We learned to love his character. He was Bill Nye the Science Guy, dressed in a bowtie and cornflower blue lab coat, telling jokes, playing out skits, parodying songs, putting on demonstrations and at-home experiments. He spoke to our love of discovery in the world and in ourselves, and it was impossible not to sit up at the sound of his theme, not to smile at the excitement with which the goofy funny science man spoke, after hours of lessons and the droning voices of teachers. As we learned the responsibilities of school, he taught us to remain curious and passionate, to find joy in learning.
Nye’s program ran for 100 episodes on Disney from 1993 to 1999. For years after, it was carted into science classrooms on VHS and DVD players as the premier educational program for Millennials and Gen Z. Then it seemed he had gone: they didn’t show him in high school or college, and his successive projects—including a spinoff in which he wore a regular tie—failed. In 2013 he appeared where forgotten celebrities in this country go, on Dancing with the Stars, where he slipped during a paso doble, tore a ligament in his leg, and was voted off the third week.
But amidst the prevalence of misinformation and divisiveness and with the climate crisis approaching the point of no return, Nye has reemerged as an advocate for climate action. He speaks more urgently now, without skits, at the United Nations, on news programs, in YouTube videos, and at universities. And at the Kohl Center last month, he brought the theater of his old self, speaking to the audience who has changed with him, the young people who grew up on his love for science and now fear inheriting a world that will be irrevocably destroyed.
In his introductory statement, Paul Robbins, the Dean of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and Nye’s interlocutor for the night, called it “bucket list moment,” his hands trembling as he lifted the pages of his written remarks. “He has a mission to help foster a scientifically literate society,” Robbins said, “and you’re here probably because you grew up watching him on Bill Nye the Science Guy.”
Students pointed their phones to the stage as Nye walked out to the blaring theme of his kid’s show and an explosion of applause from the approximately 3,000 students packed in the basketball arena bleachers. They shouted, clapped, raised their hands and pumped their fists in a scene nearly indistinguishable from Olivia Rodrigo’s recent concerts in nearby Milwaukee and Chicago. But the subject of their ecstasy was not the great new music star of the past year, that 19-year-old bard of heartbreak, but the great American celebrity of science, stepping forward in a dark gray suit and a yellow bowtie spotted with multicolored polka dots. They cheered, they cheered: he came to speak of the end of the world.
Nye meandered through anecdotes, facts, motivational appeals, and jokes. Students rooted for him when he successfully recited the full term for the acronym CRISPR. They laughed after he said he wanted a future where “everybody becomes a scientist,” but “we do not want everybody to become an engineer”—a pause for the punchline—because “the fashion problems with that alone would be very troubling.” He detailed his entry into celebrity—he won a Steve Martin lookalike contest and performed as Martin at events—as well as his approach to educating about science. But now, he said, he was “more desperate,” with a new strategy to “present good information, calmly, over and over.” He was here to deliver earnest lessons about what “we need to do.”
To a question about universities divesting from fossil fuel companies, he said, “I’m all for it”—the crowd roared—“what we really have to do is stop doing business with them.” In one moment choreographed to appear spontaneous, he pulled a small folded copy of the Constitution from his jacket pocket and read how Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 lists how Congress must “promote the Progress of Science.” He explained, “They used the word science in 1786 because they realized the value of science and innovation to our economy,” calling his own advocacy “patriotic.” He implored his audience to “vote, vote,” smacking the armrest of his chair.
“And when you vote,” he said, “take the environment into account. I’m not telling you for whom to vote, but if those of you who think voting doesn’t matter and don’t participate, will you just shut up and let the rest of us who want to get things done get out there?”
The audience responded most loudly not to Nye’s slight comedy but to these entreaties for action. College students, after all, inherit the future from the failed, and they chant for change with a fervor we lose with age. Nye has worked to find them where they are. He continues to speak to Millennials and Generation Z, visiting campuses, posing for selfies, posting appeals to wear masks during the pandemic on TikTok. In 2019, he appeared in his characteristic bowtie, safety glasses, and labcoat on an episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, a show popular with the young and representative of our era of doom-comedy. He paused his argument for a carbon tax to mock how viewers need “their attention sustained by tricks,” pouring Mentos into a bottle of Diet Coke, and returned at the end of Oliver’s segment on the Green New Deal to set a globe on fire. Then Nye stared into the camera and said, “Here, I’ve got an experiment for you—safety glasses on. By the end of this century, if emissions keep rising, the average temperature on Earth could go up another 4 to 8 degrees. What I’m saying is the planet’s on fire. … Grow up. You’re not children anymore. I didn’t mind explaining photosynthesis to you when you were 12, but you’re adults now and this is an actual crisis. Got it? Safety glasses off,” he said, using several expletives—including one compound expletive—that cannot be printed here.
This is the Nye we grew up with: a man passionate about communicating science to mass audiences, explaining its beauty but also the necessity of its ways of investigating the world. Perhaps he did not revise his image for the time of misinformation and the Paris Agreement: his convictions have not changed, but his ways of conveying them have because his audience has grown up—and the world is on fire.
While Nye has used the internet to reach his audience, the internet has also acted on him, teaching him another facet of contemporary life: extreme public scrutiny, and the breaking of our illusions of celebrity. He recently found himself subject to criticism about his participation in Ellen’s Energy Adventure, a ride at Walt Disney World from 1996 to 2017 funded by Exxon Mobile. During the ride, Nye tells Ellen DeGeneres natural gas is “clean burning” and that we should “not give up” in the search for fossil fuels, as “we can reach the oil with offshore drilling platforms.” At the start of April, Nye voiced an advertisement for Coca-Cola in which his character appears as a large, recycled plastic bottle to “demystify recycling.” Fans condemned him as a “sell-out,” as fewer than 10 percent of single-use plastics get recycled in America, with most ending up in landfills and the ocean, where they disturb ecosystems, kill wildlife, and degrade into microplastics we consume in drinking water, the effects of which are unknown. For three consecutive years Coca-Cola has been named “the worst plastic polluter” in the world by Break Free From Plastic, an NGO that tallies the plastic pollution it finds in cleanups across 50 countries.
Nye shared the advertisement on his Instagram account, and the post became the site of lament. At the top of the comments thread, an account titled “queerbrownvegan” wrote, “This is greenwashing. I’m so disappointed.” Many users repeated the sentiment of disappointment and shock. One wrote, “This is awful. Why Bill? Why would you do this?” Another commented, “Not cool Bill. We looked up to you.” One user told him, “You have lost a long time fan Bill, I hope it was worth it,” and another simply wrote, “There goes my childhood hero.” During the question-and-answer session in Madison, without mention of his sponsorship with the company, Nye said, “I bought a Coca-Cola the other day in a bottle that said ‘100 percent recycled.’ The bottle was 100 percent re-melted Type 1 plastic. Just the day before yesterday. So the problem seems like it can be addressed, if not solved.”
Nobody from the audience asked about Nye’s relationship with Coca-Cola, which contradicts his messaging about climate change and widely available data about the ineffectiveness of recycling plastic. Several times throughout the night, Nye showed how he has become distant from his audience in other ways. He asked, “Have you guys even seen an electric eraser?,” and, “Anybody old enough to have heard of the Ford Pinto car?” When the crowd didn’t laugh at a joke about how scientists changed the adjective for the planet Venus from “venereal” to “Venusian,” Nye said to the moderator, “Venereal…it’s not even a reference for them anymore… Anyway, venereal disease used to be a sexually transmitted disease.” Later he asked the crowd, “Did anybody grow up with the metric system? Anybody?”
In these moments Nye revealed himself as one of the now-infrequent visitors from the past, those who occupied the old world before the deluge of information and the absurdity of infotainment, social media, and fake news. He looked wearied from years of combatting contrarians. This man has spoken with the climate deniers; he debated—that is, explained basic facts to—an upset, combative Tucker Carlson on Fox. On Monday night he continued his mission to inspire change, emphasizing action and collaboration and hope, but he also sounded like a man who has become tired and aware it will ultimately take the many young to deter catastrophe, not him alone.
This exhaustion permeated his speech, so familiar to our ears. Nye recounted the early promise of the internet in a mocking voice: “It’s gonna be fabulous. We’re gonna democratize information. Everyone will have an equal voice and we’ll all communicate and work together for a better tomorrow and it’s just gonna be great.” When he discussed his reactions to so-called skeptics, he frequently exclaimed, “Dude? What do you mean?” To those who say “the electrical grid couldn’t tolerate everyone having an electric vehicle,” he screamed, “Well then let’s fix the grid!” Then he said to the moderator in a lower voice, “God…okay…back to you.”
Nye sounded most drained—and cynical—when he referenced how Oklahoma senator James Inhofe stated that installing energy-efficient light bulbs would not work to avoid climate disaster. Nye responded with an example of how “you can do the arithmetic,” saying, “This is sort of elementary school, it’s just crazy to think…” He concluded that “guys like that are going to […] age out […] and then you’ll get a chance to change the world.”
Nye modulated his tone with the final phrase, the same way he sarcastically quoted opponents to electric cars, apparently mocking the possibility of change. I never heard this tone of his in elementary and middle school: maybe he didn’t have it yet, or maybe he made sure to not let us hear it. But it sounded throughout the arena on Monday night.
In the Q&A, students asked questions that were earnest appeals to an elder for advice. They asked, What do you think?, and, What should we do? At the precipice of the end of the world, we are desperate for a perfect hero, desperate for someone trustworthy and honest and noble, desperate for the character of the wise, passionate, communicative scientist we met in grade school. But in our times there are no earthly gods: they grow old, sign brand deals, become angry, tired, self-certain, and vague. The Nye everyone came to see that night was not the Nye sitting on stage. The Nye everyone came to see only lives in our dreams: a perfect savior who will wipe centuries of human cruelty from the world and rescue vulnerable ecosystems, species, and people from the permanent, destructive self-aggrandizement and ignorance of our race. This is what the young shout, wave their hands, clap, scream, and cheer for: not science, not celebrity, but miracle.
At the end of the event, Nye delivered the line about changing the world with more certainty. He sounded like he believed in it again. And the audience of college students stood for an ovation, chanting to the theme song of those perfect science days of old: “Bill! Bill! Bill! Bill! Bill!”
By: Marek Makowski