Where I grew up in south-central British Columbia in the 1980s, we had four channels from Seattle on our limited dial, including Kiro 7. As a result, my early Sunday evenings were spent watching Almost Live, a half-hour local Seattle show with aspirations to be a Pacific Northwest version of Saturday Night Live.
One of my favorite recurring skits focused on a superhero called “Speed Walker” whose powers involved the ability to speed walk to the nearest crime whilst observing all posted regulations. (You can see an episode at YouTube.) Speed Walker was played by a young local comedian named “Bill Nye”. I was in university when Bill Nye the Science Guy launched, so I never watched the show. But I do remember bemusedly realizing that Speed Walker had perambulated onto the national stage (PBS).
It wasn’t until I asked my sixteen-year-old daughter to watch the new documentary Bill Nye: Science Guy on Netflix that I came to realize just how far Speed Walker had come. Her eyes immediately lit up: “Bill Nye? That’s my childhood!” As soon as the documentary began, I realized that her response was no anomaly: apparently, a generation of kids that grew up in the 1990s and 2000s were introduced to science (and a heady dose of zany comedy) by watching Bill Nye videos. Even now, twenty years after the show went off the air, this nerdy older man in the bow tie had retained rock-star status.
But who is Bill Nye? In Bill Nye: Science Guy we get some of the backstory filled in. We discover that Bill’s family is afflicted with ataxia and he struggles with survivor’s guilt that he is free of the disease. We also see his admirable filial affection for his brother and sister. Interestingly, the film flirts with giving deeper glimpses into his life while never revealing too much. For example, we learn that his father suffered a fall from ataxia, but we never hear exactly about the outcome. Bill says he never had children for fear of passing on the genetic trait of the disease, but we never hear about his one very brief and stormy marriage in 2006.
A friend tells us that Bill always wanted to be famous. At times, one suspects that desire for the spotlight has clouded his judgment, most notably in his decision to join in a highly publicized online debate with creationist Ken Ham. Later in the film, Bill visits Ham’s giant “Ark” museum and theme park as we learn that this ill-fated debate spurred conservative Christians to donate to the building of the park. Slowly, the uncomfortable realization dawns that the Ark Encounter might not exist if Bill had declined that debate. To put it bluntly, his desire for the spotlight at times works in opposition to his desire to propagate science education.
The ill-fated Ark debate brings us to the question of religion. Fortunately, Ham is not the only Christian featured in the film. The documentary notably includes some key clips with evangelical Christian Francis Collins (Director of the NIH) who refers to his own Christian faith. These clips help frame the narrative away from the tired warfare model of science and religion: Nye is fighting ignorance, fundamentalism, and science denial, but he is not battling religion, per se.
Several times in the film Bill expresses his desire to leave the world better than he found it. And while he undoubtedly has human flaws (and it is to the documentary’s credit that it depicts them), one can nonetheless conclude that he has achieved this noble goal. For me, two moments stand out as symbols of his enduring legacy.
The first moment comes when a young woman emerges from the throngs of fans of his PBS show to introduce herself as a medical doctor who grew up watching Bill Nye the Science Guy twenty years ago. The viewer can only imagine how many young people were inspired to pursue science and technology because of Bill’s unique approach to science education. Now that’s a cool legacy.
The second moment comes at the end of the film. Early on, we learn that Bill studied under Carl Sagan at Cornell in the 1970s (though he never attained a PhD, a fact his critics never cease in pointing out). One of Sagan’s passion projects was to launch a space probe which could employ a sail to ride the solar wind into interstellar space. Sagan’s dream never came to fruition in his lifetime. But Bill Nye leads the way to the realization of that dream at the end of the film. As Ann Druyan (Sagan’s widow) observes, what could be more epic than riding light through space?
It’s a wonderful image, and it might well serve as a metaphor for science itself. Science is a gift that allows us to sail on the light of new discovery as we boldly go where no one has gone before. And for a generation, Bill Nye has given them the solar sail.