A still from the film, Bill Nye the Science Guy.
Famed science guy Bill Nye is looking a bit like Spock these days, with his long face and thick eyebrows that leap up at the outer edges. And much like the science officer on the starship Enterprise, Nye has a habit of drawing his mouth into a flat line when faced with illogical statements. But in the new documentary Bill Nye: Science Guy, the science evangelist comes off as more human than ever.
Seattleite audiences were the first to make Nye’s acquaintance, thanks to his early stint with locally produced comedy show Almost Live! As a regular guest, he performed kooky science experiments and also had a recurring bit as Speed Walker, a dogged superhero in shiny shorts. Before landing that gig, Nye had worked as a mechanical engineer at Boeing, spending his weekends at Pacific Science Center as a volunteer “science explainer” and nights doing open-mic comedy.
Thanks to the popularity of his explosive demos on Almost Live!, he successfully pitched his own show to KCTS 9 and worked closely with local producers Jim McKenna and Erren Gottlieb to create the half-hour episodes. Packed with goofball humor and live action science, Bill Nye the Science Guy, ran locally from 1993 to 1998 (1994 to 1999 nationally) and over the course of 100 episodes earned 19 Emmy awards.
The documentary emphasizes the huge impact Nye’s show had on a generation of kids, many of whom watched in science class, where the A/V cart rolling in sparked theme song chants (“Bill! Bill! Bill!”). Two such kids grew up to be the film’s co-directors, David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg, who were compelled to make the movie when they realized their old science hero had evolved from kids-show host to what Neil DeGrasse Tyson calls a “science statesman.”
Thanks to the remarkable access Nye allowed, what could well have been a hagiography turns out to be something much more meaningful — a revealing portrait of the man behind the lab coat and bow tie, one that divulges his faults and greatest fears.
“It was really the 1990s that I started feeling bad about the U.S. and its relationship to science,” Nye says in the film. “I wanted to make a world where kids were excited about science again, and that set me on a quest.” But despite his popularity, America’s relationship with science has become even more dysfunctional. “We have this increasing anti-science movement in the U.S.,” Nye says. “If we raise a generation of kids that can’t think critically, we’re in trouble.”
Nye’s own upbringing emphasized intellectual curiosity. His father, a WWII vet, was an inventor and sundial expert, whose mantra was to “leave the world a better place than you found it.” His mother was also a WWII vet — recruited by the Navy to work on the enigma code. (“She was Rosie the Top Secret Code Breaker,” Nye jokes.) “My parents made me who I am, for better or worse,” he says, admitting that his mom was prone to anger and his dad could be extremely sarcastic. “My drive to do all this is because of my parents.”
With his urgent mission to educate the masses on climate change, Nye seems to be speed walking in both his parents’ footsteps simultaneously — trying to crack the code on how best to convince people that the earth is in peril and time is up. But his zeal to convert hearts and minds has sometimes backfired.
Enter Nye’s nemesis: Ken Ham, an anti-evolutionist with an impressive following who heads the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, and believes the earth is 6,000 years old. As Nye tours the museum, he sees a display about Lucy, regarded by scientists as the “missing link,” but here depicted as a gorilla, along with dioramas depicting proto-humans and dinosaurs living together. The comedian isn’t laughing. He looks stricken, especially by the numbers of kids walking through and absorbing the exhibits.
The evolutionary scientists interviewed say it’s best not to engage with Ham, as it gives him legitimacy and stokes the fires of his followers. But in 2014, Nye agreed to a live-televised debate with Ham on evolution vs. creationism. Not surprisingly, he didn’t change minds. On the contrary, soon after the debate, Ham’s followers donated $15 million toward the Arc Encounter, a gigantic tourist attraction built to look like the Biblical boat that carried animals two-by-two — including, according to the displays, dinosaurs.
Often Nye appears deeply troubled — heartbroken, even — yet undeterred. He is introspective about his choice to pursue his mission (and fame) over starting his own family. “I think about that all the time,” he says, in one of several moments of self-doubt. But he is propelled, with a superhero’s fixation, to face off against climate-change deniers (and be pilloried on Fox News), support space exploration (in the name of his idol and former professor Carl Sagan), and encourage critical thinking and scientific methodology (such as in his new Netflix series, Bill Nye Saves the World).
“Although I’ve never had kids, I’m largely satisfied with my legacy,” Nye says, at age 61. “I’ve made some mistakes. But if we have inspired millions of kids to at least appreciate science, that’s a heck of a thing to leave behind.”
Bill Nye: Science Guy screens at SIFF Film Center November 17–23.