How Bill Nye Saves the World Takes the Intimidation Factor Out of Science

TV Features Bill Nye Saves the World
How Bill Nye Saves the World Takes the Intimidation Factor Out of Science

Science. It’s everywhere.

Fun fact: I once got a date with a cute biologist because I went to my roommate’s grad school lecture at Harvard for kick-a-roonies and caught the guy’s eye because I was the only young lass in a boho gold silk broomstick skirt and combat boots and I was taking notes with a fountain pen. “Uh, are you a… scientist?” the hot-yet-awkward cellular bio-genius asked me.

“Yes,” I replied. “I’m a writer.”

“A science writer?”

“Yep! A poet.”

Perplexed grin. “Are you… seeing anyone?”

Peter, I am sorry things didn’t work out for us, but I am not sorry I went to that lecture because I met you and because I learned the word apoptosis, which is the fancy academic term for programmed cell death, and that comes in handy so often in poetry that you would literally not believe it. Because you were one of those binary bozos who thought poetry was the opposite of empirical science.

Now: For those of you who didn’t have access to Harvard lecture halls in the 1990s, this important term and many like it are now being made available to you on Netflix.

You see, long ago, in a secret lab near the overharvested salt flats of Milpitas, Calif., and not too far from that Undead mall where the Applebee’s is? You know? There. A nefarious experiment took place. Using bleeding edge CRISPR tech, some dudes out of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. created a chimera from the combined DNA of Bob Saget, Dr. Mehmet Oz, a local-access cable game show, and my Uncle Mike. They named it Bill Nye and gave it a special mission: to Save the World by using charmingly awkward nerdery to make science accessible to a hooting and cheering live studio audience.

I admit it, that was my first take on Bill Nye Saves the World. My eyes might have even rolled a little as I anticipated a bunch of dummied-down, mass-market-palatable “science education” that was distractingly populated with random non-scientific “guests” and bizarre outbursts of cheering from the over-stimulated studio audience when Nye explained, for example, that colon cells have a life span of four days before being eliminated. “From your butt,” he clarifies, and the crowd goes wild. (P.S.: That’s an example of apoptosis, and it’s OK that Nye uses the term “excreted from your butt” even though your butt is not part of your excretory system, which specifically handles peepee, not poopoo. “Excreted” sounds pithier than “digested,” which, though correct, does make it sound as if your colon is eating its own cells rather than shunting them out of your body via your booty. So that’s fine. But yeah, I was locked down for Dummy Science.)

Here’s the deal: Bill Nye is not the first guy I think of in relation to the word “seductive” (no offense, Bill, it’s the bow ties), but this show is. You’ll start to ignore the (enigmatically placed, in my view) studio audience and the sometimes scant or weird production elements because, as a matter of fact, Bill Nye is a very efficient conveyor of information laypeople probably really want, even if they weren’t aware of wanting it. In Season Three, Nye uses a combination of roundtable talks, in-studio “experiments” and field reporting by disarmingly attractive correspondents to look at the biochemistry and psychology of addiction, and the future of our food supply in an increasingly densely populated and climate-destabilized world. He tackles aging and water security. He stages an evolution talk using an egg and a Buff Orpington hen in a way that’s kind of hilarious and so cheesy that it very gently presses the “get the eff over it” button on the throwbacks who think evolution isn’t a thing. Like, Bill Nye will not offend you. If Bill Nye offends you, you have serious, serious issues. Because he’s clearly bright as hell but he’s got a very silly, non-arrogant way of presenting current empirical knowledge with a nod to the fact that facts as we understand them change as technologies develop and broaden our range of vision. And because he has a “bawk-bawk” soundtrack where he fricking interviews a chicken. Indeed, he notes that he loved being an acolyte in an Episcopalian church as a kid and that he found science was pretty damn handy for answering whatever questions that raised. I dare you to have a cow—which is an evolutionary descendant of a wild animal that no longer exists, by the way—over this. If you can, you need anger management therapy.

Actually, in the evolution episode, I started to get what was up with the studio audience, and it wasn’t as weird or as dumb as I had first thought. It’s just a shorthand way of saying, “Literally everyone can be down with what I am talking about and it will not kill you to learn something.” It’s also shorthand for “Information can be entertaining: Check it, these guys are cracking up.”

As someone who was trained in poetry but went out of her way to know what apoptosis is and can correctly use terms like “fluvioglacial deposit” and “ecological justice” and “mesolimbic pathway,” I totally get that science can be intimidating. So can poetry, based on audiences at my readings. But what Bill Nye and his goofy ties would like you to know is simply this: That’s an illusion. Science is for everyone; we are science and we are surrounded by it, constantly. We are interesting enough to be worth knowing about. (The poet would add that “Know Thyself” is inscribed on the entryway to the temple of Apollo in Delphi and that the quest to do exactly that goes all the way back to the beginning, whatever you happen to believe the beginning was, and that the fossil record isn’t really even out of synch with the mythography you might have learned in church.) And most of all: Our world is delicate and complex and some aspects of it are becoming unstable and that is seriously and legitimately scary, so it’s of note that we can all play a role in saving it. And that whatever it is actually going to take to “save the world,” it sure as hell isn’t more ignorance.


Season Three of Bill Nye Saves the World is now available on Netflix.

Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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