USTIN, Texas — For a generation of school kids, Bill Nye is zany and fun-loving, “America’s favorite scientist.’’
A mostly flattering new documentary about the science educator, author, and mechanical engineer, which premiered here Sunday at the South by Southwest festival, chronicles how Nye drew inspiration from Carl Sagan as well as how he sparred with creationists and climate change deniers.
Beyond Nye’s determination to make science accessible, the film, “Bill Nye: Science Guy,’’ delves into more personal subjects, including his pursuit of fame and his personal relationships. Nye even seemed a bit wistful about his personal life, saying in the film: “There were opportunities to get married and have babies.’’ At one point, he acknowledges he keeps a distance from people: “I won’t commit.’’
After the showing, Nye, who cooperated with the project but said he was seeing the complete film for the first time, told the audience, “Wow … I’m flawed. OK?’’
In an interview with STAT before the screening, Nye, 61, spoke of how his interest in science education has taken on new importance with the election of President Trump. He was sporting his trademark bow tie, this one dotted with little atoms.
The interview has been edited and condensed.
Does this documentary have more relevance now that Trump is president?
We are living in an extraordinary time when people are eschewing or suppressing science. The United States was for my whole life the world’s most foremost technically advanced society, the only society that could land a spacecraft on Mars successfully. So maybe it is more relevant. And if it is, that’s good. Except that it needs to be? That’s not so good. So we’ll see.
Are you participating in the science march on Washington next month? Is it a good idea?
Yeah, I’ll be there. The idea is good. There’s a lot fewer scientists than women, so it’ll be compared to the women’s march. But that’s OK. We just want to emphasize the importance of it. The reason we have this digital phone [brandishing his phone] or all these digital cameras, the reason we have these lights or textiles that you’re wearing, or that you’ve lived this long without dying because you had healthy food and clean water, is because of science.
We’ve elected an administration that’s supporting people that are anti-science. I don’t know how long that’ll last.
What are your thoughts on the controversial legislation in Congress that would allow companies to require employees to undergo genetic testing?
I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s commonplace, eventually.
Do you worry about that?
No. What you worry about is the conclusions that are drawn. When you go to a job interview, the person is sizing you up. So just think about, what is it that’s going to get an employer to not hire you? To find out that you need glasses? Or something according to your DNA? I think the concern is overblown. The problem is when you start connecting insurance rates to probabilities that aren’t especially reliable.
Did you have a favorite in the CRISPR patent gene-editing battle? (The Broad Institute prevailed last month in a heated dispute with the University of California over gene-editing technology.)
No. No. I really didn’t. Sorry. More power to them.
Is it a big deal?
CRISPR will be a big deal. Maybe not in the next 10 years but in the next 40 years, CRISPR will be everywhere.
How much are you worried about Trump and the administration?
We are trying to work with the administration in space exploration. And I think, just shooting from the hip, my understanding is that Mr. Bannon [Steve Bannon, the top White House strategist] wants to disassemble the government. That was his idea. So he has gotten the president to hire people that are — for lack of a better word — extraordinary choices to head certain agencies. But I think the agencies have inertia. And there are laws. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency. I think the bureaucrats will just roll their eyes at promoting fossil fuel expansion and extraction industries. And then I think the Department of Education people will just roll their eyes at someone who doesn’t know much about their business.
But the concern is if a war is started accidentally. And the greenhouse gasses that are emitted in the interim — before the extraordinary people are replaced with regular people — that you can’t get that back. You put carbon dioxide in the air now, its effect will be there for 200 years. It’s hard to reverse.
Other lessons from the election?
I hope people stop denying science. The big one is climate change. But also vaccinations, and that there’s a problem of consuming too much for too few people and so inefficiently. Respect the science!
Your take on the documentary? (Asked before the screening.)
I signed a deal almost three years ago to have no creative control over the film. I hope it’s really good. I hope the film changes the world. I hope it doesn’t end my career.