protest, which was pretty much a thank-you.
“Wow, it works,” Ava said.
“I told you I’d tested it.”
“Yeah, once,” Ava noted.
“And a thousand times in simulation,” Hank added.
The others laughed. Apparently this was funny.
Normally I avoided asking for an explanation when everyone else understood. Hank was always saying there’s no such thing as a dumb question, but I was pretty sure I proved him wrong twice a day. And I hated reminding them that I lived on a lower level of the brain game. But there were times I needed to know. “What does ‘in simulation’ mean?”
Ashley looked back at me like I’d just asked the difference between salt and pepper.
“It’s a computerized version of reality, Jack,” Hank explained.
“It’s like the difference between Street Racer and an actual street race, with real cars,” Ava added.
Now I understood. She knew how to speak my language. See, I was actually kind of awesome at Street Racer, and I had this feeling that I’d be a sick driver in the real world, too.
A brown, wide-winged bird swooped in front of us. “Is that a petrel?” Matt asked.
“They’re frequent visitors to the island,” Ashley said.
Great. Now they were bird-watching, and yet we were still in a plane without pontoons, gliding over the ocean without any clear runway in sight. Sure, we were finally descending, but the underplane turned about as easily as the Titanic. As we swung closer to the cliff, I held my breath. No one spoke. I’m not sure anyone even breathed. Ashley and Hank leaned to their left, as if that might help, and the tip of our right wing passed within ten feet of the rocks. Next to me, Matt’s face was still that greenish-white color, and he was breathing carefully and gripping the armrests with enough force to dent them.
“That was close!” Ashley said, her voice more excited than relieved.
“So, umm, what’s next?” I asked.
“Well, you see, this is the first phase of the transition,” Hank said. “The first parachute allows for a more gradual descent, but there’s also a braking chute to slow us down further.”
“And then?” I pressed.
Hank’s eyebrows arched twice. “Wait and see,” he said.
Ava tapped me on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, I think you’re going to like this. It is called ‘the underplane,’ after all.”
I still didn’t get what boxers or briefs had to do with the five of us landing safely. But I wasn’t about to ask. “So, about that braking chute . . . can we use it now?”
“Not until we slow to thirty miles per hour.”
Hank cocked his head to the side, struggling for a view of the parachute suspended above us. “Amazing. Truly. I don’t know how to thank you, Ashley. I never thought anyone would ever build one.”
The plane soared through a wide loop. We were still about the height of a four-story building from the glassy sea. We swung toward the rock face of Nihoa again, only this time at half the speed and with much less chance of crashing. The color in Matt’s face had not changed, but I knew better than to ask him how he was feeling. When Matt was hurt or sick, he didn’t want anyone to know. He’d rather hide off by himself somewhere than let you see him aching.
The two boats came into view again. They looked like museum pieces. The masts were tall, the sails all rolled up, and a few people on either side were digging into the water with long black paddles. “What are those?” I asked.
Ashley Hawking squinted, gagged for a three-count, then breathed in, shook her head, and smiled. “Friends of mine,” she said. “They think we’re enemies, but as I’m sure you know, kids, those two are one and the same. As Sun Tzu said, you should treat your enemies as if they are your best friends.”
“Is he one of those jazz guys, Hank?” I asked. Our mentor had strange taste in music, but I was growing to like some of the tunes. I’d been trying to learn their names to impress him.
“No, that’s Sun Ra, and he only really began as a jazz pianist—”
Another jolt cut his answer short. Ava pointed to the control panel. Our speed was dropping rapidly. And we were circling closer and closer to the water. Hank turned. I thought he was checking to see if we were okay, but he stared out the small rearview window instead. His smile vanished. “You used a larger braking chute.”
“Yes,” Ashley said. “I had to. In simulation, the chute you suggested didn’t slow the plane quickly enough. Your design was completely inadequate. No offense.”
Hank paused before answering. “None taken?”
We were at least a few city blocks away from the island, gliding through our third full circle, cruising at the speed of a bike down a steep hill, when the plane finally skimmed the surface of the sea.
Then we bounced again and again, lower each time, like a stone skipping across the water.
Ava quietly beamed, and my still-green brother relaxed his grip. When we finally stopped, my heart was thumping. My hands were cramped. Apparently, Matt wasn’t the only one squeezing the armrests. I looked out the window. We had to be a mile away from the shore. Was this really the right place to land? Were we floating? Or sinking? And what did all this have to do with underwear?
Ecstatic, Hank pointed to the button on the roof, then asked Ashley, “May I?”
“You’re the guest,” Ashley said.
Hank pushed the button with the heel of his hand. Above me, something clicked. A thud followed, somewhere behind us. Then two loud hisses on either side of the plane. Below me, I heard the sound of rushing water, like a quickly filling toilet bowl. Suddenly I needed to go to the bathroom, but there were more important things happening.
Glancing out the window, I noticed that the wings were dropping below the surface. The plane was sinking. And no one else on board seemed particularly bothered. “This is supposed to happen?” I asked.
Matt pointed his thumb out the window and swallowed. “Why not shed the wings?” he asked, struggling to get the words out.
“The aerodynamic profile of the wings is hydrodynamically efficient, too,” Hank answered. “In both cases, you’re just moving through a fluid.”
Ava put her hand on my shoulder. She wore several colorful beaded rings. “What he means,” she began, leaning forward, “is that you don’t need to drop the wings because—”
“I know,” I said. And I didn’t, really, but the geniuses are always explaining things to me, and I wasn’t in the mood for a lesson. So I pulled out my new notebook. Before we’d left for Hawaii I had a great idea. Or a great idea for me, anyway. Whenever the geniuses said something I didn’t understand, I’d jot down a little note about it, then do some research later and learn about it on my own. That way I wouldn’t have to admit it when I wasn’t following along. And sure, I could’ve checked on my phone, but then they’d notice. I held the notebook down in the space between my left leg and the side of the plane, so Matt couldn’t see, and scribbled “hydrodynamic” on a blank page. After a second, I added “Sun Something”—unfortunately, I’d already forgotten the name of the guy Ashley quoted.
The plane was sinking faster. The dock with the two boats was only a few pool lengths away; part of me wished we could’ve just swum over. But the blue water was already climbing up the sides. The surface reached the bottom of my window, then rose higher and higher until it climbed over the top. A few seconds later, the underplane dropped below the surface and began gliding down through the blue sea.
The underplane. As in underwater plane. Not an aircraft made out of old boxer shorts.
Our ride had transformed into a six-seat submarine.
Since we met Hank seven months ago, I’d been introduced to all kinds of strange machines and vehicles and experiences. I’d been to the bottom of the world and fought off a crazy Australian and flown in an inflatable vehicle that wasn’t supposed to fly. I’d even had some experiences with miniature subs, since my sister had built one. But I’d never been inside an actual submarine. And certainly not in the Pacific Ocean, with who knows how much water or how many deadly creatures lurking below me. On the one-to-ten scale of soul-stretching, brain-twisting experiences, I’d give this one a fourteen.
The water was filled with specks that sparkled in the sunlight. A group of long silver fish darted past our windows. I’d always imagined that riding in a submarine would be like staring at the fish tanks in an aquarium. But now it felt as if we were the ones trapped in the tank. And I kind of wanted to get back to the air. “So that was fun,” I said, “but can we go back up now?”
My ears popped.
“Up? Of course not,” Ashley said.
The underplane nosed down in the direction of the island. But we weren’t going to Nihoa. Not yet. Far below us, an enormous, brightly lit underwater building hung below the dock. It looked like the headquarters of some kind of powerful secret society or nefarious villain. The outside was swarming with huge fish.
“You still want to go back up, Jack?” Ava asked.
I could practically hear her smiling. “No,” I said with a grin. “Not anymore.”