The Cool of Science, from Bill Nye to David Rees

The Cool of Science, from Bill Nye to David Rees

I was a horrible science
student. It was always my worst class. Right through high school. The only time
I ever cheated on a test was in grade 7 science class, and when I got caught
Mr. McGinn, the teacher, saw the shame in my eyes and we never spoke of it
again. I guess I never liked how absolute science was. It lacked humility. It
was all ego. As I’ve gotten older, this early flawed relationship with science
has manifested itself in strange ways. For example, I don’t believe that the Apollo 11 moon landing happened. I
doubted our science was capable of making it work. I’m religiously
superstitious, because superstition is the antithesis of science. I’m a
romantic. I believe in fate, a most unscientific proposition. I mean, I respect
science. I’m not a creationist. I like its work. Whatever chemist developed the
pomade that settles down my beard seems to have had some good notions. Gravity
and electricity are pretty great. But what I’ve realized recently, and what
television creators are realizing as well, is that that ego, that lack of
humility, gives science a distinctly cool quality. Confident. Retro. Universal.

The roots of cool science on
contemporary TV can likely be traced back to Bill Nye the Science Guy. Nye, a
student of Carl Sagan’s at Cornell, was an engineer in the aeronautics industry
before falling into television offering science segments during programs long
since forgotten. His eponymous show broadcast 100 episodes, and since then he
has been the cheese sauce to science’s broccoli across multiple media
platforms. He’s the pundit networks call to explain complicated matters to
fickle audiences, reducing climate change and the Big Bang theory to its basic
elements. He’s easy to stomach because of his folksy manner and trademark bow
tie. And what is cool if not some folksy dude sporting an anachronistic fashion
accessory? I’m suspicious of the fact he doesn’t have a PhD, but his work is
virtuous (consider his debate with science denier Ken Ham, in which Nye argued
the absolute theories of Darwinism and Ham argued that Jesus rode dinosaurs) and
someone has to spoon feed the fact that the earth isn’t 2000 years old to the
creationists. And, hell, Bill Nye was on Dancing
with the Stars
, so he’s even cool with middle-aged suburban housewives. He’s
multi-demographic cool.

If Nye has a contemporary equivalent,
or perhaps competitor, it’s Neil deGrasse Tyson, the prominent astrophysicist,
who is jovial, adorably geeky, and, like Nye, able to make complicated ideas very
simple. He’s a funny tweeter. He has a moustache. If you’ve been to Brooklyn or
an Arcade Fire show, you know moustaches are cool. He’s the millenials’
favorite PhD. In contrast to Nye, Dr. deGrasse Tyson does his punditry on shows
like The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and Real Time with Bill Maher, where cool
hangs out, while squares watch Fallon, where the politically and socially
inclined go for their news. deGrasse Tyson recently hosted Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, a revisitation of the seminal Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage,
in which his passion for science is clear, and his belief in its crucial role
in an engaged and advancing civilization is infectious. Even for someone like
me, who thinks Neil Armstrong filmed the moon landing on a sound stage in
Studio City.

Currently, the most prominent
and culturally ingrained scientists on television aren’t really scientists. The Big Bang Theory, CBS’s hit sitcom,
features no less than six characters who are scientists. Well, five scientists
and one aerospace engineer. The show outfits its cast in attire straight out of
Williamsburg, the very centre of all things cool, gives them the flaws and
ticks that humanize us all, and infuses the narrative with pop humour and
scientific jargon. The show has ridden an inexplicable wave of affection for
science, which has made scientists cool.

But the problem with cool,
especially marketable and monetized cool, is that the entertainment industry
inevitably tries to duplicate it with disappointing results. That’s why every
new sitcom in the late 90s featured six beautiful friends in a coffee shop and
lasted four episodes.

Recently, I came across the
National Geographic Channel’s Going Deep
with David Rees
, which may be the beginning of the end of cool science on
TV. Rees is not a scientist. Or an engineer. He’s a writer. And a cartoonist.
And apparently has a vested interest in pencils. The show is not without its
merits. In watching this season I learned how to make ice, and tie my shoes, swat
a fly, and open a door, banal activities I had been carelessly attending to
without thought for nearly four decades. Rees investigates the benign and treats
us to the science behind it. But what is most striking about Rees’ show is its
almost desperate desire to be cool.

Going Deep borrows heavily from filmmaker Wes Anderson, crown
prince of the zeitgeist of cool, in its cinematography, score, and title fonts.
The program often attempts to replicate Anderson’s signature aesthetic:
perfectly centered shots, harmonized colors, and the Futura typeface for
titling. I was surprised to learn the score was not done by Mark Mothersbaugh.

Rees clowns relentlessly for the
camera. He breaks the fourth wall, talking to his crew. He swears. The result,
unfortunately, is a show that is the very opposite of cool because it doesn’t
understand what cool is. Desperate is not cool. Oddly, Rees strikes me as
someone who is cool, off-camera. He is personable, has an interesting
background, and is comfortable on camera. One can’t help but think while
watching the show that if Rees was less animated against the backdrop of the
Anderson homage, the show would be quite wonderful. 

Nye didn’t aspire to cool; he
fell into it. Like Neil Diamond circa 1998. deGrasse Tyson isn’t cool because
he’s on TV, he’s on TV because he’s cool. The
Big Bang Theory
isn’t cool because its characters are scientists. It’s cool
because its creator Chuck Lorre controls the universe. Well, no, but it’s cool
because it took a science and put it in the sitcom world, something that had
never been done before, and took that opportunity to explore science and geek-dom
through that familiar lens. Cool is often born either of what is new or what is
rediscovered. It’s why retro is cool. It’s the casual employment of the
contemporary and the forgotten. Instagram’s retro filters. DJs sampling music
of yesteryear. Your nana’s red plastic frames.

What Nye, deGrasse Tyson, and
Chuck Lorre understood was the marvel of science itself. Science has the
capability to answer, in absolute terms, every question about the universe. That
in and of itself is astounding. Science sells itself. It’s genuine. It’s
literally truth. And that’s what those who try to manufacture cool have never
been able to grip about cool. It just happens. It’s organic. It enters the
universe unannounced and disappears into the ether in the same manner. Going Deep with David Rees tries too
hard. And cool don’t try, man.

Mike Spry is a writer, editor, and columnist who has written for The
Toronto Star, Maisonneuve, and The Smoking Jacket, among
others, and contributes to MTV’s
with AJ
. He is the author of the poetry collection JACK (Snare
Books, 2008) and
Bourbon & Eventide (Invisible Publishing, 2014), the short story collection Distillery Songs (Insomniac Press,
2011), and the co-author of
Cheap Throat: The Diary of a Locked-Out
Hockey Player
(Found Press,
Follow him on Twitter @mdspry.

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