Early in the documentary “Bill Nye: Science Guy,” another celebrity figure in science, the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, says that Nye is “the science teacher we all wish we had in elementary school. Or in middle school. Or in high school, or even college.”
“The ‘Science Guy’ show contained the science that excited Bill, and you the viewer can’t help but be just as excited as the instructor,” Tyson says. “It was a game changer for a whole generation of people.”
The film captures the nostalgia of the 1990s, when Nye’s “Bill Nye the Science Guy” show taught the subject to a public-television and syndicated TV audience of millions. Those fans, now all grown, still can’t get enough of Nye, who in recent years has honed his position as an advocate for science education and space exploration and held high-profile debates with creationists and climate-change deniers.
“We have this increasing anti-science movement in the United States,” Nye says in the film. “If we raise a generation of kids that can’t think critically, can’t think scientifically, we are headed for trouble.”
The highly engaging 95-minute documentary directed by David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg has been playing the festival circuit and more recently enjoying short theatrical runs. It opens Friday, Nov. 17, in Denver, Detroit, San Diego, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., where Nye will participate in an audience Q-and-A after two screenings Friday at the West End Cinema.
I got to have my own Q-and-A with Nye as part of the promotion of the film, which obviously centers on Nye, but over which he says he didn’t have editorial control.
“I state all the time I don’t get it,” Nye said in the interview, referring to the appeal of his Science Guy “character.”
“I don’t quite the grasp of the ‘Science Guy’ show,” he continued. “Millions of kids watched the show. Millions of people in places like Australia still watch the show. Because other people do not have this blind spot. My agent had the idea to do the documentary.”
“Bill Nye the Science Guy” aired some 100 half-hour episodes from 1994 to 1999.
I reminded Nye that I had interviewed him in 1994 as his show was getting off the ground, as were a wave of other next-generation science shows for children. At that time, Nye and others had nothing but nice things to say about Don Herbert, who as Mr. Wizard starred in various science shows for kids from the 1950s through the 1990s. Then I called up Herbert, who was somewhat surpisingly unimpressed with the new wave of shows. (He thought they were too gimmicky. Herbert’s shows tended toward Mr. Wizard leading experiments while children watched.)
Nye said in my recent interview with him that he eventually met with Herbert.
“He was very nice at lunch,” Nye said. “Fern, his wife, said Don was happy to have someone to whom to pass the torch” for TV science education. Herbert died in 2007.
The “Bill Nye” documentary paints Nye as the successor to another popular scientiest—the astronomer Carl Sagan. The film resists showing Sagan’s “billions and billions of stars” line, but shows clips from a Sagan appearance on Johnny Carson, circa late 1970s, discussing the concept of solar sailing.
Nye, who turns 62 this month, was a mechanical engineer at Boeing Corp. in Seattle who did standup comedy on the side when he donned his trademark light-blue lab coat to become the “Science Guy.” After the run of his TV show, he became involved with the Planetary Society, which was co-founded by Sagan and is involved in research and advocacy for space exploration.
Nye became president of the society in 2010, and the part of the documentary shows efforts to test Sagan’s solar sail idea.
There is also a deeply personal side to the film, as Nye is tested for the hereditary neurological disorder Ataxia, which affects an individual’s balance. Nye’s brother and sister have it, but Nye shows no signs of it. Nye laments that one reason he never had children was because he was afraid to pass on the disorder.
The most fun segments of the film are Nye’s tours of attractions such as Ark Encounter, the Williamstown, Ky., replica of Noah’s Ark, which presents a story of literal truth of the Bible and asserts that dinosaurs lived at the same time as early humans.
The film shows a famous 2014 debate Nye held with Ken Ham at the nearby Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., about the viability of creation as a model of the Earth’s origin. Ham is the founder of the ministry Answers in Genesis, which built Ark Encounter.
Some criticized Nye for giving Ham a big platform for his views. The documentary also captures a more impromptu debate between Nye and Ham at Ark Encounter as tourists pull out their smartphones. Ham takes a shot at Nye for not having a Ph.D., with the implication among Nye’s critics that he’s not a real scientist.
Nye retorts to Ham: “I am trying to be as respectful as I can. The scientists on your staff are incompetent.”
Outside the museum, Nye says, “The Earth is not 6,000 years old, it’s inappropriate to teach that to children.”
The film also captures Nye’s encounters with Joe Bastardi, a meteorologist who has questioned global warming. And the cameras follow Nye to the National Science Teachers Association and the March for Science earlier this year in Washington.
“Nowadays I’m talking to adults, and I’m not mincing words,” Nye says in the film. “The climate is changing, it’s our fault, and we’ve got to get to work on this.”
In the film, Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist and Nye ally, says, “Everything I’ve seen about Bill tells me he misses being the Science Guy.”
The documentary strongly suggests, however, that Nye never stopped being the Science Guy and never will.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.