Movie review: Bill Nye: The Science Guy (2017)

I missed out on the Science Guy. He was slightly after my time. I knew of him. Heard about him. But didn’t really know him. He hosted a science show aimed at kids. That was about all I knew.

Bill Nye: The Science Guy showed up on the Heartland Film Festival roster a couple years ago but unfortunately, I couldn’t fit it into my movie-viewing schedule. And then it appeared on Netflix. Finally! I was going to be introduced to Bill Nye.

This documentary covers quite a lot, jumping back and forth to discuss different points of his life. It doesn’t feel like a typical documentary or biography. Bill isn’t interviewed as much as he is followed. Others who worked closely with him, old friends, and even profession colleagues like Neil deGrasse Tyson are filmed with him and interviewed separately.

The movie touches on his famous persona and even dives into psychological reasons behind starting his famous show on science aimed at kids. After the TV show ended, he disappeared for a while. But he couldn’t stay out of the limelight—at least according to a psychological profile of him.

The movie also delves into family relations, discussing his parents and siblings. (His mother, it turns out, was a code breaker for the Navy during World War II!) Although his relations are a vehicle to understand the man, they are also a teaching opportunity. A rare disorder runs in his family: ataxia. His father suffered from it. His brother and sister with whom he is close both suffer from it. The movie follows them through medical evaluations about the progress of the disease. Bill is fortunate to have not inherited the disease. Possibly passing on the disease is one reason he did not have children.

After a hiatus, Bill re-entered public view as a science advocate, taking on the wave of anti-science that has been building into a crescendo over the last couple decades. After spending years getting kids excited by science, Bill was bewildered and disheartened by the movement against science. His mission in the 1990s was to inspire the younger generation to get into STEM. And yet now all the progress he helped make was crumbling away. Now the younger generation was being indoctrinated by adults opposed to science, the scientific method, and critical thinking.

Bill took the dangerous step of engaging with big anti-scientists. Other scientists shy away from interacting with those who challenge anything science-related, but not Bill. The movie shows him going head-to-head with climate change deniers such as Joe Bastardi and then evolution deniers such as Ken Ham. Audiences attend his debates with them. And camera crews film him touring the Creation Museum and the Ark at the invitation of a big evolution denier. Of course, the outcome isn’t a triumph over the deniers. But Bill cannot seem to stop trying. And frankly, we wouldn’t want him to.

The movie clearly shows that he is a hero to kids of the 1990s who grew up watching him and learning science from him. Everywhere Bill goes for talks people take pictures of him and selfies with him. Young women scream and gush as though he is a rock star from across the Atlantic. (That actually was kind of cool. People who are gaga for a science instructor.)

Bill was attacked by the anti-science people for his lack of credentials (never mind their lack of credentials). He is not a scientist, they rant. He only has a degree in mechanical engineering (and studied with Carl Sagan). Yes, he admits, that is why I talk to the experts in different fields.

The movie shows Bill flying to Greenland to visit scientists at the ice core project. We learn what the scientists are doing, why, and what it all means. (The movie educates us about Bill Nye AND science at the same time. How cool is that.)

He does rub shoulders with the gods of the science world. He was a student of Carl Sagan and a friend of Neil deGrasse Tyson. Tyson actually recommended Nye to head the institute (The Planetary Society) that Sagan started before he died. The movie shows a demonstration of the institute’s project, which was a dream of Sagan’s: a solar sail. (Sagan actually took a model on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1978. Nye is now overseeing the launch of these solar sails.)

And I’m thinking, wait, solar sails? The use of sunlight to power a spacecraft? How come I haven’t heard of them before? (So I researched them. In 2015, LightSail 1 completed a shakedown cruise—basically a test run where it deployed its solar sails in space. In August 2019, LightSail 2 completed a “controlled sail flight in Earth orbit”.)

The movie is a great introduction to Bill Nye—his most famous role on TV, his crusade as a science advocate and denier debater, and his latest incarnation as head of a science nonprofit. But the documentary isn’t necessarily a lovefest. It looks at the human aspects of the Science Guy, his love of the limelight, his human foibles, and the effectiveness of engaging the science deniers.

The wave of science deniers—whether it is about climate change or evolution—is a disturbing trend. Currently there is a weird dichotomy in society: an emphasis on STEM as the way to future and others who turn their backs on science. Since the 1990s, too many people have spoken out as so-called experts to sow doubt around science and scientific issues. (For a good documentary on the rise of these so-called experts doing damage to the public understanding of critical issues, see Merchants of Doubt.)

The science community has largely stayed silent in the face of those rejecting science. To engage with them rarely brings positive results; for some reason science has moved into the realm of religion for people, something you believe in rather than a training that you use to understand the world. Bill Nye is one who has been passionate about educating others about science and combatting the science deniers. Sadly, the latter feels like a losing battle. The former though could ultimately cause science to win the war.

Usefulness of useless knowledge

The focus on things—fields of study, activities, careers, hobbies—being of value and worth doing only because of their monetary or immediate utility seems like a modern phenomenon. We see this with the emphasis on running education (and now government) like a business. We see this with the shift to “practical” majors (i.e., majors with a one-to-one correlation to your career, such as software engineering).

This approach to life devalues everything that cannot lead to immediate or near-term profits. Things are only worth doing, worth pursuing if they lead to money. Gone is doing things for the sake of doing them, whether for enjoyment, to satisfy an intellectual itch, or feed your soul with creative endeavors.

But actually, this is not a new phenomenon. Impractical pursuits—or useless knowledge—have perhaps always been under attack. Witness the article in the June/November 1939 issue of Harpers—”The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge“—by educational reformer and the founding director of the Institute for Advanced Study, Abraham Flexner. (His article has been incorporated into a recent book, along with an essay by the current director of the Institute for Advanced Study.)

I heard about this article in passing while listening to a podcast and my ears pricked up. I just had to track down the article. As I read it, I was amazed at how current it seemed. As a humanities major, I perhaps am a bit sensitive to the jokes about people studying the humanities and ending up jobless or underemployed, such as the cab driver who has a PhD in philosophy. The idea is that the humanities (and now some non-humanities fields) are worthless because the study of them does not led to gainful employment (or at least employment in your field of study). But that assumes that the sole or main purpose of education is job training. This modern-day view of education is what used to be called vocational training—being trained in specific skills to do a specific job.

But back to Flexner. His focus is not so much on the humanities vs. non-humanities fields, but on theoretical vs. applied fields. He argues that things (theoretical research) that do not immediately seem beneficial actually do often end up producing benefit. He argues for doing things for the sheer joy, out of curiosity, for the desire to learn. Do things just because, without knowing what may come of it—for yourself or society at large.

The pursuit of “useless satisfactions” is actually useful. From useless endeavors comes utility. To prove this point, Flexner looks at scientific and “humanistic or spiritual” fields and provides examples where the pursuit of the useless ended up leading to the useful.

One such example was a conversation he had with George Eastman (of the Eastman Kodak Company fame). Mr. Eastman wanted to devote his wealth to promote “education in useful subjects”. To draw out what Eastman meant by useful, Flexner asked him “whom he regarded as the most useful worker in science in the world.” Marconi, Eastman answered, the inventor of the radio.

Flexner proceeded to explain how Marconi’s contribution to science wasn’t as important or useful as the work that he built upon. His useful invention made use of discoveries by others (Clerk Maxwell and Heinrich Hertz) who were not pursuing useful things but rather following interests or lines of inquiry without any thought of a specific application. It was research for research sake. If something useful came from it, great. If not, it benefited individual and collective knowledge. Marconi was merely the inventor who synthesized the “useless knowledge” of Maxwell and Hertz.

“…throughout the whole history of science most of the really great discoveries which had ultimately proved to be beneficial to mankind had been made by men and women who were driven not by the desire to be useful but merely the desire to satisfy their curiosity.” (“The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge”, p. 545)

Curiosity, learning, pursuing something just because it satisfies an intellectual or spiritual itch are things to be encouraged. An unfettered approach to intellectual or creative interests whether in an ivory tower, a research lab, concert symphony, or a garage should be pursued without deadlines or funding that has to justify end uses or immediate monetary benefit.

So the next time that people demand proof about the practical benefit of something—a line of theoretical research, art, music—before funding it or saving government programs from the axe, think about the usefulness of useless knowledge. Seemingly useless things often combine to produce useful things. Unrelated fields or activities that seem pointless from a practical, monetary perspective can turn out to produce quite lucrative outcomes.

At the very least, seemingly useless pursuits can enrich your soul and deepen your life experiences. If something useful comes from your seemingly useless pursuits, so much the better. But usefulness really isn’t the point. The pursuit of useless knowledge is.

Movie review: Interstellar (2014)

Ah, it’s a dystopian movie. No wait, a dystopian distrustful-of-science-and-education movie. No wait, a dystopian space exploration movie. Basically, Earth can no longer support us. We need to find another planet to inhabit.

I’m not entirely sure why Earth can no longer support us. Massive dust clouds sporadically come through, blanketing cars, homes, people, and crops in thick dust. Slowly, types of crops can no longer be grown.

The economy has shifted from science back to farming. Food is a major concern. There isn’t enough of it. Every person, it seems, is needed to be a farmer.

Cooper, the main character/hero in the film, lives in a battered farmhouse in the middle of cornfields with his family: his father-in-law and two kids. His backstory? His wife died of something that an MRI could have found (…if MRIs still existed, is the implication). He himself as a NASA pilot and engineer turned farmer. He tries to instill in his kids the power of science, exploration, and tinkering.

School tests slate his son to be a farmer (food is needed, farmers are valued). His daughter gets in trouble at school for bringing in a science textbook. (Clearly, she is going to end up as a despised scientist.) The problem? The textbook contains ridiculous lies about the Apollo missions. We all know that space exploration was a myth, claim the teacher and principal. Clearly, this dystopian view of the future in Interstellar rejects science and education.

Cooper’s daughter Murphy has a poltergeist in her room that knocks books and other belongings off of the bookshelf that lines one side of her bedroom. Cooper challenges her to apply scientific observation to it and gather data. And that she does. She speculates that the ghost is trying to communicate something. Maybe through Morse code.

Although Cooper to this point has been humoring her, he sees a pattern of dust on the floor not as Morse code but as binary code that reveals coordinates. Off he goes with Murphy as a stowaway in his truck to find out the location—it turns out to be a secret NASA facility.

His former professor is there, heading up a project to move the inhabitants of the planet to another inhabitable planet (Plan A). However, he can’t seem to figure out how to overcome gravitational issues. So there is a Plan B. Repopulate an inhabitable planet with the offspring from 5,000 fertilized eggs.

Decades previously NASA discovered a wormhole by Saturn and sent several manned probes through it to explore different planets and to send communication back to Earth. They need Cooper to fly a spacecraft through the wormhole to check out the promising communication that they received from the manned probes.

Why suddenly do they need Cooper to fly this spacecraft that was scheduled to launch any day? He just stumbled across this facility. Cooper doesn’t stop to ponder this oddity but leaves his family behind in the hopes that he will find an inhabitable planet where they can live out their lives.

Only missions, at least in movies, never go as planned. Interstellar contains lots of mishaps and twists.

Interstellar incorporates science or pseudo-science—I am not really able to ascertain which it is. The director employed a theoretical physicist to ensure scientific accuracy and realism. Some scientists have agreed that the science in the movie is all or mostly accurate. Others do not agree. Interstellar deals with relativity—time through the wormhole is experienced very differently than back on Earth. Gravity and time are dimensions. At one point, Cooper finds himself in a 3D representation of 5D.

I found the science confusing. I wasn’t sure what to believe or not believe. Most sounded true (or truthy, in the words of Steven Colbert). But I am in no position to determine its veracity. (However, after recently reading about jet propulsion and rocketry in Rise of the Rocket Girls, I noticed with excitement that in Interstellar they spoke about using a planet’s gravity to slingshot their spaceship rather than use up precious fuel!)

The rejection of education and science and the belief that we faked space exploration hit just a bit too close to the current reality in the US.

Some of the dialogue isn’t the best. “Mankind was born on Earth. It was never meant to die here.” Um, okay. That struck me as odd.

The first hour was a bit slow, focused on impending doom on Earth. I am a bit dubious of any science behind the death of Earth and our need to abandon it. The story picked up as it went into space. The last hour went quickly. (It is a long movie—almost three hours.)

The cast is good, including some well-respected actors: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, John Lithgow, Matt Damon. I enjoyed the robot Tars that accompanied the crew—he was programmed with honesty and humor levels. Nothing quite like sarcasm from a robot.

Like many Christopher Nolan films, Interstellar is a battle between two sides. In this case the battle is: do we focus our resources on providing food OR engage in space exploration (to leave this planet behind)? The former was characterized by reactionary thinking that rejects the present and the future and turns back to a “simpler” past. The latter embraces science and technology. Again I saw echoes of our present society.

How Interstellar ends leaves open the door for Christopher Nolan to develop a sequel. If he does, my hope is that he continues to employ scientific experts to help rein in any tendencies towards artistic license. The best stories are based on truths about reality. By basing his stories in scientific truths, Nolan could educate the public on science, encourage “belief” in science over quackery, and entertain.

Movie review: Creation (2009)

Early in scientific exploration, scientists were comfortable reconciling science with religious beliefs. Of course, society at the time was not always comfortable with their discoveries (e.g., Galileo). Creation explores the uneasy commingling of religious and scientific beliefs in 19th century Britain, between Charles Darwin and his wife Emma, and within Darwin himself.

The movie focuses on a difficult period of time for Darwin: when he struggled with the death of his beloved first-born daughter Annie and when he labored to write The Origin of Species. One of these on its own would be enough to break anyone. Both happening concurrently almost destroyed him.

Creation reveals the tensions between science and religion at a micro level. Rather than looking at the tension in society at large, the movie hones in on the struggles between Charles and Emma as well as his own grappling with whether to follow science or follow belief.

Emma was a stanch believer. Their marriage struggled but ultimately remained strong despite Charles’ scientific studies and theories that would rock society and Christianity. Emma worried for his soul, his war with God as she called it. Charles also worried, not just for his soul but for his marriage. In the end, at least in the movie, he left the choice to publish his book up to Emma.

The movie shows snippets of the scientific and medical community in 19th century Britain, which was an intense time of scientific exploration in biology, anthropology, geology…you name it. Like-minded scientists appear from time to time to encourage Darwin. I was pleasantly surprised to see Joseph Hooker pop up to visit Darwin.

Creation is a wonderful look into the final push to produce The Origin of Species, a book that shook the foundation of Christian society and threatened his own marriage. How he reconciled differing beliefs in his marriage can provide insight into accepting and existing with others, which the world sorely needs.