Though his syndicated PBS science series for kids, “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” went off the air in the 1990s, Bill Nye is still the consummate nerd celebrity. Throughout Jason Sussberg and David Alvarado’s documentary “Bill Nye: Science Guy” he’s seen greeting throngs of mostly young people who were inspired to take up an interest, if not a career, in science after watching his entertaining shows, which have long been a reliable teaching tool for science teachers in classrooms.
Lately he keeps busy debating creationists and climate change deniers, making public appearances to encourage kids to study science, and pursuing his mentor Carl Sagan’s project to launch the solar-powered LightSail spacecraft. Channeling Nye’s own gift for making complex ideas simple and clear, the filmmakers edit together these various aspects of Nye’s life with deceptive ease, drawing on interviews and archival material and following him throughout his hectic schedule.
This is not hagiography, however; they don’t back off from examining some of his more controversial endeavors and characteristics. That includes his fondness for the spotlight and his ambition, which in a couple of instances has backfired on him.
When the show first started, Nye decided to dump its co-creators to go it alone. As amateurish clips of the resulting program demonstrate, the move was ill-conceived, and Nye soon returned to work with those who initiated the project with him.
More recently, he accepted a challenge to debate evolution with fundamentalist preacher Ken Ham, the founder of the Creation Museum in Kentucky, where families can enjoy such exhibits as a diorama of people and dinosaurs living together. Nye counters Ham’s literalist biblical convictions with scientific arguments, eliciting scoffing laughter from the partisan crowd. To add injury to insult, Ham uses videos of the debate to raise millions to help fund the “Ark Encounter” — a full-scale replica of Noah’s Ark.
But most of Nye’s activities have contributed to his stated goal to “leave the world a better place than I found it.” He has his work cut out for him because, as he points out, there has seldom been a worse time for science, which is currently being challenged by conservative media, fossil fuel companies, the religious right, and the president.
Still, Nye presses on. In a sequence that would be amusing if the issue were not so grave, he tries to set up a debate with climate change-denying meteorologist and champion bodybuilder Joe Bastardi, whom he had previously confronted on Fox News. If Nye can change Bastardi’s mind, maybe others, even more hardcore, will follow. That is, if Bastardi decides to show up.
Meanwhile, the LightSail project looks poised for the kind of success that could lead to low-cost vehicles able to monitor global climate patterns and travel beyond the solar system.
As popular astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson puts it, Nye “has transitioned from science guy for kids to science statesman.”
Bill Nye: Science Guy
Directed by Jason Sussberg and David Alvarado. At Brattle. 101 minutes. Unrated (disturbing examples of the kind of irrationality and ignorance that may doom the Earth).Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.