Bill Nye Fights Back
How a mild-mannered children’s celebrity plans to save science in America—or go down swinging.
Ryan Bradley on Popular Science
"Let’s say that I am, through my actions, doomed, and that I will go to hell,” Bill Nye said. He was prepping for a Super Bowl party and making pizza dough from a recipe given to him by his friend, Bob Picardo, who played The Doctor on Star Trek: Voyager. He ducked beneath the countertop, pulled out a KitchenAid mixer and a bag of flour, and then returned to the topic at hand, which was religion and science and what he believed.
“Even if I am going to hell,” he continued, “that still doesn’t mean the Earth is 6,000 years old. The facts just don’t reconcile.” He turned back to the mixer, sighed, and slumped a little. For a moment, Nye looked weary at the thought of ill-informed parents undoing his life’s work. “So,” he said, straightening, “the worst that can happen in this debate is I lose my temper, Ken Ham is suddenly empowered, his Ark Park gets built, and it’s all my fault.” Then he poured the flour into the mixer, along with some sugar, salt, and a packet of yeast, and flicked the switch. In a little more than 48 hours he would walk onto a stage in Petersburg, Kentucky, to debate Ken Ham, founder and leader of Answers in Genesis, a ministry most famous for owning and operating the Creation Museum, which displays animatronic dinosaurs next to Adam and Eve. Preparing for the debate—the responsibility he felt defending reason in the face of extreme faith—had weighed heavily on Nye. But now, making pizza dough, he was just a guy wowed by science, which was currently happening right in that bowl.
Over the mixer’s low hum, Nye explained that the yeast, a fungus, was slowly eating the sugar and excreting carbon dioxide and alcohol, which would eventually cause the dough to rise. He said this with the same Aww, shucks, isn’t this incredible? delivery that made him who he is today: the Science Guy, star of the 1990s megahit television show and friendly explainer of all things scientific. Nye turned off the mixer and removed the dough, working the sticky ball on a lightly floured counter before dropping it on a plate and walking around the corner to the den, where he placed it atop a cable box. He said the warmth of the electronics would speed the reaction of the yeast enzymes, making the dough rise more quickly. Next to the box, a small bookshelf contained the DVD set of all 100 episodes of Bill Nye the Science Guy. A few were missing, actually, on loan to some kids from his Los Angeles neighborhood. A framed sheet of paper hung above the shelf—the single-page mission statement Nye wrote while creating the show. At the top, he’d typed “Objective: Change the world!” He took it down and stared at it for a moment. Nye holds a deep fascination, a reverence even, for all we don’t fully understand. “We are literally made of the stuff of stars,” he said. “It gives me the willies—how can this be? How can we know our place in the universe?”
It was a rhetorical question. Nye had been setting up the same punch line for so long the answer had become his calling card, his signature shout-out: “Science!” But Nye is the first to admit that science in America is in a bad way. He said he felt that despite issuing more patents and Ph.D.s than any other nation, the country was drifting closer and closer toward scientific illiteracy. Just a few weeks earlier, a PEW research poll found that nearly 45 percent of Americans believed humans came to be by a process other than evolution. A similar poll found that one in two Americans don’t believe that humans are causing climate change, despite the fact that about 98 percent of all scientists do (a greater consensus than supports the link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer). To Nye, science is under siege, and he is not about to sit back and watch the thing he loves and staked his career on suffer.
He re-hung the framed printout, but not before repeating its message: “Change the world.” The world had changed since the show ended in 1998, and not necessarily for the better. So Bill Nye was venturing back into the fray to change it once more.
What kicked off the debate at the Creation Museum was simple. The whole business started in New York a few years ago. His publicist had scheduled a bunch of interviews, and Nye, up since 2 a.m., arrived at the last one, for a website called Big Think, in late morning. He was jet-lagged, tired. You can see it in the video—the way his head bobs, struggling to stay aloft. You can hear it, too. His voice comes from way back in his throat, all gravelly. The interviewer asked him about Pluto and dark matter, and then about creationism. Bill sighed and said, “When you have a portion of the population that believes in that, it holds everybody back.” The guy on screen looked so different from the funny, warm Science Guy known to a generation. He wasn’t at all funny, for starters. And his exasperation struck a chord. To date, the Big Think video has nearly 7 million views, and it prompted Ham to ask for a debate.
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