Just minutes into his latest six-part docuseries The End is Nye, Bill Nye gets drenched in a rainstorm. Later on, a hurricane sends him hurtling into a car’s windshield. In a later episode, he explodes in a fiery inferno after being struck by debris from a wayward comet.
Don’t worry: Nye, the science educator and engineer who became a household name in the 90’s thanks to his much-loved Bill Nye the Science Guy show, meets his (fictional) demise in every single episode. In a recent interview with Discover, Nye explains the apocalyptic framing behind his biggest-budget series yet: “We need to scare people.”
Bill Nye on The End is Nye
The series, released on Peacock in 2022, walks viewers through six scientifically-plausible mass disasters — from the eruption of a supervolcano to a global blackout triggered by a coronal mass ejection, in which electrically charged particles from the sun would create a magnetic field that shuts off power across the planet.
Read More: Are We Ready for the Next Big Solar Storm?
Nye acts as a tour guide — and human crash-test dummy — for each scenario, demonstrating how planet-demolishing disasters like killer earthquakes, desiccating dust storms and record-shattering hurricanes would play out. The show was filmed on a soundstage in Montreal, with Nye in front of a green screen for much of production. This allowed showrunners to later add eye-popping digital effects that demonstrate what it might look like to, say, dodge debris from an asteroid.
“I think the CGI makes the disaster seem more plausible,” says Nye, who points to a moment in the show’s second episode when he tries to outrace an avalanche of ash and smoke in the wake of a volcanic blast. “When you see the volcanic pyroclastic death cloud sweep [through] Bozeman, Montana and then me in a car, I think that’s pretty compelling.”
Still, it’s not all doom-and-gloom: Each episode follows up a world-ending calamity with science-backed solutions — many of which focus on curbing the impacts of climate change. Nye describes how he teamed up with Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane and producer Brannon Braga, known for his work on Star Trek and sci-fi comedy series The Orville, to show what disasters look like in real life and how to stop them.
“We honed in on this idea of a disaster movie at the beginning, optimistic view of the future in the second half,” says Nye. “And that’s what we did.”
Bill Nye and Disaster Movies
In The End is Nye, the perennially-bow-tie-clad Nye doesn’t play coy about the show’s disaster movie roots — in one episode, he references the 1998 blockbuster Armageddon. Still, the series cuts through the spectacle by splicing together CGI simulations with scenes from real-life disasters, like weather footage from Hurricane Harvey, which slammed into the Texas coast in 2017. In another episode, a clip shows the destruction wrought by the 1964 Alaskan earthquake, which Nye remembers from his childhood.
“I was in third grade,” he says. “Alaska was this remote thing; it had just become a state. And we had that footage — real footage from this guy who was a longshoreman who was on the deck of a ship. And we were able to expand it and make it cool and exciting.”
But when it comes to movies, is there a particular disaster flick that left its mark on Nye?
“[The] Towering Inferno,” he says, referencing the 1974 disaster movie about a fire that engulfs a San Francisco high-rise. “They just built a big model of a skyscraper and shot kerosene out of little jets. It was cool storytelling; it was storytelling with the technology that existed 50 years ago.”
On NASA’s Asteroid-Smashing DART Mission
Some parts of The End is Nye skew closer to reality than you might think. When talking about how we might divert an asteroid on a collision course with Earth, Nye describes a promising solution on the horizon at the time — NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, in which the agency planned to smash a golf-cart-sized spacecraft into an asteroid to alter its trajectory.
Now, we have proof of the mission’s success: NASA reported that the DART spacecraft was in fact able to shift the space rock’s orbit in late 2022. In March, five studies published in Nature revealed the craft’s final moments, as well as the aftermath of its collision.
“People weren’t sure that it was going to work,” says Nye, who notes that he was at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland — the mission's command center — to witness the historic moment. “The [asteroid] was so far away. And you couldn’t direct [the spacecraft] by radio communication; the time for the radio signal to get there was too long. The thing had to drive itself, it had to be autonomous.”
“And it did, it ran right into it,” adds Nye, who serves as CEO for The Planetary Society, an organization that promotes space exploration. “And it worked.”
In other words, he continues, if humanity ever does find a hunk of space debris headed straight for us, we’ll be able to prevent the unthinkable from happening.
“When we find an asteroid with our name on it, we are going to do something about it,” says Nye. “We’re going to build a spacecraft or a set of spacecrafts. We’re going to study it. We’re going to figure out the way. And we’re going to come up with the money to keep us all from getting killed.”
“Just don’t send Bruce Willis,” he adds. “It’s not the way to do it. You have to do something more complicated and subtle.”
Bill Nye and Climate Change
Nye has come a long way from donning a white lab coat to teach '90s' kids about the buoyancy of objects or different phases of matter. In recent years, he’s become a vocal advocate for combating climate change. See, for example, his 2017 Netflix series, Bill Nye Saves the World, in which he breaks down the science of global warming and tackles topics like climate change denial.
So, it’s perhaps no surprise that The End is Nye sees its star once again beating the drum of climate-change catastrophe. In an early episode, for example, Nye lays out the scientific plausibility for hurricanes more destructive than any we’ve seen thanks to our ever-warming oceans. Later on, he sketches out solutions that could help us alleviate or prevent that possibility, like using wind turbines as a buffer for storms or harnessing carbon capture technology to pull CO2 out of the air.
Nye credits MacFarlane, the show's executive producer, with the decision to center the show around frighteningly-realistic doomsday scenarios. "At the writer's meeting, [MacFarlane] really had that insight," adds Nye. "He said, 'Conservative media scares people. We need to scare people.'"
Apocalyptic framing aside, throughout the series, Nye’s unflinching optimism about mitigating human-caused climate change is on full display.
“You have to be optimistic or you’re not going to get anything done,” he says. “And the other thing that makes me very optimistic is young people are not going to keep acting like this. As young people dominate the electorate, they’re going to vote for leaders who are going to make changes — and we’re going to change the world.”
Nye also points to another global conflict that humanity overcame as a reason to remain hopeful, describing how both of his parents were veterans of World War II.
“My mom was recruited by the Navy to work on code breaking; she was a cryptanalyst,” he says. “My father spent four years as a prisoner of war. And I mention this because, at the time, everybody was fighting the war. Every farmer, every electrician, every truck driver, every scientist. Everybody was working to resolve this global conflict. And they did.”
“Come on people,” adds Nye. “We’re the United States. Let’s lead the world and get this done.”
Listen to our full interview with Bill Nye here.