Bill. Bill. Bill. Bill. Bill. Bill Nye the Science Guy was once a staple of children’s educational television. And 2017 has been a busy year for him, as he launched a new Netflix show — Bill Nye Saves the World — and released a book, Everything at Once: How to Unleash Your Inner Nerd, Tap into Radical Curiosity and Solve Any Problem released in July.
Ahead of his sappearance via Booksmith at the Castro Theater this Sunday, Sept. 10, SF Weekly caught up with Nye, via email, to talk about everything from his Netflix show, swing dancing, and well, of course, some science. A condensed version of the interview follows.
Your new Netflix show, Bill Nye Saves the World, debuted earlier this year. How did that all come together, and why was it something that you wanted to do?
When you’re in love, you want to tell the world. Science is the process of discovery by which we know nature. We are facing extraordinary challenges now as the human population heads toward 9 billion. I want to save the world. For more than 15 years, various producers and production companies have wanted to produce a new show with me as the host. Netflix came to me, and I said, “Yes, yes, yes.” We have resources like we never had during the original series. We flew correspondents around the world. And how about that set!
Saves the World seems to have more of an adult — or, at least, older — audience in mind. Was there anything you had to do to shift for that focus? What is it like trying to create content for people who are older, and well, probably less open to new ideas?
My experience, so far, has been that my audience has grown up; they seem to be thirsty for this kind of show. Shifting the focus from kids to adults has proven to be straightforward. I’m an adult — have been for several years now. The problem is, or was, ensuring that a kid viewer could understand what were or are often complex scientific ideas. … With grownups, one can talk in regular grownup fashion and expect the audience to follow without working to avoid what may be big words for 8-year-olds.
The show was nominated for a few Creative Arts Emmys, but came under fire critically. Looking back, how do you feel about the first season now? Is there anything different you are looking to do going forward for the announced season two?
The set design is nominated, so are the writers … People must have liked it well enough, because Netflix renewed the series before the end of the first weekend it was on the Netflix service. I admit that I’m not sure what criticism you’re referring to. But there’s no question that some people were made uncomfortable by the ideas presented in the Sexuality episode, the one nominated for the Emmy.
We presented the current ideas in the science of sexuality. I’ve seen articles and video pieces in which people insist that there are only two genders. When I see these opinions, I realize that these viewers have missed a major point. So, as proud of the show as I am, we didn’t make something clear. The current scientific thinking is that four attributes of human’s sexuality are best regarded as existing on spectra. For my part, as a guy who has been in the workforce for over 40 years, these spectra certainly seem to exist. For those viewers, who believe they’ve never met or worked with people, who exhibit sexual attributes that are not all to one end or the other of these spectra, I am skeptical indeed.
Obviously, everybody connects you with science, but what’s one thing that you are passionate about that might surprise people?
Swing dancing. It’s amazing. It’s the joy of movement, it takes discipline; it requires teamwork— all of those things all at once.
One thing that increasingly seems to be happening is the, well, so-called politicization of science. But it’s hard to not politicize it when we are talking about things like climate change, which you’ve talked about a lot in public and on your show. How do you see your role, as a public figure, fitting into that discussion right now?
I shall keep presenting the science as passionately and clearly as I can. It’s going to be a close call or a “near-run thing.” Humankind has a shot at not ruining the lives of billions of people, but we have to start now. As I’ve said for years, climate deniers are almost exclusively older, 45 years old and above. So, we have to either bring them around to accepting the overwhelming scientific evidence, or we have to wait for them to stop voting and investing their money in supporting anti-science political organizations. To wit, we have to wait for them to “age out.”
Somewhat of a loaded question, but really, what do you think science and our society as a whole needs to do? How do we convince people from totally different background that these are real problems that need to be taken seriously?
Watch Bill Nye Saves the World, of course. Then, do something about the issues we raise, especially vote. Vote, vote, vote. Science, or specifically, investment in science is what keeps the U.S., any country in fact, competitive. Developments and scientific advancements in agriculture, medicine, and electronic information technologies have improved the lives of people everywhere. If we stop investing in science, we stop advancing. Soon enough, we’ll stop competing, because we won’t be able to.
Do you think your Netflix show has been successful in that regard, in terms of getting people who might not agree with these issue politically, to start thinking about them?
Anecdotally, yes, no question. I met a guy in Nebraska at the eclipse last week, who told me he’s changed his political thinking completely — from red to blue — because of the new book and the Saves the World show. I’ve met hundreds of people in the last few months, who tell me that my work has changed or directed their lives. These are self-selecting fans, but it’s still better than, “You suck, Bill Nye” — which I hardly ever hear. As far as demographics and ratings go, Netflix is secretive, but getting renewed so quickly is indicative of viewership. It must be high enough, and one would presume the crew and I are having some influence.
There’s one thing we always like to ask people: Do you have any fun memories or tour stories from San Francisco or the Bay Area?
I’ve had some lovely times swing dancing there. My mother lived in San Francisco for a while. When I visited her, I was a young man. I had big fun. It’s beautiful, for cryin’ out loud.
Booksmith Presents Bill Nye at the Castro Theater, Sunday, Sept. 10, 1 p.m., at the Castro Theater. $20-$45; brownpapertickets.com/event/2921636.