It’s been nearly three decades since Bill Nye the Science Guy first aired on PBS in September of 1993. In the years that followed, Nye, a former mechanical engineer and the show’s titular host, would become America’s most well-loved science teacher, educating millions of children (and plenty of adults) about basic scientific principles like biodiversity and the forces of gravity.
In a recent interview with Discover, Nye reflects on more than just the series that made him famous, sharing thoughts on his legacy, science communication, and the rise of the anti-science movement in the U.S.
Bill Nye's Humorous Spin on Science
It was Nye’s madcap humor and wacky demonstrations, however, that truly made the show shine. In an episode about ocean life, he explains that seawater is teeming with tiny, microscopic organisms, orplankton, meaning that food is plentiful everywhere.
Then, as if to emphasize his point, he takes a gulp of seawater before spraying it all over the camera. (“Oh great, look at my shoes,” an off-screen cameraperson grumbles.)
“Having a cubic meter of seawater and then doing a spit take for kids — that’s great,” says Nye. “I mean, that’s a stupid thing. You pick up a beaker of water and you spit it out ‘cause it’s salty and it’s hilarious.”
The Success of Bill Nye's Career
It didn’t take long for the show to gain critical acclaim; in 1996, Bill Nye the Science Guy won its first Emmy for outstanding writing in a children’s series. Just two years later, Nye earned another Emmy for playing “himself” as the show’s enthusiastic, fast-talking host.
What’s more, he quickly became a sensation among schoolchildren and teachers for his ability to get kids excited about science — without skimping on the educational content. The show is still used in classrooms today to inform and inspire new generations of young scientists.
Bill Nye the Science Guy Show
Each episode of Bill Nye the Science Guy feels like it's bursting at the seams — chock full of skits, demonstrations and real-time footage, all in service of bringing science to life for the show’s young audience.
Take, for example, how Nye caps off most episodes with an educational music video parodying a pop music hit. The pilot episode features a shaggy-haired Kurt Cobain lookalike explaining the properties of air pressure in "Smells Like Air Pressure," an ode to Nirvana's “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
“There's at least one thing in every show that I just think is great,” says Nye.
Read More: Bill Nye Is Still a Champion for Science
Bill Nye on His Legacy
We asked Nye if there was a particular moment when he realized just how much of an impact he was making at the time.
“Well, when the Vice President called me at home one time; that was cool,” he says. “I still don’t get it. I say this all the time. The number of people that come up to me, who talk about the VHS cart being wheeled into the classroom is just amazing. It’s hard to grasp.”
Nye also references the iconic light blue lab coat — and his signature bow tie — that he wore in the show, which is now on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington D.C.
“Wow!” he exclaims. “You know? And I’m not dead. You know what I mean? It’s really something.”
The Changing Landscape of Educational Science
A lot has changed since the ‘90s, specifically when it comes to communicating science to the public.
When Bill Nye the Science Guy was being made, says Nye, there were really only three major TV broadcast networks — ABC, CBS and NBC — available as cable television emerged. (Although the total number of broadcast networks would double during this period, from three to six.)
“There was public broadcasting, but many people just didn’t embrace it,” he adds. “So it was a different time. There were a limited number of outlets. And now you watch science education on your own device.”
Self Selection Bias
What’s more, Nye continues, we tend to self-select our own media much more strongly today than we did when there were fewer outlets.
“In other words, if you are really into physics, you watch Veritasium with Derek Muller or Physics Girl [with] Dianna Cowern,” says Nye, pointing to two physics-forward YouTube channels with over 15 million subscribers combined. “If you’re really into marine biology, you watch the Discovery Channel online for cetaceans or marine mammals.”
Anti Science Movement/Science Denialism
But the other factor that’s changed the current landscape, adds Nye, is the growth of anti-science — in other words, the replacement of mainstream scientific views or methods with unproven or deliberately misleading theories, often for political or ideological gain. These sentiments have fueled everything from climate-change denial to the rejection of vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The anti-science movement, or anti-intellectualism, has really taken hold in a way that surprises everybody,” he adds.
Read More: How to Spot Pseudoscience Online and IRL
Bill Nye vs. the Anti-Science Movement
In the past decade, Nye has embraced the spotlight in the fight against the anti-science movement — and solidified his transition from PBS personality to science statesman.
2014 Bill Nye Ken Ham Debate
In 2014, he publicly debated creationist Ken Ham in a far-wheeling conversation on creationism and evolution. The debate with Ham, a young Earth creationist and the founder of the Creation Museum, was about whether creationism is a viable model of origins in the contemporary scientific era. The event garnered significant attention due to their starkly contrasting views on topics such as evolution, the age of Earth, and the interpretation of scientific evidence.
2017 Bill Nye Documentary
A few years later, in 2017, PBS released the documentary Bill Nye: Science Guy. It put the science educator under a microscope as he crusaded against the anti-science movement, advocated for space exploration, and sounded the alarm about climate change.
2021 Bill Nye Faces Congress
In 2021, Nye testified before Congress about how human-caused climate change could impact homeland security. He addressed the challenges posed by anti-science attitudes, a perspective that holds particular relevance in today's world where understanding science is crucial for tackling global issues.
“[With] anti-science, a person presumes that [they] know better than experts, without any good reason to believe that,” says Nye. “That’s really a problem for us in the United States right now. Where the United States would nominally be the leader in any sort of technology or science, we’re also the leader in anti-science [and] anti-intellectualism.”
“That’s not sustainable,” he adds. “You can’t run a technically complicated society with fewer and fewer people who know how it all works.”
Nonetheless, Nye, a self-proclaimed optimist, argues that there are still ways to get people to engage with scientific topics that might be at odds with their political or ideological beliefs.
“We chip away at the problem,” he says. “When you meet people who don’t accept climate change or don’t accept the efficacy of wearing a mask during a pandemic, you’re not going to change that person’s mind just by talking to them once. You have to have a steady, calm message for about two years for most people to change their minds.”
Read More: How to Save Planet Earth
Why Is Bill Nye Important to Science?
Nye's approach to science communication has made a lasting impact, particularly in inspiring a generation of young people to appreciate and engage with science. His unique blend of entertainment and education has helped demystify science, making it more accessible and appealing to the public.
As a cultural icon in the realm of science education, Nye's work continues to resonate, underlining the importance of understanding and embracing science in our everyday lives.
This article was originally published on May 11, 2023 and has since been updated by the Discover staff.