What Happened When the MythBusters Met Rick Santorum

And 16 more questions for Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage
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If you’ve ever watched the Discovery Channel’s popular MythBusters, the Discovery channel series that involves strapping rockets to cars, blowing up bridges, and driving vehicles at dangerous speeds, and been intrigued (or envious), now’s your chance to catch the live stage version of the show. The MythBusters: Behind the Myths Tour comes to the Nokia Theatre tonight, but we caught up with hosts Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage to get the skinny on what happens behind the scenes.

Who do you think is the bigger skeptic?
JH: That’s a really good question. If it came right down to it I think I’m a little bit more of a hardcore skeptic than he is. As far as that kind of a thing, I mean, I make a big stink about it but I’m really pretty intolerant of nonsense like that.

What is one of your favorite show ideas that came from a viewer?
AS: I was speaking at a skeptic conference in Las Vegas, and a kid got up and said: Have you ever thought about shooting fish in a barrel? How easy is it. I laughed and then I started to respond, and I was about 15 words into my response when I realized: that’s a terrific story. You have to answer several questions. What size barrel? What size gun? How many fish? It’s a great example of a silly phrase leading to a terrific narrative.

What did you learn? Is it really that easy to shoot fish in a barrel?
AS: No. It was actually really, really hard because you have an angle of refraction when you’re dealing with water. It’s really hard to hit a fish in a barrel, and even when we painted the barrel white and tried to account for the angle of refraction it was still devilishly difficult. Then we discovered that the shock wave induced by the bullet is lethal to fish. We didn’t kill any fish to test this, I don’t believe.

Jamie and I are not trained scientists. He’s got a degree in Russian linguistics, and I’ve got a high school diploma. But when you really start to play with science, you end up finding that even a simple question like “how hard is it to shoot fish in a barrel?” can take you down a bunch of different pathways.

Is there one confirmed myth that you wish hadn’t been busted?
JH: We’re pretty agnostic about the myths that we do. It’s more about the process. We check things and we present our results. Our sample sizes are ridiculously small as far as doing proper science, but we throw ourselves into things. You don’t need to know how to polish a turd or how to make a balloon out of lead, but the process itself can be really challenging. That’s what it’s all about, not trying to obtain any particular result.

What was one of the most challenging myths to set up for the show?
AS: We did one called Break Step Bridge. There’s a myth about soldiers marching in step and causing a “fatal harmonic,” which can cause a structure to disintegrate. It’s well known that you can induce a fatal harmonic to a structure, but it is very difficult to do it to bridges, which are, by definition, overbuilt to an extreme degree. We were trying to build a bridge that was not overbuilt, not underbuilt, but built just enough so that it would fail when we induced a fatal harmonic. This was an early story. It was before we really knew how to smell for expertise that we didn’t possess. That one kicked our butt a couple of different ways.

What’s the typical amount of filming time for your experiments, seeing as everything is boiled down for an episode format?
JH: Normally when we start shooting we have a two-week window to do whatever we’re going to do. If there is building or construction, that’s done in that first week. The second week is usually shooting on location. Something like the lead balloon took us a couple of years. It was two years before we were able to start the testing because we were trying to find the lead foil. It turned out to be much harder than we anticipated. The show is edited in Sydney, Australia, so that usually takes at least a couple of months before it can air.

But the show is based in San Francisco.
JH: Oh, yeah. It’s where it started; it’s where we’ve always been. We do most of the testing and setup in my special effects shop here. We no longer do special effects because MythBusters has pretty much dominated everything for the last decade.

When you go into an experiment and shoot something that doesn’t come out the way you’d hoped, what do you do?
JH: We’ve repeatedly tried putting rockets on cars and getting them to fly. We’ve done three separate episodes of that, and they’ve all been some of the larger, more spectacular episodes that we’ve ever done.

The rocket engines are $10,000 to $20,000 thousand dollars apiece and on the second rocket car episode we had two of those on the car. We wanted to guarantee that there was no way it was going to fail, so we dispensed with our normal radio control. Instead we put it on a cable. We had everything locked down and simplified so we were virtually assured that this was going to work. Then the rocket engines blew up right as it was going to take off, and the car was decimated.

It was the last thing we anticipated, but we wove that into the story. Basically Adam and I were so astonished that we gave very good performances about the agony of defeat and how we had tried so hard to make sure that nothing could go wrong. And the one thing that we didn’t have control over was the manufacturer of the rocket engines. So it became quite a nice episode.

Have you ever seen any further scientific research based on results that you’ve showcased?
JH: We’ve done a number of episodes where we either collaborated with universities. I think we worked with the archeology department of a university in Montana to investigate stone tips on arrows. Were they actually more effective at penetrating animals and when did that occur? We ran a number of tests using leather skins and synthetic flesh, and we showed that it wasn’t actually that the arrows would penetrate better. But they had the effect of plugging the hole that they put in the animal. So the function of the stone tips was to speed up the bleeding out so that the animals could be caught or found.

What was something that you had to convince the insurance company to let you do?
AS: We did a season premiere back in 2009 about the movie Speed. One of the things we were testing was the famous bus turn, where the bus comes to this corner in L.A., it can’t go below 50 mph, and the bus is leaning up on two wheels as it’s trying to make this turn. There are two ways to test it. Either you can drive the bus yourself, or you can make the bus remote control. We convinced the insurance company to let us drive the bus as long as we were trained by a professional bus crasher. His name is George Sack and he’s known as the jackknife king.

I got to drive the bus and make the turn from the movie at 50 miles per hour. It did not tip over, but I was pulling it hard to the right and it was fishtailing out of control and I had to gain control back from it. The driving and training we’ve gotten over the years is one of the most fun benefits of this job.

Have you ever had a nagging myth that’s been too dangerous to bust?
JH: Yes. There was one that involved a liquid oxygen tanker truck (they refer to liquid oxygen as LOX) that had an accident on an asphalt highway. Liquid oxygen can turn most hydrocarbons into an explosive. Supposedly what happened is this tanker truck spilled all this LOX over the highway. It saturated the asphalt, turned it into an explosive, and an emergency worker drives up and sets it off, so the whole highway explodes.

We started to test this on a small scale and we found that it did have the effect of creating a high explosive, but it was unpredictable. Sometimes it did and sometimes it didn’t. We had some close calls in handling it that way. We deemed that it was too risky to try it. In hindsight I think that we could do it, but we would probably want to do it under the supervision of someplace like NASA.

Tell me about the hosting dynamic. 12 years in is it pretty well set or has it changed in subtle ways?
AS: It always changes subtly. As a performer, it’s not in my nature to do the same thing over and over again. I’ve gone through several different stages of clarity about what my job is as a host of a TV show. A few years ago, I was being interviewed by my now friend, Neil deGrasse Tyson. I was watching him talk and I was thinking this guy’s a brilliant communicator. And I realized that is also my job. I realized what I’m interested in are stories. What we’ve really been doing on MythBusters is telling better stories.

One of the reasons we propagate bad information, as a culture, as a people, as a species, is because if it’s put into a good story, bad information is easy to pass on. One of the things we do on MythBusters, and on stage, is create better stories with good information. Those get passed on and that propagates critical thinking, and I like to think it makes the world a little bit better.

Speaking of Neil deGrasse Tyson, science has been part of popular culture, to a greater or lesser degree, for a long time. But I think that in the last few years it has found a larger, more prominent niche.
AS: Yeah, I totally see the same thing. I hope that it’s a trend. MythBusters was lucky enough to come about at exactly the same time as the Maker Movement was ascendent. That’s really thrilling to me. That’s the world moving on the right path, especially in an age where, sadly, a lot of scientific data is politicized.

It seems like your show has avoided being politicized in a way that a lot of science is. Why do you think that is?
AS: It’s funny. I have no idea. My first impression is that it’s because we’re having so much fun. A few years ago, Jamie and I were at the White House Press Correspondence dinner. It’s an amazing evening. At one point, this man walks up to us and says, “I have to take a picture with you. My sons are obsessed with your show.” I didn’t recognize him for a minute because, like a lot of famous people, he was much handsomer in person than I expected he would be. It was Rick Santorum. I thought, all right, we’ll take a picture. Just as we’re about to take a picture with him, I leaned over and I said quietly in his ear, “I just want to be clear, you know I’m diametrically opposed to everything you stand for.” He said, “great,” and we took the picture.

I may not agree with his politics at all, but if his boys are watching MythBusters, then I am contributing to some critical thinking in his house. Frankly, that’s the best news I had heard all day.

How do you translate the TV show into a live stage show?
JH: One of the things that makes MythBusters different than pretty much everything else on television is that we are an experimentation show, not a demonstration show. We actually don’t know, for the most part, what the results are going to be. We had some hesitation about doing a live stage show because of that challenge. You can’t have 5,000 people sitting there waiting while nothing is happening and we’re waiting for a result on something. So what we’ve done is focus on creating that playful experimentation that involves a lot of audience participation.

What’s the biggest myth that fans have about MythBusters?
JH: The reality of what we do is different from what you see on TV. It can be physically demanding and tedious, but it’s the most fun job in the world. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Is it really and truly the best job in the world?
AS: I have to say I think it is. That also means it’s one of the hardest jobs in the world. Anything you want to do well is going to take everything you have. Steve Martin has a wonderful quote in his autobiography, Born Standing Up, in which someone says to him at the beginning of his career, you will eventually use everything you have ever learned. That’s absolutely true on this show.

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