It’s hard to make science sexy, but when someone finds a way to make it popular, they can achieve rock-star fame. Directors David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg's new documentary features one of those rock stars in Bill Nye: Science Guy.
Nye — a former engineer and tireless advocate for science — gained widespread attention with his PBS children’s show, Bill Nye the Science Guy (1993-1998). After that show ended, Nye became a popular lecturer and educator. He was also CEO of the Planetary Society, the space interest group co-founded by scientist Carl Sagan. Nye's new science education series, Bill Nye Saves the World, appears on Netflix.
He’s now something of a culture warrior, defending such contentious scientific theories as evolution and global warming against assaults by deniers, creationists, Republicans, and fundamentalists. Alvarado and Sussberg offer a sober and insightful look at the man behind these many ventures, but don’t shy away depicting this hero with feet at least partially made of clay.
Nye received his degree in mechanical engineering from Cornell University. There, he met Sagan, who taught him the value of educating the public about science. After working as engineer for 20 years, Nye created Science Guy and, due to the energy and fun he injected into his presentations, promptly found fame among science-minded kids nationwide. Those kids may have grown up, but they still love the Science Guy.
Nye has since modified and matured his approach (often teaming up with celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson), making him a very effective advocate. The Planetary Society credits Nye with helping them complete the LightSail, a solar sail space probe — a satellite with mylar sails propelled by the sun’s rays — which was stalled in development for years.
Nye also takes his role very seriously. He is willing to challenge all comers, most famously in a series of debates with Australian Christian fundamentalist Ken Ham, the man behind the Creation Museum and evangelical theme park Ark Encounter.
On the other hand, the documentary also fairly points out that Nye is not universally beloved among scientists and rationalists. Some point out that only after his debates with Nye did Ham find enough support to complete his financially strapped Ark project.
The film also looks at Nye’s troubled family life. His family carries a degenerative genetic disorder called ataxia, which causes a loss of muscle control. Though his siblings inherited the syndrome from their parents, he did not. Nye, close to his brother and sister, admits to suffering pangs of survivors' guilt, and his fear of passing on the illness is a major reason he has never married or had children.
Nye is immensely likable. As he and many others see it, he is fighting the good fight against the forces of darkness and superstition. While this documentary clearly loves its subject, it acknowledges that while Nye is an icon, he is also just a man, with human flaws and insecurities. But in the end, you still can’t help admiring the man and acknowledging the importance of his fight.