MythBusters returns Wednesday, October 7th with a string of new episodes. In this mid-season premiere, two myths are tackled with Jamie and Adam handling whether a bullet dropped hits the ground at the same time as a bullet fired and the Build Team (Kari Byron, Tory Belleci and Grant Imahara) tries to find out if you can truly knock someone out of their socks. The tests performed as well as the results, as usual, are not only surprising, but exceptionally entertaining. Last week I talked to both Jamie and Adam via telephone about what goes into making the show as well as their thoughts on critical thinking along with a few hints on things to come. Enjoy!
PCZ: Hi guys, thank you very much for taking the time to talk to me today.
Adam Savage: Sure!
Jamie Hyneman: Our pleasure.
PCZ: I wanted to start off by asking first of all what goes into deciding what myths, urban legends, etc. you guys are going to tackle?
AS: Primarily it’s one of interest. As the show has grown so has our interest level. It really ranges all over the place. We originally started out with the scarecrow idea of urban legends and we branched from that into common misconceptions and things like movie physics and stuff like that. At this point we’re also finding fertile territory in things like idioms, idiomatic phrases like “needle in a haystack”. Also, with physics thought experiments. We’ve got one coming up of bullets dropped vs. fired, which is one that we are super, super excited about. It comes from everywhere, it comes from the fans, it comes from people yelling at me in the street and from news stories that we read.
JH: Yeah, fortunately the production understood a long time ago that if Adam and I are having fun it makes for good TV. Fun for us just happens to be screwing around with anything that gets our attention and is thought-provoking. That’s what we do and we’re just having a ball. And people seem to like it, I don’t know.
PCZ: It seems lately that you guys are really focusing on guns…
AS: No, guns and bullets have been a regular part of our roster. At this point I think we’ve got about 160 hours of the show under our belts and I’ll wager easily 30 hours of that has been devoted ot things like western myths, what is bullet proof, at least three of those. There’s a lot of mythology around how bullets work and there’s a lot of material there.
“Fun for us just happens to be screwing around with anything that gets our attention and is thought-provoking.” – Jamie Hyneman
JH: We go from that to bacteria on soda cans and other things to where we built a jailhouse that we tired to escape from using ten fifty year old antacid tablets in the toilet and flushing it. Of course, there are better ways to escape from jail, I think.
PCZ: So, once you decide on a topic what goes into whether you two tackle it or it goes to Kari, Grant and Tory?
AS: Again, it’s often the metric of interest. Generally we’re working about thirty or forty stories ahead that we’ve got on the list and we shoot in three month blocks with about five or six stories per block. Within that we take a general concept, which often has an obvious approach to it and we think about the kind of things we’re interested in terms of the physics of it, like is there an aspect of this that Jamie and I don’t understand. If there is, we’ll specifically seek out bench tests that might help us predict what will happen in the large scale. All that goes toward setting up a rough shooting outline which then of course changes every single day as we go and learn things that we didn’t expect and come to conclusions that we didn’t calculate.
JH: Although, a lot of times it ends up being that a myth is chosen by production for us due to scheduling reasons and how they conceive the composition should be put together on a particular episode and so we end up being rather upset when the Build Team gets some cool job that we had our eye on. But it went to them for those kinds of reasons.
PCZ: I assume that, much like any other program, you only have a finite amount of time to do each myth.
JH: Yeah, that would be the largest difficulty in doing what we do. Not what we are doing, but how much time we have to do it in. It’s a successful show on Discovery and they want as much as we can give them and that means we don’t have a lot of time. Plus, the whole premise of this show is that we do the work ourselves. Occasionally we’ll get an assistant or two to help us out, but pretty much what you see is us, figuring it out, doing it and it’s all about the process.
PCZ: Has there ever been a point that you’ve gotten into a myth and realized pretty quickly that it isn’t going to work and you need to change tracks?
AS: We are able at this point to schedule around things like that. We expect to have our minds changed and to have our expectations dashed on the rocks. Part of the most fun of doing this show is that we really are heading into everything knowing how the whole day is going to end up. If we get a different result than expected the whole crew is going to have to scramble to find a new location, find new materials, help us with different experts who understand the conclusion we’ve gotten and that’s all part of the structure of the show. And that’s part and parcel of why it takes seven days, eight days, nine working days on average to do a single story.
JH: I think there’s only been on that I can recall that we pretty much just had to drop after we go into it a little ways and that wasthe one where we were doing something with liquid oxygen and that turned out to be too unpredictable and dangerous for us to handle. Conceivably we could pick that up again, but we’re a little gunshy with that one.
PCZ: Along those lines, has there been something you’ve been working on that you realized that you may be going a little too far?
AS: We take safety very, very, very seriously and when you’ve spent the last seven years like we have replicating lethal circumstances of untimely deaths close enough that you can watch them and cameras can watch them there’s a point at which you start to feel your number’s up. So, we definitely have the kin of default “spidey-senses” metric on set where if somebody really feels like we’re all barreling down the wrong path and something might be unsafe we all stop and redirect or add new safety procedures. It’s happened a few times here and there that we have to take stock of what we’re doing and slow down.
JH: The rule is if we feel like running, we’re gonna run.
AS: The addition to that is if you see us on the street and we’re running, you should try to keep up.
PCZ: That sounds pretty wise! Along the lines of things you won’t do, paranormal events are one of those, right?
JH: Yeah, we don’t do what we call “oogie-boogie”, sort of aliens or Bigfoot kind of things. Those are the things where you can’t prove a negative. We have to have something where we can get physically active with and interact with. Those things so go against the mindset of science, we don’t have a pretense of being scientists or we’re having the last word on the science of what we’re dealing with. We definitely have to have that as an underpinning of what we do. Superstitions don’t go there.
PCZ: As a skeptic I really appreciate when you do things like the “moon landing as a hoax.” That was a great example of something that is a common belief for a lot of people, but is also scientifically testable.
JH: Thank you.
AS: That was on our list for a long time.
“…when you’ve spent the last seven years like we have replicating lethal circumstances of untimely deaths close enough that you can watch them and cameras can watch them there’s a point at which you start to feel your number’s up.” – Adam Savage
JH: We would have preferred to actually go there and provide tangible proof, but we did the best we could.
PCZ: The budget was probably not there to do that on site, I guess.
JH: Oh, we would have probably figured out a way of using recycled materials as fuel and building our own rocket in a few days, but you know…the insurance is another issue.
PCZ: There was the old Andy Griffith series Salvage One where he built a moon rocket from parts in his junkyard, so there you go.
AS: We remember that very well!
PCZ: After all the episodes you’ve done are you still surprised in the things that people will believe that are completely outlandish?
AS: Oh, yeah…absolutely! We have trouble sometimes suspending our belief in order to answer what will be common questions about some of the myths that we do. We say that as long as people still believe in ridiculous things we’re going to have a job.
PCZ: Does that affect how you think about the myths or dictate the lengths you’ll go to in trying to debunk something?
AS: We’re definitely not interested in preaching. We really do seriously take into account what we think the average person’s common sense approach to the information will be and to answer that. For instance, when we did “Airplane on a Conveyor Belt” there’s so many various misconceptions about what even the question means let alone what the physics are that it took us a lot of actually arguing back and forth and talking between Jamie and I and our director and our executive producer about just how to start talking about the questions and how to piece out the narrative so that we answered each of these myths in a reasonable order.
JH: We’re not trying to be definitive about what we produce on the show, we’re trying to be thought-provoking and so if there is something that someone really wants to believe in no matter what the evidence then that’s their problem. I don’t feel like I haven’t done my job or something like that. What we’re putting out there, I think, is we’re in a general way we’re putting out there a mindset of critical thinking and sooner or later if you keep doing that you’re going to straighten yourself out, I suppose. That’s not really our job, we can’t take responsibility for what people come away with. Even in the case of airplane on a conveyor belt, if they have taken the trouble to complain and argue with us about what we did on that then we’ve done our job. It means they’re actually thinking about something, which is a heck of a lot more than a lot of TV is able to produce.
PCZ: Yeah, there’s a lot of paranormal shows out there and it seems like you guys and Penn & Teller are the only ones doing anything on TV that leans towards critical thinking.
AS: And South Park!
PCZ: That’s true, yes! So, on the flip-side to that, part of the fun has to be when you have a topic that you’re absolutely convinced is impossible and no matter what you do you can’t disprove it.
AS: Yeah, some of the best stories we’ve done are the ones in which we came to the opposite conclusion we though when we started. Yes, absolutely.
JH: We’re actually delighted when we get something wrong, not that we try to do that, but for us it really is all about what we’re personally gaining from that. We’re learning a huge amount on this program. We’ve changed dramatically since we started doing this as far as our understanding of the way that the world works and so if we’ve got something wrong and we figure that out that’s something we treasure because that means that we actually learned something in the process. If it all worked the way that we planned, you know, what’s the point?
PCZ: I think that’s probably a misconception of critical thinking, that it’s all about proving things wrong when it’s more along the lines of getting to the truth of the matter.
AS: I think where people make the mistake is that they think that skeptical thinking it just the other side of their own particular point when a skeptic is much more likely to say “You’re right, I’m wrong” than “I think you’re wrong.”
PCZ: Right, and it seems like it’s more along the lines of “Let’s prove that this is true” as opposed to “Everything you believe is wrong and here’s how.” For each of you, what is something that you haven’t tackled yet on the show, but have always wanted to?
AS: That changes all the time. When I look at this list of stories that we’ve got ahead of us for the nest 30 or 40 stories, there’s ones on there I’m thrilled by. We’ve got one right now that I’ve been working an outline on about bumblebees lifting someone’s laptop. It actually tickles me pink and I’m dying to try out bug strength as a longform story. But that changes all the time.
JH: I guess in my case it’s always a struggle for me to actually care whether a myth is true or not because I’m just interested in playing with the stuff at hand. I don’t care what the results are (laughs). For me, what I’m anxious or eager to tackle are interesting and creative technical challenges. We’ve got one coming up, for example, that is whether you can actually make a human-powered helicopter from all the way back in Leonardo da Vinci’s time where he thought up that sort of corkscrew thing that he designed. Given today’s technology, how far could you actually go. So, we have that on our list as something we can attempt and the fact that it’s technically and physically so close to impossibility, that, for me, is something I’m eager to challenge. For both of us, as an example, our favorite episode that we’ve ever done is the lead balloon. That was such a supreme technical challenge. It was so close to not being able to do it, it took us two years to find a supplier of the lead that was thin enough for us to work with and the whole episode was about the technical challenge of pulling that off. The designing and implementation of that was, for the both of us, the epitome of what we like to get into.
PCZ: Has there been any thought to doing some long-term myths or urban legends over a number of episodes?
AS: Well, anything is possible. Often times when we get better data than when we originally shot an episode we’ll go back and do an episode called “Myth Evolutions” where we’ll take it to the next level with better data and better methodology and we may, as likely as not, come to a different conclusion. There are several stories that have progressed, I mean, we’ve done around six hours on fuel efficiency alone.
“For both of us, as an example, our favorite episode that we’ve ever done is the lead balloon. That was such a supreme technical challenge.” – Jamie Hyneman
JH: That being said, though, the production is loathe to let us finish an episode saying “Well, maybe” (laughter). They like us to come to some sort of conclusion.
PCZ: It’s obvious watching the show and talking to you guys that your enthusiasm hasn’t diminished at all, so I would guess that this is something you both are interested in doing for a long time to come.
AS: Until they lock the doors!
JH: Yeah, absolutely. We’re having a ball.
PCZ: Lastly, are there any other movies myths we can look forward to you guys tackling?
AS: Oh yeah! We’re working on a story right now called “Spy Cars” where we look at the classics of the spy car genre like do smoke screens, oil slicks and tacks actually help you evade someone who is chasing you in a car.
Thank you very much to Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage for taking the time to speak to me. Check out the Mythbusters premiere on October 7th at 9:00PM on Discovery!