Bill Nye is on a mission to stop the spread of anti-scientific thought and action. Once the host of a popular kids’ show and now the CEO of the Planetary Society, he’s leading a mission to launch LightSail, a satellite propelled by sunlight, while in turn fulfilling the legacy of his late professor and Planetary Society co-founder Carl Sagan.
With intimate and exclusive access, as well as plenty of wonder and whimsy, POV: Bill Nye: Science Guy (PBS Distribution) is a behind-the-scenes portrait of the “Science Guy,” who continues to inspire millennials to participate in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). In addition to Nye, the film features Neil deGrasse Tyson, Ann Druyan and many other notable voices in the field.
In addition to taking off his signature “Science Guy” lab coat, Nye has started taking on those who deny the importance of science, from prominent creationist Ken Ham to climate change skeptic, meteorologist and occasional Fox News commentator Joe Bastardi. Nye goes head-to-head to advocate for the scientific community and its invaluable findings.
And Nye acknowledges that he’s ready for a new challenge. “The Science Guy show is over, and I’ve got to move on to something bigger,” he says. “We have this increasing anti-science movement in the United States. It’s worse than ever. The anti-science movement is more powerful than it’s ever been.”
Accordingly, in his role as CEO of the Planetary Society, Nye and his team are working toward the first-ever successful launch and flight of a solar sailing satellite propelled by sunlight in space. “When I was in class 40 years ago, Carl Sagan talked about a solar sail mission, but it never happened. So, this is realizing a 40-year-old dream of building a spacecraft that could fly in space propelled just by light. So, Professor Sagan, this one’s for you,” Nye says as the satellite is being tested for the first time.
But Nye’s focus never strays far from what initially propelled him to fame: education. “If we raise a generation of kids that can’t think critically, can’t think scientifically, we are headed for trouble,” he warns. “As a science educator, I am really more serious about it than ever. These people who are denying science, denying evolution, denying the efficacy of vaccinations and especially denying human-caused climate change—we just can’t have this. We’ve got to fight this fight. I’ve got to fight this fight.”
Nye’s mission is driven in part by anxiety about what future generations may face. Sitting on climate change denier Joe Bastardi’s porch, Nye implores, “What if you’re wrong? What about Garrett?” Garrett is Bastardi’s college-age son, who is following in his father’s footsteps by studying meteorology and also shares his father’s skepticism about climate change.
Another flashpoint in the film comes when Nye is touring the Creation Museum founded by Christian fundamentalist Ken Ham. The museum features displays suggesting that humans lived alongside dinosaurs and that the earth is 6,000 years old. Nye finds it alarming. He points out, “Humans and ancient dinosaurs did not live at the same time. The evidence for that is overwhelming, and to suggest this to school-children is irresponsible at best. It’s reprehensible at worst.”
Nonetheless, Nye is not without his own critics. Even some in the scientific community feel there have been times when Nye’s mission has taken a back seat to his ego. Some say that by agreeing to a televised debate with Ham about our evolutionary origins, Nye gave Ham undeserved media attention. “Nye’s mistake was giving credibility to Ken Ham by giving him a public platform. Everything I’ve seen about Nye is that he really misses being the Science Guy because he was much beloved and very popular. It’s hard to give up celebrity,” says evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne.
The program also illuminates Nye’s private life. He remains close to his two siblings, who are struggling with a hereditary neurological disorder that Nye doesn’t have. Numerous friends, both from his childhood and from his Science Guy days, speak to his quirks and ambitions. Nye even opens up about his romantic life.
Ultimately, the Science Guy and Nye are indistinguishable from each other. “Bill has always wanted to be famous,” one of his longtime friends says. Expertly chronicling the TV character and the very real human subject behind him, Bill Nye: Science Guy presents an absorbing, charming portrait of a man and his not-so-modest mission to educate and change the world.