Bill Nye does not abide casual misuse of the word incredible. If you refer to some sophisticated scientific process in this way—the creation of more-durable crops through genetic modification, say—he will correct you, firmly. “No, it’s credible. It’s science.”
Anyone who came of age in the United States in the early 1990s through the early 2000s can likely credit Nye with their understanding of one natural phenomenon or another: He has been dutifully demonstrating the scientific method to television viewers for more than 30 years, either as the host of one of several shows or as a bow-tied talking head debating a cable-news pundit. His television career started when he joined the staff of Almost Live!, a Seattle sketch comedy show, in 1986, and took off with Bill Nye the Science Guy, an educational children’s show that aired from 1993 to 1998 on KCTS-TV, Seattle’s public broadcasting station, and was syndicated nationally via PBS. On the show, Nye would scramble about the set in a baby-blue lab coat, meticulously breaking down topics including biodiversity, space travel, gravity, animal locomotion and pollution, usually through such antics as hurling a desktop computer off the roof of his studio or pretending to be buried by an avalanche of trash.
Bill Nye the Science Guy won 19 Emmy awards and was followed by another PBS series, The Eyes of Nye, and several books. The latest, Everything All at Once: How to Unleash Your Inner Nerd, Tap Into Radical Curiosity and Solve Any Problem, is out July 11. In April, Nye debuted a new Netflix series, Bill Nye Saves the World, which features a rotating cast of celebrity accomplices—including, in its very first segment, supermodel Karlie Kloss and rapper Desiigner—and is aimed more toward edifying adults than toward educating kids, though this does not preclude moments of supreme goofiness. Nye cites both Steve Martin and Carl Sagan as early influences.
“Science came first, without question,” he says. We’re drinking coffee in a hotel suite in midtown Manhattan while the city is in the midst of a colossal downpour. “But ever since I was a kid, I’ve wanted to be funny. It was valued.”
Nye was born in Bethesda, Maryland, in 1955. His mother was a code breaker for the Navy during World War II, and his father worked in advertising. After graduating from Sidwell Friends—a prestigious private school popular with presidential offspring from Archibald Roosevelt to Sasha and Malia Obama—he enrolled at Cornell, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. It wasn’t until later, after friends had cajoled him into entering a Steve Martin look-alike contest (he won), that he became interested in comedy.
There are people running around who think the earth is flat. No, it’s not flat. Look at the pictures, dude.
He still gets defensive about his academic bona fides. In 2016 Sarah Palin disparaged Nye at a screening of Climate Hustle, a film that questions the accuracy of climate science. “He’s a kids’ show actor; he’s not a scientist,” she said. As chilling as it is to admit, Palin wasn’t wrong: Nye never went to graduate school, nor has he ever held a job in a lab. In other areas, this sort of institutional validation wouldn’t matter—nobody cares whether Jimi Hendrix had a master’s degree in composition—but in an academic discipline, it’s significant.
“Mechanical engineering is nothing but science,” Nye tells me. “That’s all it is. I took six semesters of calculus. Is that enough? I studied fluid mechanics, heat transfer, the design of mechanical components. So, deal.”
Nye will tersely defend his scientific qualifications, but in some ways his background as a comedian is his greatest asset. These days, intellectualism of any sort is often read as snobbery, a luxury of the so-called coastal elite. It makes sense that the country would turn to a beloved celebrity for help with a complex public issue like climate change. And our greatest scientific thinkers, though overloaded with degrees, are likely not as quick with a quip or as willing to use physical comedy to illustrate the laws of nature.
Given all that, Nye may seem an unlikely lightning rod for controversy. He advocates only for established scientific beliefs, not fringe theories. But he has detractors, some of them vocal, many of them online: “Everywhere I go, people will say, ‘Wow, thank you for your work. You’re doing a great job.’ But when I look on the electric internet, there are a few people who just hate me,” Nye says. “I mean, I get involved in debates on purpose.”
A popular video on YouTube called “Those 7 Times Bill Nye Went Beast Mode” contains, despite its title, mostly footage of Nye responding calmly and carefully to increasingly hysterical accusations. Trying to understand popular skepticism in the face of objectively provable facts could drive a less durable man insane. In this, though, Nye is indefatigable. American culture has arguably never been more resistant to empiricism or more confused about what objective truth looks like. “There are people running around who think the Earth is flat,” he says. “I thought it was a joke at first. No, it’s not flat. No, you can see—look at the pictures, dude.” He appears worried.
“In my life, science has never before been set aside like this.”
The next time I see Nye is in Montclair, New Jersey, a moneyed suburb about 15 miles west of Manhattan. Bill Nye: Science Guy, a recent documentary about his life and work, is screening at the Montclair Film Festival, and Nye is there to participate in a post-screening Q&A with Stephen Colbert, Montclair’s most famous resident.
Before the screening, I chat with the security guard manning the backstage entrance. He has a wispy postadolescent mustache and is waving around one of those metal-detection wands. “I want to get a picture,” he says. “I’ve been watching Bill since pre-K.” Outside the theater, lined up on the sidewalk, I see a teenager wearing a T-shirt with the periodic table on the front, several children in lab coats and what appears to be a formidable collection of high school science teachers. People are waiting outside in the rain.
Nye arrives at the theater on time, scurrying from the backseat of a dark SUV toward the venue. When I greet him by the door, right away he asks me how his bow tie looks. Nye inquires after his bow tie a lot. “It’s very important,” he says.
Nye also remembers the name of every single person he meets, even if he’s being introduced to a whole roomful of new faces at once. He is gently irritated by bullshit—when I dopily tell him his tie looks “amazing!” he gives me a look like, Come on—and prefers that hangers-on keep up with his hyperkinetic pace. He says the word dude a lot—more specifically, “Dude!” immediately followed by a quieter and more censorious “Dude.” If you provoke a “Dude! Dude” you will immediately regret your entire approach.
Montclair’s Wellmont Theater has a seating capacity of about 1,800, and I’ve been told the event is “wildly sold out.” Colbert and Nye meet up before the screening, in the makeup room. The previous day, Nye taped a segment for The Late Show, to air the following Monday. “You’re just nailing it, man,” Nye tells Colbert as a makeup artist applies powder. “And of course, you have so much to work with.”
“Almost too much,” Colbert replies. Colbert is a devout Catholic, and Nye is agnostic, but the two seem to have an instinctive rapport.
Nye watches the film seated near Colbert. It’s a revealing portrait: Nye has never legally married or had children (he joked to me about his inability to commit to a woman), and he frets about staving off ataxia, a movement disorder characterized by a lack of muscle control. Both of his siblings have been diagnosed with the condition, which can be caused by a defective gene.
Midway through, when footage of Ark Encounter—the controversial creationist theme park in northern Kentucky run by the apologetics ministry Answers in Genesis and infamously subsidized by the state—appears onscreen, a little boy of around six seated directly behind me yells, “That looks fun!” The boy’s parents frantically shush him. No doubt they’ve seen Nye’s 2014 debate with Answers in Genesis president Ken Ham at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. At one point in the debate, the moderator, Tom Foreman, asked both men, “What, if anything, would ever change your mind?” The moment immediately felt demonstrative of something larger, more fundamental. Ham was flummoxed by the question: “I’m a Christian,” he said. “As far as the word of God is concerned, no, no one is ever going to convince me that the word of God is not true.” Nye allowed that his mind could easily be changed. “We would just need one piece of evidence,” he said.
Back in Montclair, during the talk-back, Colbert recites an Isaac Asimov passage from “A Cult of Ignorance,” an essay Asimov wrote for Newsweek in 1980. “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’ ” The crowd applauds. “If the majority is always right,” Colbert asks, “even if the majority believes something that isn’t true, how does science approach that?”
“We just try to show the facts as often as we can,” Nye says.
In Bill Nye: Science Guy, interviews with some of Nye’s early colleagues suggest that Nye has always wanted to be famous—that he courts attention. Because he was a fixture of so many American childhoods (in the 1990s, nearly every exhausted science teacher in the U.S. wheeled in a VCR and played an episode of Bill Nye the Science Guy on at least one occasion), he has an uncommon bipartisan appeal. He possibly endangers that appeal every time he appears on another conservative talk show and is forced to position himself as part of the resistance rather than as an apolitical public thinker. Still, Nye repeats the virtues of science so tirelessly, it’s hard to question his intentions.
After the event, I come upon him in the green room, lecturing a clump of grinning acolytes about the efficacy of solar panels. I’m struck, again, by the consistency of Nye’s vision. He appears to care chiefly, if not exclusively, about just two things: leaving the world better than he found it (an aphorism he learned from his father) and responsibly educating as many people as he can. He seems to believe that if he talks frequently enough, and loudly enough, about what’s at stake for the world, his message will eventually change some minds. This is how he justifies all those cable-news appearances.
Colbert walks a young friend in a bow tie over for an introduction, and Nye launches into a quick lesson on how to properly stage a selfie. He has an educator’s instinct and a clawlike grip on an iPhone. (He makes a little “Blagh!” sound right before snapping the shutter, “to get people laughing.”)
The young man regards Nye with a kind of pie-eyed wonder. When fans come upon him in the flesh, they often look as if they’re meeting Santa Claus. Nye, of course, would find this comparison absurd. He is, as he’ll be the first to tell you, very real. Very human. It’s science.