Last week I had the privilege of talking with Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman from Mythbusters. The second half of their seventh season starts this Wednesday, October 7th on the Discovery Channel. The last time we were able to speak to either of these gentlemen was last spring when our own Ken Denmead and Matt Blum interviewed Adam. Read my interview below to learn about what new myth they hope to test, thanks to the GeekDads. Also, note that poo and butts are mentioned in the interview (but not at the same time), so consider yourself warned. On to the interview!
Me: Who draws the blueprints that are shown on camera before each myth?
Adam: Those used to be drawn by both me and Jamie, here and there, but over the last few years, that job has gone entirely over to Eric Haven, who is one of our associate producers on Mythbusters and he’s been with us for a long time. Eric is also a super accomplished comic book artist who actually we ran into at Comic-Con this year. He was hawking his new comic book. He’s been collected in last year’s Best Comics of 2008 and we’re really lucky to have him. He does a fantastic job at it.
Me: I’m always impressed at how nice the drawings look.
Jamie: We used to do it, and Adam’s a little better than I am, but we don’t have the flash that he has, that’s for sure.
Me: How often do you guys actually get to see and work with Tory, Kari and Grant?
Adam: Not often enough.
Jamie: We tend to work as independent teams. We trade notes from time to time, and occasionally stories are set up that we kind of team up on things. But it’s pretty much just a logistic question. We’re able to do more experiments if we’re separate.
Me: How do your wives deal with your geeky jobs that you have? Do they embrace the geekiness of it, or do they like to participate at all behind the scenes?
Adam: You know, it’s funny. I go home at the end of the day and I rarely talk about what I did that day. So my wife’s experience is just like that of anybody else whose husband goes away to a blue collar job and comes home bruised and dirty and often proud of the work that they’re doing.
Jamie: In my case, the only thing to note is if I show up at home at an unusual time, it’s cause for raising my wife’s blood pressure because it only happens if… usually that involves stitches.
Me: So they’re not really involved with the show at all?
Adam: No, they’ve both spent time on set and they’ve both traveled to various events that we’ve done. But no, they don’t have a role on the show.
Jamie: My wife is a science teacher and has been teaching high school science for the past 15 years in Alameda and she takes a fair amount of interest in the technical aspects of what we’re doing, but she also sort of shakes her head about it.
Me: I was able to watch the new show slated for October 7th. Are there any spoilers you can share for this upcoming collection of episodes?
Adam: We’ve got some really really exciting stuff. The season premiere with the Bullet Drop vs. Fired is to me one of my all-time favorite shots we’ve gotten on the show. We’ve got a full hour solely on duct tape. The first of what we hope will be many. Duct tape is a wonder material and we did some amazingly wonderful things with it. We also have a super incredible fuel efficiency myth coming up called Dirty vs. Clean Car. I think the results of which will be incredibly controversial and I can’t wait for the firestorm.
Me: Have you guys ever seen the Mythbusters amigurumi dolls made of you two? They’re quite realistic.
Adam: Yes! The crocheted dolls. I have seen those. We actually have a couple here. But they really creep Jamie out. We also have a pair of sock monkeys here.
Jamie: In my case you can pretty well figure that you can put a beret and a mustache on just about anything you want and it looks like me.
Me: There’s a lot more to you than that, I’m sure.
Adam: No, not much!
Me: If people could take one thing away from watching your show, what would it be?
Adam: To stay curious! We didn’t set out to be educators or even scientists, and we don’t purport that what we do is real science but we’re demonstrating a methodology by which one can engage and satisfy your curiosity. And that’s a narrative that we take really really seriously and excites us the most when people tell us that’s what they take away from the show.
Me: What about you, Jamie?
Jamie: Pretty much the same thing. The core of what we’re doing is, we’re playing with the world. And our curiosity in doing that is what we are most proud of and what we like to put out there. It’s sort of a mental attitude about critical thinking and curiosity. It’s about mindset of looking at the world in a playful and curious and creative way.
Me: What’s the biggest surprise you’ve had when busting a myth and it didn’t go as you expected?
Adam: There’s been a lot of them and they happen all the time in big and small ways. The Dirty vs Clean Car episode which airs on November 4th is actually possibly one of the largest surprises we’ve ever had on an episode.
Me: Adam, talk about your experiences with JREF.
Adam: James Randi gave me and Jamie a call about four years ago now and told us that we were his heroes for the skeptical thinking we were demonstrating on television, and I said, Nonsense, you’re one of my heroes. Jamie and I went and spoke at TAM 4, The Amaz!ng Meeting in Las Vegas, and since then I’ve spoken at TAM 5 and TAM 6 and TAM 7, and I’m actually leaving on Friday to go speak at TAM London. The skeptical community is absolutely near and dear to the Mythbusters’ heart and there’s no small reason that they’ve embraced us. That’s our people. That’s the way we like to think.
Me: On the most recent GeekDad podcast, here’s a question that came up. In movies where there is an explosion that goes down a hallway, the characters will often run and hide in a doorway or side corridor. Have you ever done a myth about whether that really protects you?
Adam: No, that’s really good and that just made the list!
Me: I can’t wait to see if you can do that, you may end up burning a building down.
Adam: If we have to burn a building down to find the answer, then we’re willing to do it.
Me: Do you have any specific books you might recommend for kids to keep them curious about things?
Jamie: That’s a good question.
Adam: It is a good question.
Jamie: We both read a lot.
Adam (to Jamie): Did you read a lot of science fiction as a kid? I know I did.
Jamie: Yeah, that was pretty much the largest of what I read was science fiction. I would say in a general way that that’s probably the best thing. There are some periodicals like The New Scientist. I don’t know whether or how much it would be something aimed at kids, it depends on how young they are. There is a lot of good stuff like that. The New Scientist gives bite size chunks to people that I think would match the shorter attention span of some kids. But science fiction as a whole, there is just a plethora of it out there. Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, there’s just a huge amount of material out there that should be fun for kids. What we do is thought provoking. That’s one of the key things. And I think that’s why science fiction would be a good choice for that answer.
Me: What’s the funniest myth you’ve ever tested? The one that made you laugh the most while you were testing it?
Adam: Oh my gosh!
Jamie: Well, one of the myths early on that I think is one of the funnier things we’ve done is airline toilet seats. That one was about a large woman that sat down on a seat in an airline and flushed the toilet and got stuck on it. Actually got stuck down into it and couldn’t get up and they had to wait for the plane to land to have the firemen come on board and hoist her out of it. It’s a mixture of science and…
Jamie: Horror and humor. At one point there is this shot that I don’t know if it is in the final one that they air anymore, but we made a pink rubber butt, lowered with a fork lift down onto a toilet with suction on it. It also involved Kari, one of the build team, that was her first interaction with us on Mythbusters. She was an intern. […] We had her bend over and we scanned her butt with a laser scanner and had her take it to the computer and make it big and blobby, digitally. And then we molded a big pink rubber butt out of it. All very funny, yet it showed a lot of technology and science at the same time. That’s one of my favorite episodes.
Me: Do you have one, Adam?
Adam: It’s impossible to say. So many bizarre things happen on this show, not only have we never gotten to do them before, but probably no one’s ever done them before. When we did swimming in syrup last year, has anyone ever swum laps in a pool filled with thick syrup? That’s absolutely high comedy and totally awesome.
Me: I like the one you did with the corn starch and water and running across it. That made me laugh quite a bit.
Adam: Absolutely. That’s pretty great. Watching Jamie do it particularly.
Jamie: We also did polishing a turd, which I thought was pretty funny and very interesting at the same time. Have you seen that one?
Me: I missed that one somehow!
Jamie: It goes to the saying, you can’t polish a turd, meaning it’s a worthless activity. And we found a Japanese kind of art form that started out as a way of keeping school children entertained on a playground. It’s called shining mud balls, or dorodango in Japanese. And it’s a technique for creating these actually very wonderful, beautiful spherical sculptures that are perfectly round and shiny. It’s a technique of using a refrigerator and water and polishing it, taking it in and out. You can pull it up online. And we applied that towards a dung that we procured from the San Francisco Zoo. And we were actually able to produce these shiny spheres that were, in one case, within a few percentage as shiny on the reflectometer as a steel chrome ball bearing. It also highlights what we do. You don’t need to know how to make poo into shiny balls. But it’s all about the process. It’s about that curiosity again. What would it take to actually do this? You learn how the world works, material science… It is actually a very creative and artistic sort of a thing to know how to do.
Adam: And again, for the rest of our lives, when someone says, Well, you can’t polish a turd, we get to say, Oh, I beg to differ! Actually this job could be considered a lifetime of cocktail party conversation stoppers. Like, No, I’ve actually stood on the deck of a boat as it sank, and it did not suck me down.
Me: What’s the closest you’ve ever come to being truly injured on the show?
Adam: The cases where we’ve come to being close to being injured… The major injuries we’ve sustained on the show or sustained by our crew is usually moving around the safety equipment. Which is ironic, but the blast shields that we use weigh about 185 pounds apiece. They’re not trivial to move and quite dangerous. We have had some close calls where we blew things up and things flew over our heads. I would say that was absolutely the closest we’ve come to being seriously damaged and each time, when one of those happens, it has helped the process of evolving our safety procedures move along at an exponential rate. Because when you replicate this many lethal situations, as we do, at a certain point your number’s up. You’ve really got to be careful.
Jamie: We pay close attention when things like that happen. It’s a strange place to be in, we feel that our number’s up, but we feel like we’re getting better at anticipating these things. So where exactly we’re at, I don’t know.
Me: Thank you very much for talking with me today, and we look forward to the new Mythbusters episodes starting on October 7th.
If, like me, you’re behind on watching episodes, you can catch up by watching their show on DVD. They also have a couple of books, MythBusters: The Explosive Truth Behind 30 of the Most Perplexing Urban Legends of All Time and Mythbusters: Don’t Try This at Home. They also have educational kits!
So, what is your favorite myth that they busted or confirmed? Or what myths do you still wish they would test?