An interview with the Mythbusters

After 14 years of challenging commonly held beliefs and movie scenes, MythBusters television show has come to a close. The series uses scientific method to test the validity of rumours, myths, adages, internet videos, and news stories.

If you missed it, MythBusters produced some amazing stunt-like experiments to put to the test commonly held ideas and beliefs such as, can a sinking ship really suck you under, can you survive jumping out of an aeroplane in a life raft like Indiana Jones, and can a mobile phone really set off an explosion in a petrol garage?

Over its 14 year run, it was apparent that the pair have had a lot of fun investigating and unravelling a great many myths, and also confirming others. It was compulsive viewing. And if the opportunity arose for an explosion, the team were certainly fans of making things go bang.

“It was 270 hours of television, somewhere just shy of a 1,000 separate myths, 4,500 explosions, 7.5 tonnes of explosives, 80 miles of duct tape and over a hundred cars were destroyed,” says co-host and technologist, Adam Savage. “Figuring out that process of how to tell a story and the methodologies of the experiments was often an incredibly messy, wonderful process.”

One thing that is apparent over the course of the programme is that Savage and Hyneman are no slouches when it comes to technology, and their own abilities to set up, carry out and investigate what it was they were testing developed massively as the series progressed. Not only from an investigative point of view, but also in terms of how they communicated with the audience.

“If you watch MythBusters in the early years, you will see that all the experiments are very crude and sort of surface level,” said Savage. “As the show developed so did we in terms of our scientific understanding and our methodological sophistication.

“We also got better at telling the stories. My goal was always, ‘can the audience look at our experiment from any cameras and understand what is going to happen?’. We were always trying to communicate [the science and engineering] in an intuitive way so people can really get it.”

As the series progressed and the team vied for more sophisticated experiments to gain a deeper in to a myth, it called for better sensors, to gain better data, which wasn’t always easy.

Co-host Hyneman continued: “In the early days we would find that the sensors were not working great in the 105°F Californian sun.

“We would regularly have to either hack the sensors or build our own, and towards the end we developed a great friendship with National Instruments to custom build these sensor arrays with National Instruments. There was a lot of engineering that went in to making sure that our data would be retrievable at the end of the experiment. Especially, if we were blowing stuff up.”

Like most engineers, both Savage and Hyneman always approached a problem thinking they knew best. And like most, each would take a strong stance about how to move forward and test a given myth. This often caused friction between the pair, but also developed a mutual professional respect between.

“We both considered it a point of pride to be able to do about face without hesitation the minute that it’s apparent that one idea is ahead of the other,” said Savage. “The priority must be doing the best job you can, and not satisfy your own ego by doing it your own way.”

The two know that their conclusions are not always the set in stone comprehensive results that you might expect from an engineering firm, but they do stand behind the reasoning and methodologies of the experiments.

“We felt that those are really quite sound,” says co-host Hyneman. “That is the legacy that we are really proud of in terms of both how we learned and we have been able to tell those stories.

“That may not work in the industry to have that kind of attitude, but for us, if we screwed something up it meant we learnt something.”

Adam Savage and co-host Jamie Hyneman were speaking at this year’s PTC LiveWorx event in Boston under the umbrella theme covering the Internet of Things. So what do they make of the fledgling IoT industry?

“I have a love/hate relationship with it,” said Savage. “I’ve got a lot of different IoT things in my house, but I don’t think I am in the market for a water bottle that tells me when I am thirsty but I love the technology.”

While Savage is clearly enthusiastic about IoT, his demeanour is contrasted by the dryer Hyneman, who said: “I’m not afraid of technology, I embrace it and use it. But I don’t take the first thing that comes out because a lot of times it doesn’t work. And frankly, I’m irritated with the stuff that is already out there that doesn’t work.”

He asked the audience of 2,500 strong engineers, how many have had trouble installing a printer? Or printing a 100-page document on both sides? At least three quarters raised their hand with muted laughter spontaneously breaking out.

“I am of at least average intelligence,” he said, “and I can’t tell you how many times I can’t figure it out. It shouldn’t be that hard. How long have we had printers around, and now we are talking about putting the fridge online?! Fix the darn printer!”

CV - Adam and Jamie

With the pair having a background in special effects for movies, Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, had a pretty interesting day job as it was. But, then in 2003, Discovery commissioned MythBusters, a show to test commonly held beliefs, internet videos and anything deemed sceptical. As a result, the pair were suddenly thrust in to forming some pretty incredible experiments.

“Jamie has got a degree in Russian linguistics and library science, I have a high-school diploma,” said co-host Adam Savage. “We are uniquely unqualified for this job.”

Despite the quip, the pair have an impressive CV spanning championship robots on the US series of Robot Wars, special effects for movies including Star Wars and the Matrix, and a heap of science and technology achievements to their names.