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The Cool of Science, from Bill Nye to David Rees

Press Play By Mike Spry | Press Play August 28, 2014 at 5:19PM

I’ve realized recently, and television creators are realizing this as well, that the ego, the lack of humility, at the heart of science itself gives the subject a distinctly cool quality. Confident. Retro. Universal.
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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 PLAY 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, 2013). Follow him on Twitter @mdspry.

This article is related to: Mike Spry, Television, Blogs


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