MythBusters cohosts Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage | Interview
When a museum exhibit is based on a television series (in)famous for blowing things up, it’s difficult to predict whether it’ll be suitable for sensitive tykes or, more importantly, impressionable tweens. But the clever problem-solvers on the Discovery Channel’s Emmy-nominated program MythBusters insist—and scientifically prove—that their messy mayhem is all done in the spirit of learning.
“MythBusters: The Explosive Exhibition,” a new interactive show at the Museum of Science and Industry, gives kids the opportunity to try out some wild, science-based stunts they absolutely should not try at home. (Think pulling a tablecloth out from under a fully set table, or volunteering to dodge paintballs on the exhibit’s stage.)
MythBusters cohosts Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage called TOC Kids recently to discuss their favorite parts of the MSI’s show and what they hope kids of all ages learn from it—beyond taking “Don’t try this at home” seriously.
How involved were you both and the MythBusters crew in designing this exhibition?
AS: Jamie and I actually had a fairly heavy hand in creating the exhibit. We worked really closely with the exhibit company, Geoffrey M. Curley + Associates. It was a lovely collaboration. It felt like we were all on the same team. We are really proud of the results.
How do the energy and the spirit of curiosity of your TV show translate into a museum show?
JH: What we tried to do is involve the audience as much as possible, or the visitors, rather. Practically all of the [museum show’s] exhibits involve participation in some sense. While a lot of the stuff we do on the show is spectacular and large scale, we picked things that are appropriate to do in that kind of venue, to capture the spirit of the show.
What’s the most important thing a kid can take away from this exhibit?
AS: That they can think for themselves. We really sought to design interactive exhibits where it wasn’t just “push a button and watch something happen in front of you,” but that the exhibit itself told a story from which [kids] could come to a conclusion. Not only that, we’re actually gathering data [from the entire run] of The Explosive Exhibition. The kids are actually contributing and creating real finds, on a small scale but, nonetheless, still contributing. The idea that you can contribute is really important, especially for a kid.
What are some features of the exhibit that would’ve intrigued your younger selves?
AS: I’d have to say the airplane and the conveyor belt one. [The myth: An airplane cannot take off while on a conveyor belt running in the opposite direction.] It was a difficult story to tell. It was a tough exhibit to design. I’m really excited to see how kids actually interact with it. I think I would have spent a lot of time there when I was a kid.
JH: All of the experiments are really cool. Probably one of the better ones is “Running in the Rain.” [The myth: A person stays drier walking in the rain than running.] It has a lot of layers to it. It depends on circumstances: how fast are you running, if there’s wind, or any of the other things involved with the circumstances of running in the rain. That’s a favorite, I suppose.
What are some tips kids will gain for exploring science and testing myths on their own?
AS: It’s hard for us to say because we’re always telling people to “not try this at home,” because most of what we do on MythBusters is really dangerous. Consequently, we can’t encourage people to try that stuff. Ultimately our goal would be, at the close of the exhibition, [kids] learn to think critically and think for themselves and come to their own conclusions about things. There’s nothing more powerful.
JH: One of the key and most important things that kids will come away with from this exhibit [is that] science isn’t just for scientists and guys in lab coats. It’s something that everybody can do. Not that we’re encouraging them to do dangerous things at home, but just [to be] methodical about approaching a subject or answering a question. It’s [about] critical thinking [and] simply trying to get the job done. It’s what we present on the show, and it’s reflected heavily in the exhibit.
Adam, you discussed the importance LEGOs in your younger life in an interview with The Sneeze in 2005. How else have toys you played with as a child influenced what you do now?
AS: I think LEGOs are one of the best toys ever developed. While LEGOs are sold in kits in order to build specific things, there [are] very few people who leave their LEGOs in those kits. It very rapidly becomes an open system where you can build whatever you want. That’s the one thing that signifies my entire life and my career. I learned at an early age that I could make the things that I wanted. That’s a very powerful thing to realize as a kid. LEGOs were a key part of that.
You have two sons, and Jamie, your wife is a science teacher. Do either of you get asked for help with school projects?
AS: I certainly do, in fact, I put an extra burden on my kids when I do that. I expect that if they come in with a really good science project, people will assume that I’ve helped them. So I make them work very hard for it.
And Jamie: Do you help your wife with her science classes?
JH: I do, but I’d say the more noteworthy thing is that I actually used Elaine, my wife, as a resource to provide students for some of our experiments. In fact, we had about 500 students from the school where she teaches employed on [MythBusters episode] “Archimedes Death Ray,” [which] the President and the White House had been involved with.
There are some phenomenal stories of people saving their own lives, or the lives of others, thanks to what they’d learned on the show. Have discoveries from the show helped either of you with real-world problems?
AS: On an incredibly general scale. The knowledge we’ve gleaned, Jamie and I both, in doing [MythBusters] has radically increased our ability to problem-solve and break down complicated systems. We both thought we had come to the show with a lot of skills, but when we’re finally done, we’ll be leaving with ten times as many skills as we started with.
What myths were you most surprised to find were false?
JH: The one that we like to point out is something that we took on just on a whim, which was, “Are elephants afraid of mice?” [See the video here.] We were in South Africa doing a shark special; the seas picked up, and we couldn’t go out to work with sharks [in the water] so we decided to go inland, to a game reserve and test this [other myth] out. We didn’t expect any [particular result]. We just thought this was going to be a funny bit that we might be able to throw into the episode. As it turns out, the setup was hysterical: We put a mouse under a ball of dung. When we pulled the dung open and the mouse crawled out, the elephant just practically tiptoed around it. We repeated it, and did a bunch of other tests with it. It would seem that elephants are—at least those elephants were—afraid of mice.
See “MythBusters: The Explosive Exhibition” and go hands-on with its science experiments at the Museum of Science and Industry (5700 S Lake Shore Dr, 773-684-1414) March 15–September 3, 2012. Check back soon for our review of the exhibition.