An entire generation of children (and probably more than a few adults) learned a great deal about what they know about science from PBS TV personality Bill Nye, whose series “Bill Nye: The Science Guy” ended in 1998, but whose influence encouraged many youngsters to grow up interested in pursuing jobs in the various scientific fields. Although not an actual scientist himself, Nye strapped on a bow tie and lab coat and did home-safe experiments with kid sidekicks.
Although the new doc from directors Jason Sussberg and David Alvarado (The Immortalists) does cover Nye’s most high-profile years, as well as the years in which he built up the character and format of the show, the real focus of Bill Nye: Science Guy is the years since the show went off the air.
Using his fame and following, Nye led various campaigns to keep real, fact-driven science at the heart of school teaching and policy-making around the country. This may sound like a no-brainer, but Nye goes up against such delightful foes as creationist Ken Ham, who shrewdly used videos of him and Nye debating creationism vs. evolution to garner attention and funds to build his Noah’s Ark theme park. Nye has often been criticized for giving these fringe thinkers a platform they never otherwise would have had, simply by agreeing to be in the same room with them.
Nye has similar issues with global warming denier Joe Bastardi, a TV weatherman (and champion bodybuilder?) who has regularly gotten into debates on the topic. Bastardi is more of a showboater than an informed citizen, so Nye engaging him on any public stage seems ill-advised. But it’s also indicative of how passionate he is on these topics, and he’s committed to showing the world that science is not some liberal propaganda tool.
Although not a full-on exposé on Nye, the film does talk to some of his former co-workers who feel he left them in the dust when he moved to PBS. We also get to see Nye as celebrity, with fans clamoring to shake his hand or get a selfie, some of which is met with clear annoyance from him. But we also get wonderful detail on Nye’s relationship with mentor Carl Sagan and fellow Sagan disciple (and actual scientist) Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is a great supporter of Nye’s work at educating and inspiring kids and his current role as CEO and spokesperson of The Planetary Society, co-founded by Sagan, and dedicated to creating and launching a solar-powered LightSail spacecraft.
Bill Nye: Science Guy works best because the profile it builds around its subject is a bit rough around the edges. His mission began as a way to pique the interests of younger people, but now it seems like more dire and essential work, as if the world may fall into an ignorance spiral if he gives up. He may not be wrong.
The film opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.