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The MythBusters Answer Your Questions

JamieHynemanAdamSavageJamie Hyneman (left) and Adam Savage; photo: Discovery Channel.

Last week, we solicited your questions for MythBusters Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage. You came up with more questions for them than for any previous Q&A — which connotes, among other things, how interesting their TV show is. Here are their answers. I think you will agree that their answers, even though there’s nothing exploding or cascading out of control, are just as interesting as the show.

Q: Could you describe the brainstorming process that goes into an episode? How far in advance do you begin planning? Who sits in during those meetings?

ADAM: The usual crowd at a brainstorming session is me, Jamie, Alice Dallow (our producer), and whichever researcher is doing the segment we’re working on — either Dennis Kwon or Eric Haven. We also have an on-the-ground executive producer during an official “story meeting.” We usually have one or maybe two of them before shooting a myth, but discussions about stories can happen all over the place, and at any time.

Often, we’ll ask for certain parameters as far as locations or materials, and as we discover what’s possible or not possible, we’ll hone it down to what we’re actually going to do. The show’s researchers are fantastic about finding the weirdest of things and experts, and Alice is brilliant at keeping us on track. The discussions can be like herding cats — there’s a ribald, funny atmosphere, and we’ll range very far from the topic at hand.

Planning can take anywhere from a month to a day or two, depending on the schedule. We’ve had critical locations fall through at the last minute, and needed to turn 180 degrees on a few hours’ notice. We’ll also flag difficult stories as far in advance as we think necessary. Some things, like getting permission to film at Giants Stadium for the Jimmy Hoffa story, have taken the better part of a year to work out.

Then there’s the discussions that Jamie and I have. We’ll often take a difficult problem home, think about it overnight, and maybe discuss the problems we see in it while driving to a location. We also play devil’s advocate with each other — if one of us has a good idea, the other will poke as many holes in it as possible, and in this way we try our best to shake out any problems before we hit them.

JAMIE: This is, believe it or not, the most fun we have on the show. There is no underestimating the thrill of a big catastrophe or explosion; but if you really want to know what gets us going, it’s the brainstorming. Once a topic has passed muster, some basic research has been done by our research team, and we are down to nutting it out, Adam and I swing into action — sort of. Usually we go home first and think about it overnight, and then come in bursting with ideas. We set up in front of a dry erase board, and lay out any solutions we came up with by ourselves.

Amazingly, as much as we are of different temperaments, we quickly spot the best solutions and chip in to flesh the approach out. It becomes like playing Ping-Pong with ideas. Sometimes it gets so intense that there is no time to complete sentences; it becomes a bunch of gesticulations, some pieces of words or phrases, and then, when we come out on the other end, the approach is fleshed out. We call it the “MythBusters Mindmeld.” To anyone listening, it is gibberish, but it allows us to plow through a huge amount of designing in no time (which is what we have a lot of on the show).

Q: Do you have a set budget for each myth, or does it depend on the size of the myth? How often do producers tell you that an experiment will be too expensive?

ADAM: The budgets range all over the place. Strapping a rocket to a car can cost tens of thousands of dollars, and training goldfish costs a couple hundred. One of the skills that Jamie and I bring to the show is our experience working on so many commercials, where time and budgets are extremely tight. Also, we love the challenge of doing something as elegantly and inexpensively as possible. We’re always re-using old props and experiments. Personally, I’m always asking myself, no matter what I’m working on, “Can I be doing this more simply, or more elegantly? What am I ignoring that will bite me in the ass later?” All of this is to say that, while sometimes we work with large sums of money to achieve this or that effect, we’re still a very lean production, and thus we’re very rarely stymied by financial restrictions.

JAMIE: My job before MythBusters was to estimate the cost of special effects jobs, bid for them, and, if I got a job and figured out how to bring it in for less than I’d estimated, I made a great profit. I did well at this, and while MythBusters has me as a builder and an on-camera person, another thing I contribute is figuring out how to do things simply, quickly and cheaply. True, if they want me to build a rocket and go to the moon and back, while I might be able to do it with remarkable economy, it would still probably be out of our range. But, short of that, we can pretty much do anything they want us to do.

Q: How many hours of work, on average, goes into a single episode? And how many people work on the models and experiments behind the scenes?

ADAM: A typical myth takes between 6 and 10 days to film. And if someone besides us built something, we film it as well. To the largest degree, Jamie and I build everything you see on the show. Believe it or don’t, it’s us.

JAMIE: If you take out the research and other production work, it is more or less Adam and myself working for one week — so 100 person hours. We recently got some help with keeping the shop clean, but other than that it is all us, except for an intermittent assistant or two doing routine work.

Q: What do you think best ignites creative thinking and problem solving? State of mind? Environment? Incentives?

ADAM: Doing what you love. Working with good people. Honestly, the MythBusters atmosphere is very egalitarian one. Everyone is equally thrilled about a good day, and equally bummed about a bad one.

JAMIE: We do it for the love of it. Questions are like mountains to climb, because they are there, and you want to see what happens (and get some exercise). If it is fun, or even a little crazy, so much the better — and then, of course, if we see an opportunity to come up with a solution that is elegant and shows style, we really get excited.

Q: There are a lot of misconceptions about your show and its scientific value. In many of your experiments, it’s obvious when something is true. But in many of the more contentious cases, your tests are not scientific, and their results could be totally wrong — yet many people rely on them as proven fact. How do you feel about the seriousness with which many take your show’s results?

ADAM: We’re not scientists. That’s kind of the point of the show. If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be much fun to watch. But our process of discovery (no pun intended) is, to the highest degree of our abilities, scientific. That is, we employ the scientific method, and a proper methodology to proceed from conclusion to conclusion.

If people are watching the show to discover scientific fact, then they’re missing the point, because the show isn’t about absolutes — it’s about how to proceed to a reasonable conclusion. We’re two guys attempting to figure out the world, coming to conclusions based on the data we’re collecting during each myth. I think that, at its best, the show has a lot of scientific value: we show the scientific process as a moving target, as a creative process, and as something messy and accessible. We’re not in white lab coats describing every concept — we’re learning the concepts by trying everything out. And we’re willing to say when we were wrong.

JAMIE: I feel that, if we have stirred up disagreement about the validity of what we have done, then we have done our job. The real value here is not the answer — it is the question. This is a TV show; we are not trained scientists, and we have very limited time and resources. That being said, we do the best we can to give valid results. Often we are successful, and eagerly go back and try again if we got something wrong. In fact, we like to get things wrong, because if we just went through a test and everything worked well, what did we learn? Not near as much as we do when we screw up. Again, the question itself is the interesting and fun part; the things you do with it are just details.

Q: Since the end of shows like Mr. Wizard and Bill Nye the Science Guy, your show has become the best source of science on TV. How do you guys balance scientific rigor with entertainment value? Do you see yourself in the same genre as other “scientainers”, such as BBC’s Brainiac, or, indeed, Freakonomics?

ADAM: We’re amazed at the position MythBusters has attained. We often say that, had we started out trying to make a show that was educational and fun at the same time, we’d never have succeeded. We just put all the curiosity and irreverence and our sense of humor into what we’re doing. Luckily, the producers, editors, researchers, writers, Jamie, and I all share similar curiosity, humor, and wonder. For us, the “entertainment” has always been how we trick people into watching and maybe learning something, even if it’s only to trust their own intuition.

JAMIE: I’m happy that the show seems to be science-oriented, and that some people seem to learn from it as well as enjoy watching it. That is something to be proud of. But really, we’re just messing around and having fun. We are curious about the world at large, and passionate about exploring it. We have to fit that into a format so people can understand it — as our original producer once said, “Jamie, how many times do I have to tell you the show is not called ‘Jamie and Adam build weird [stuff],’ it is called ‘MythBusters,’ and so no, we will not film you climbing a wall with magnets.” (I had gotten a hold of some scary powerful magnets and wanted to play with them.) But then he figured out how to fit it into a story, and so I did it. Really, the show should indeed be called “Jamie and Adam build weird [stuff]” — and if you want to think of it as educational, that’s not my fault.

Q: My kids (ages 10, 8 and 6) are hooked on your show, and have seen every episode multiple times. Are you worried that a kid somewhere is going to try to duplicate something they’ve seen on the show, and possibly get hurt?

ADAM: While we love to play, we take safety very seriously. As we often say, we’re regularly replicating circumstances in which people get maimed or killed. So every experiment is an opportunity to show some safe practices. This is why we often have EMTs standing by, or the fire department.

JAMIE: Here is the thing: if someone gets badly hurt by copying what we do, then we all lose. The show will go off the air, or we will have to stop doing anything that is any fun or has anything exciting in it. That’s why we warn people not to do what they see us do.

Q: Is there something that you really want to test/investigate on the show and can’t?

ADAM: We’ve said it before: If time and money were no obstacle, I’d love to go to the moon and bring back a piece of Apollo hardware, to prove that the moon landing wasn’t a hoax. We will be attacking that myth next season, but sadly, a lunar landing isn’t in the cards.

I’d like to do an entire episode on audiophile myths: are super-expensive cables any better than cheap ones? Is a twenty thousand dollar turntable better than a CD, and does drawing a green line around the edge of the CD make it sound better? Unfortunately, I keep getting shot down on that one. I’ll keep at it though.

JAMIE: Besides the moon landing that Adam mentioned, not really. We always find a way. The closest we would come is that we can’t target a specific company or product, because if they did not like our results, we wouldn’t change them, and would then have potential legal problems.

Q: When filming the show, how much do you feel you are being yourself, and how much do you feel you are acting for the cameras?

ADAM: Good question! You may not believe this, but the way we are on camera is the way we are in real life. Just a bit more succinct (that’s the editors) and funnier (that’s the editors too). Ask anyone on the crew. When I’m trying to do a piece to the camera, I imagine that the camera is my wife, and it’s the end of the day and I’m telling her what I did today. That’s often the best conversation of my day, and it helps me keep the material fresh. Enthusiasm is contagious.

JAMIE: We are who we seem to be, full stop. On occasion, we will have to repeat something we said for the camera if they missed it or need a different angle. In my case, there is an exception to this from time to time; the world is not black and white, and yet production does not let me say “kinda sorta,” or “might be,” or any other long-winded and detailed variation of these. I have to say “myth busted,” or “confirmed,” or whatever. They usually get by this by allowing me to say “based on what this test shows, we have to call it this,” thereby circumventing my resistance to reducing everything to sound bites.

Q: You mention often on the show that many viewers point out flaws in your methodologies. Which myth has created the most controversy?

ADAM: If you want to go by fan response, then I have to say the most controversial thing we’ve done is the episode on “Free Energy” — perpetual motion machines, water-driven cars, and the like. People need to believe in this stuff, and not a week goes by without someone emailing me that they know it works, and I should check out this or that Web site. It’s all the same line of malarkey. It really makes me mad — fuming, even.

JAMIE: Heck, they are all different, and there is something for everybody to complain about. If we find the issue interesting and fundamental, then we have a go at it again.

Q: It seems there are some “close calls” from time to time on your show. What types of safety precautions do you normally take? Have you ever feared for your lives?

ADAM: I fear for my life all the time. We’ve learned a lot about precautions from many of the experts, like retired FBI agent Frank Doyle, our explosives go-to guy. He taught us that if you place yourself outside of the explosion’s line-of-sight, you’ll be safer. Which means often putting a building between us and the thing we’re blowing up. We work well within the rated strengths of everything we use, from cable and chain to rope and boilers. And we have our famous (and super heavy) blast chamber panels, made of 1.25″ thick bullet-resistant plastic. In fact, one of the worst injuries we’ve had on the set is when a crew member broke a finger moving one of the blast chamber panels.

JAMIE: We regularly spot potential hazards, and have a system to methodically identify them. We follow standard safety procedures where they are appropriate, and if something else is needed, we will invent it. We look at our safety as a problem-solving issue just like any other that we are confronted with. We also have a very intuitive sense of things due to the large number of hazards we have faced — we sometimes feel something is wrong without even knowing what it is. And if we feel like running, we run.

Q: When testing a myth, how often are you sure of the results beforehand, but perform the test anyway just to show it on TV?

ADAM: About half of the time. The other half of the time, we’re sure of what’s going to happen, and then the exact opposite happens. Our goal is to tell a story. As such, there are many experiments that we’ll do to illustrate a concept. It’s always better to show something than to say that the math says it’s so.

JAMIE: In many cases, we feel we know the results beforehand. The beauty of it is that, while sometimes we are right, many times we are wrong, and other times we will find some little jewel along the way that we did not expect and can teach us something. So in no way are we ever just going through the motions. We keep our eyes open, because there is always something there to dig into.

Q: Often, when testing a myth, you conduct one full scale test and then draw your conclusions. I know you are both aware of the scientific method and the need to run multiple trials to fully prove or disprove a theory. How confident are you that when you’ve run one test on a myth, you can then accurately capture whether or not it is true?

ADAM: I would love to have the time to have a data set greater than one! Remember, it’s not necessarily science; it’s a TV show about science. At the end of an episode, I’m confident in the conclusion we’ve reached based on the data we’ve gathered up to that point. I know that sounds like an evasion, but again, I’m totally willing to say I got it wrong. I don’t know another show that does that.

JAMIE: We would love to test things more thoroughly, and we are aware of the proper method. We simply don’t have enough time. Some of these tests would need to be done over months or years. We do it in a week or so, whatever it is.

Q: How much statistics training do you guys have, and how much statistics do you use off camera? I get frustrated with the show over what appears to be a lack of statistical knowledge and rigor. (I’m thinking of the “football kick with helium” episode in particular, but the issue is sort of endemic to the show.)

I realize that statistics makes for bad TV, while building machines that shoot things and break things make good TV. So the Freakonomics-y question would be: how much of this type of stuff is hidden off-camera?

ADAM: These two (very difficult), questions are similar, so I’ll answer them together. I would love to get more statistics into the show, and I’ve been talking to a statistician friend about just that. It’s true that statistics are not very telegenic, and are often difficult to get across.

We do worry about consistency, and it’s usually because our data sets are so small. With larger sets, we can work with things like standard deviation; but with a data set of 2, we don’t have that luxury.

Also, I sense a frustration in some of these questions. I’ll say this: I don’t pretend to be a scientist. We’re not deliverers of scientific truth. But I am curious. And if there’s one complaint I have about people, it’s that most of them aren’t curious enough to look around and figure stuff out for themselves. So if you’re yelling at me at the TV, you’re involved, and as such, I’ve done my job.

I liked the football experiment! I thought it was great that we brought in a statistician to tell us that all of our testing couldn’t yield a serious conclusion, despite our best efforts. It was my idea to bring in the statistician, precisely because I wanted to illuminate that aspect of our testing.

JAMIE: As per above, we don’t have much time. Also as per above, if we made you question us, we are satisfied. All that being said, we could indeed do better with statistics. There is room for improvement.

Anything that production sees as boring is not going to get much priority on the show. Statistics would be right up there. I would have a lot more of some of the other behind the scenes stuff make it in as well — there is a lot of the process and the problem solving that also gets cut to keep the pace up. If it’s any consolation, we do not lay claim to doing proper science. If we do, then so much the better. But if we put something out there that is fun, has food for thought, and gets someone interested and thinking about it, then fantastic. That person may go to school or go to a book or the Internet and look into it deeper. Then real scientists and educators can have a go at him or her.

Q: What percent of the time are you actually trying to get an answer to a question, and what percent of the time are you just blowing up stuff for grins?

ADAM: The blowing stuff up is usually the smallest part of the show. The full-scale experiments are often the icing on the cake. The real substantive work has been done in the small-scale shop experiments. If I had to put a percentage on it, I’d say 85 percent of it is answering questions and 15 percent is blowing up stuff.

Q: I noticed you both have had pretty diverse careers. Could you tell us how you entered/progressed in such interesting lines of work? I am particularly interested in what you studied in college, and if that was at all related to the paths that your lives took.

ADAM: I spent 6 months attending the Experimental Theater wing of NYU drama school. I was a mess back then, and it’s amazing that I still have some of the friends who knew me then. I dropped out and got a job projecting movies at the 8th Street Playhouse, where the Rocky Horror Picture Show fad began. I have always been a learn-on-the-job kind of guy. Anytime I was around a new machine, I would learn how to use it.

JAMIE: You can’t expect to teach someone everything he or she needs to know. A broad foundation of experience allows you to extrapolate things with which you have no direct experience. Specialists are usually in danger of not seeing the forest for the trees. If you acquire both a broad foundation and deep knowledge in a specific thing, you become much more dynamic in that area. If one takes both of these things to extremes, something truly transcendental can happen. In my case, my college education was not specifically useful to me later, but it had an effect on me in fundamental ways that were very major in the long run.

Q: You two have what many would consider to be the perfect job. Are there any careers that you envy?

ADAM: Great question. I’m fascinated by jobs that see the other side of things. I envy the guys in the FBI, though I imagine that their job isn’t what I imagine it to be. I love teaching. I fantasize about spending a year or two after the show folds (whenever that is) teaching a course in problem solving somewhere. But really, I’ll keep doing MythBusters until they lock the doors on me. Or until Jamie does.

JAMIE: There are many jobs that I would be quite happy with. On the show, often we can only scratch the surface of things and move on. Some of the things we touch I could spend a lifetime exploring. That being said, I am quite happy doing this.

Q: You constantly get bombarded by fans and their ideas, some of them thoughtful, others not so thoughtful. How do you deal with this seemingly endless stream of ideas and questions? Do you find the occasional gem that makes you go, “that’s a great question”?

ADAM: We really do try to read everything we receive. We check the boards on the Discovery Channel fan site, we read the mail that’s sent to us, and we consider fan input to be vital to MythBusters. Great ideas come from fans a lot more than you’d think. Probably 25 percent of what we shoot comes from fan suggestions. In fact, the entire “Big Rig” episode came from a single fan letter, along with a couple of additions on our part.

I spoke last year (and every year now) at James Randi‘s Amazing Meeting in Vegas, and a fan asked me, “How about shooting fish in a barrel?” I said it was a good idea, and it was. We finished shooting the idea a couple of months ago.

JAMIE: We find them all the time. It is kind of like mining or panning for gold. You have this big pile of stuff to look through, and eventually you see unproductive patterns and productive ones. You realize that the lumpy thing you came across may actually have a nugget of gold in it if you poke it enough.