Check out part 1 of the media event with MythBusters duo Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman (part 2 below) | Video by Ross Maloney
Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman didn’t set out to be role models.
But since the debut of the Discovery Channel show MythBusters in 2003, the duo has amassed a huge following of all ages. That was clear from the 5,500 people who packed into the Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill Sunday to hear them speak.
Savage explained the philosophy of the show is to simply chase down and answer questions that interest them – especially if that means blowing stuff up.
“We did not set out to be educational in any way,” Savage said. “The narrative of the show is truly a narrative of our curiosity.”
But to satisfy that curiosity, Hyneman said they needed to proceed methodically and carefully in their efforts to bust each myth.
“It just happens that the most efficient way to do that lines up quite nicely with science,” Hyneman said.
Intentional or not, the Mythbusters’ impact on science education has been huge. They were even invited to the White House as part of an event to promote science, technology, engineering and math education in November 2009. Then, there’s what Savage calls the most fruitful result of his often destructive experimentation.
“Teachers tell us that Thursday morning after the show airs are some of the most fertile discussions they have in their classroom with the students,” he said. “The fact that we get kids to talk to their science teachers is the proudest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
’A certain playfulness’
The pair points out that they appeal to their audience in a different way than shows like Watch Mr. Wizard and Bill Nye the Science Guy. Those “demonstration shows,” Savage said, would explain a concept and show how it worked in practice.
“We are totally not a demonstration show because we don’t know how it works,” Savage said. “We’re an experimentation show. When you’re watching us figure out how something works on camera, you’re really watching us figure out how something works on camera. I think that’s one of the things that resonates with people.”
The need to learn by doing is something both hosts, neither of whom have any academic science or engineering training, have exhibited since childhood. On his family’s farm in Indiana, Hyneman said he would often find creative ways to avoid chores.
“I discovered that if I backed the lawnmower up and ran it into a tree repeatedly, sooner or later something was going to break and it took a while for my dad to fix it,” Hyneman said.
That attitude, more practical than academic, is what continues to draw people to the show, Hyneman said.
“There’s a certain sort of playfulness about what we do that makes learning fun,” he said. “We mix half content, half play with what we’re doing, and it works.”
And whether that playfulness includes lighting farts or launching water heaters hundreds of feet into the air, they say their efforts to learn by experimentation fits with the essence of science.
“One of the things I think drives kids away from fields like science and math and engineering is the idea that there are these inviolate mountains of facts that one must simply learn,” Savage said. “What we’re demonstrating is that they’re messy, they’re creative. There’s all sorts of stuff in there that people haven’t answered.”
“It points out to kids that science isn’t just something for guys in lab coats,” Hyneman said. “You can apply it to anything in your life.”
What makes a myth
In their eight years of filming the show, Savage and Hyneman have solicited hundreds of myths from their fans. But to make the list of 60 to 80 potential myths they keep on hand at given time, a good myth must at least be subject to experimentation. That means no Big Foot or Loch Ness monster – and no quests to prove negatives.
“The ‘woo-woo’ is off our radar,” Savage said. “We want to be able to test both sides of a question and find out if it really is as counterintuitive as the prevailing wisdom or not.”
But some myths in particular get bonus points.
“A myth is a good story,” Savage said. “Especially if someone was maimed or killed in a spectacular way – that’s our bread and butter.”
Now in their 200th hour of programming, the Mythbusters were back in their infamous shop Tuesday to resume filming, just like they do 46 weeks of the year. For fans of the show – and those who hope to one day become scientists and engineers – the Mythbusters said they’re a long way away from running out of new things to learn and explore.
“The fact is that there are still things that no one’s ever tried,” Savage said. “You can solve problems that no one’s ever solved, and we’re showing that on a weekly basis.”
“There’s no end of shenanigans that we can sink our teeth into,” Hyneman said.
Video by Ross Maloney