The Scientific Process

By Tamara Vallejos

Posted January 12, 2012 in Feature Story

Nine years, 1000 myths tested, and one cannonball through an unsuspecting person’s home. Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage have seen a hell of a lot since kicking off their acclaimed Discovery Channel television show, MythBusters, in 2003. Now they’re adding another element to the mix, taking their brand of anything-goes experimentation on the road for their first proper tour, stopping at the Fox Performing Arts Center in Riverside on Wednesday, Jan. 18. And let’s be honest, what all their geeked-out fans want to know is: will there be an explosion?

“Well, we’re going to be talking about explosions,” says Savage, the mile-a-minute, giddy and gleeful half of the twosome. “We’re going to have videos of explosions, and it is very possible that during the show something may be perceived to blow up. But no one is in any actual danger, I promise.”

Damn—but fair enough. There are tons of considerations when trying to replicate the magic of MythBusters in a confined space with a large audience. So, you can probably go in with the expectation you won’t see Hyneman and Savage trying to ignite a giant gas station fire via a static electric charge. But the daring duo promise the live show won’t be rehashed demonstrations of what Mentos does to Diet Coke, either.

Actually, demonstrations of anything go against the original code of MythBusters. The hour-long show features the exploits of Savage and the Zen, mustachioed, beret-wearing Hyneman (along with a few other sidekicks known as The Build Team). Both are special effects professionals with years of Hollywood and theater experience under their belts, and if you check out their resumes and you’ll find no proper background in science; in fact, Hyneman got his degree in Russian, of all things. They’re just a couple of guys with outsized curiosity.

Busted, Plausible or Confirmed?

Their thirst for asking “Why?” and “What if?” has spawned a ratings jackpot for the Discovery Channel, and has inspired legions of science nerds across the country. Taking long-accepted urban legends, myths perpetrated by Hollywood, historical anecdotes and tips from viewers, the guys perform hours of intricate experiments on-camera to find out if a myth is considered busted, plausible or confirmed. Chances are if you’ve wondered it, MythBusters has tested it. Can Pop Rocks and soda really make your stomach explode? Myth busted, after placing a pig’s stomach inside a human skeleton and filling it with a nauseating amount of soda and candy. Can a super high-pitched singer really shatter glass using their unamplified voice alone? Actually, yeah. Myth totally, smashingly confirmed.

“Because we’re relatively agnostic about what the outcome of an experiment will be, we don’t really care if it’s going to busted, plausible or confirmed,” says Savage. “I don’t think any outcome has ever really disappointed us.”

It’s All About Experimentation

“We are not a demonstration show,” Savage adds. “Mythbusters is an experimentation show, which I think sets it apart from most science programming over the years.”

Meaning, neither Savage nor Hyneman nor The Build Team know what the heck is going to happen when they light a match to a homemade bomb on camera; viewers are along for the same anticipation-filled ride. Whichever way things go can lead to awesome television, but the danger of the unknown is also why each episode features several reminders to viewers that they shouldn’t try these stunts at home. An incident in a Bay Area suburb last month (the show is based in San Francisco) shows why.

During an experiment, a cannonball that was supposed to stay within the bounds of a sheriff’s department bomb range whizzed way off course and flew into and out of a home before crashing into a parked minivan. No one was hurt, but plenty of faces were red. Hyneman and Savage have since personally apologized for what seems to have been something out of their control; they weren’t even in the area that day, suggesting it was The Build Team at work. They’re so eager to put the isolated incident behind them, they won’t even answer questions about it anymore. And you can’t blame the guys—they know kids are watching, and they tend to put a premium on safety. But with any luck, this one flub won’t detract from all the good MythBusters has done.

From Science to Education

Interestingly enough, the show’s everyman premise has led to these untrained scientists becoming viewed as icons within the science community and the classroom. They each hold honorary degrees, have starred in an H1N1 public service announcement for the White House, are honorary members of 125-year-old Scientific Research Society Sigma Xi and are honorary lifetime members of the California Science Teachers Association—among several other distinctions.

So was that their goal all along, to make their mark on educational television, kind of like updated, less-credentialed Bill Nyes?

“No, absolutely not,” says Savage. “I think if we had set out to do that, we would have failed miserably. We grant that we have become de facto educators, but we’ve tried to maintain that by not trying, if that makes any sense.”

And, he’s quick to point out, they are themselves in awe of some of the real stars of science.

“Some of our most enthusiastic audiences are science teachers, and we really appreciate the accolades we get from those types because they are really in the trenches. That work is a lot harder than the work that we do.”

Of course, MythBusters also has its share of critics (suburban homeowners aside). That’s to be expected from a community as passionate as the scientific one, but even when the e-mails come in pointing out a flaw in an episode, Hyneman and Savage stay cool.

“We see that as a positive thing because it puts out there that science is not just for scientists,” says Hyneman, whose wife happens to be a science teacher. He and Savage are the first to admit they don’t always get it right, but continued learning is at the core of what they do. “Science is thinking clearly and methodically about things, having a critical attitude toward the world around you, and that’s something that anybody can do. So we’re delighted [by the feedback].”

We <3 Our Jobs

But how in the world do these guys keep things fresh? Savage calculates they’ve spent about 17,000 hours on camera since the show began—obviously, not all of that has made it on air—but they’re as excited about their jobs as ever. There are always new myths to bust, and this tour adds something new to the Hyneman and Savage mix: a live audience.

The two have hit the road in the past, for lectures at colleges or Q&As with fans, but this is the first time they’re putting on a full show. The 31-date tour opened last week in Modesto and has the guys on the road for the next three months. Such a massive undertaking sprung from the fervent desire of the show’s fan base, but finding a way to keep them entertained live has been a challenge.

“We’re trying to replicate the feeling of MythBusters as much as possible onstage, but inherently there’s a problem with that,” says Hyneman. “That implies that we don’t know what’s going to happen, and we can’t just have something where the result is, ‘Well, that was boring.’ We have to have a result that is entertaining or informative.”

The other factor is, obviously, safety. Not only can unscripted moments lead to boring outcomes, but not knowing how an experiment plays out can lead to a danger zone. So Hyneman and Savage tiptoe around the fact that, just in this super special instance, there might have to be a wee bit of pre-planning.

“We looked around for a long time until we found a format that we thought would communicate what we like about MythBusters without bringing us into this extended scientific demonstration,” explains Savage. “We want to maintain the energy we have without doing Mentos and soda onstage, and I think we’ve achieved it.”

As for the details, Hyneman and Savage are pretty hush-hush. Because they have an idea of what’s going to happen each night, it’s even more important for the crowd to be completely surprised. All Savage will hint at is that people’s perceptions and vision will be messed with, and that there will be lots of audience participation, helping foster that hands-on approach that makes science so fun. But for the massive bursts of fire, adventures with great white sharks or ricocheting gunshots, fans will have to stick to the TV show.

“There are lots of things we do on MythBusters that we simply can’t do around other people,” says Hyneman. “But we do the best we can to recreate those moments by filming them and making a nice episode, though sometimes you kind of have to be there, which is unfortunate.”

In other words, Savage and Hyneman have the sweetest jobs on earth—and, they hope, one day, in the universe.

“It may be a while before we get into outer space, but we’re trying,” says Hyneman, as Savage lets out a laugh.

Was Hyneman joking? Who knows? With MythBusters’ zeal, you can never be sure.

Mythbusters at Fox Performing Arts Center, 3801 Mission Inn Ave., Riverside, (951) 779-9800; Jan. 18, 7:30PM. $35-$115.


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