Here’s part two of my interview with Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage of Mythbusters.
PS: So where are you going to be in 10 years, with fleeting fame?
AS: I have no idea.
PS: Do you have things you want to do? Do you have time to even think about it?
AS: I want to teach. Absolutely, I look forward to teaching; I taught for a couple of years at the Academy of Art College, I taught advanced model-making and problem- solving for the industrial design department. I would love to do more of that. I’d also love to work in pure research. Which is effectively what we get to do. Don’t get me wrong – there’s likely going to be more television in our future, but if I was never again on television after Mythbusters, I wouldn’t necessarily miss it, there’s plenty of things to try out there. We’ve worked with some amazing groups and some amazing companies – I could see a very happy future doing pure research with a nice little hand-picked team of people, prototyping various concepts and trying out different things.
JH: Fortunately, the success of the show has allowed us such freedom, and respect within Discovery and the production company that hires us, that they’ll basically pay for us to do whatever the hell we want, because they’ve found that if we’re having a good time, if we’re enjoying ourselves, it tends to make for good TV. That’s a great thing. The show will, over time, evolve one way or another, it may even become something that’s not really at all like Mythbusters, but this kind of general curiosity we have about the world at large and the way we like to playfully explore it is something that’s kind of timeless. We could continue doing that quite happily in one incarnation or another for a long time.
AS: If there’s one thing that typifies being freelance, it’s always wondering what’s next, always thinking about what’s next. It is a constant and ongoing conversation between us as partners, to the degree that what we will do, we will do together; we’re not going to kill the goose that has laid this terrific egg for us. At the same time, we’re both thinking, what do I really want to do? Maybe I could try that. We were talking a couple of months ago, we both had decided at some point, once I’m done with Mythbusters, I think I’d like to get my pilot’s license, and Jamie was like, me too. (laughs) Fly some planes. It could go anywhere, and that what’s next, what’s next, what’s next – when you’re freelancing and one industry you’ve been working in dries up, then you start moving into other things, like Jamie did with M5 when commercial work in San Francisco got light, and he started moving into prototyping and other fields. It holds the same here. Mythbusters has been an incredible experience, and I have no idea what what form this body of knowledge I’ve developed will take, but we could end up miles from here.
PS: Are you working on outside stuff now, too, do you have time?
JH: I’ve had to pare back because it becomes so stressful, trying to do the show at the same time that you’re trying to manage things. But I can’t really help myself, especially now because we get approached with so many different things. I’ve had a number of successful projects that I’ve been developing, prototypes. Not just prototypes, but doing R & D on things, several for the military, some electromechanical devices of various sorts. I’ve been involved with developing electric vehicles, a lot of alternative energy sorts of things which I like. One little side-note about doing things for entertainment is that, I suppose you could say we’re having a beneficial effect if we’re encouraging young people to be interested in science and so on, but in general, doing effects or doing entertainment-based things – if you took those away, it’s not necessarily the case that the world would be any worse off. The shop’s turned out over 800 commercials; if those didn’t exist, would the world be any the worse? I would say, probably not. But doing things like taking the same skills that I’ve learned in that industry, not to mention Mythbusters, and applying them to things that are useful like alternative energy kinds of things, ecology, things that are aimed at mitigating the impact we have on the planet, that kind of stuff – that’s the direction that I’ve started to go and had some success with.
PS: Come up with something that harvests gentle rain. (they laugh)
JH: Yeah, I’ve been working on a whole host of things along those lines, and it’s very encouraging. Regardless of what happens with the show, we’re very happy with what the possibilities are now.
PS: Did you have a favorite subject in school?
JH: In my case, very clearly it was, and I think it’s worthy of pointing out especially to this audience, that the one thing – Adam and I are very different characters, but one of the things that we have most in common is that we read everything we can get our hands on. There’s not enough time in the day to read everything, not enough time in a hundred days to read everything that I want to read right now. So the answer, in a roundabout way, is that would be English class because that involved reading a lot. Now I’m more reading non-fiction, which is not so much what we learned about in English class but since I was old enough to read at all, I was reading everything I could get my hands on.
AS: My favorite subjects in high school were Art class and Science class. Shockingly. But I think the one I gained the single most useful skill from was Typing.
AS: Absolutely. Touch-typing has served me very well. It’s very funny, because I graduated with a 30-word-per-minute rate of typing, and I remember taking some typing tests way back in the early 90s and noticing it was the same, 5 years on I was still typing 30-words-per-minute. I took a typing test online recently and discovered I was typing 75-words-per-minute – just all the constant use of the computer and the Internetting – very useful skill.
PS: What books have you been reading?
AS: I’ve been reading – well, I read the New Yorker every week, it’s one of my favorite been reading The World Without Us, it’s fantastic! It’s a terrific thought experiment in terms of how the world would be if we humans all disappeared, how quickly it would revert, what our chemical signature is. The fact that they’re finding microscopic traces of plastic on the ocean floor being eaten by jellyfish. They’re talking about polymer chains and that vulcanization is basically, from a chemical standpoint, he says turns a rubber tire into one large, single molecule, effectively.
AS: From a chemical standpoint, that’s the best way to look at it. They don’t break down. They also cause really interesting troubles in landfills, because they make bubbles. If you put them at the bottom of a landfill, they make bubbles that come up come up to the surface and cause lots of trouble! There’s craploads of stuff like that and I’m enjoying the hell out of it; I’ll miss it when it’s gone. I read probably an equal amount of fiction and non-fiction. I just read Special Topics in Calamity Physics, which is impossibly brilliant.
JH: I used to read mostly fiction and science fiction, now I do the opposite. There’s just so much material that’s available that I kind of feel responsible to read non-fiction more.
AS: Jamie and I also turn out to have a shockingly similar reading list. At one point on the crew a few weeks ago, I made a reference to Carlos Castaneda and someone said “who’s that?” and I gave a little impromptu lecture in Castaneda’s history and controversy and his books and I’ve read absolutely every one of them and Jamie brought up that he had, too.
JH: Not to mention One Hundred Years of Solitude.
AS: Which turns out to be both of our favorite books, one of our favorite books.
JH: But otherwise, as far as what I’m reading now, my daily routine involves New Scientist and I’d highly recommend that, especially to the young people.
AS: It’s fantastic.
JH: It gives you a sense of what’s out there in a very concise way. If you pick up Science, for example, if you can follow through some of the articles, if not most of the articles in that, you might as well have a degree in the subject that they’re talking about. Something like New Scientist, it gives you the salient points that you need to know about what’s happening in technology and science. Our impression, both of us, the speed of advancement in the scientific world is so tremendously fast that, even if you just barely scratch the surface, you can’t keep up with it. That’s why that magazine is one of my favorites.
AS: That segues nicely into one of the other favorite parts about doing the show that we mentioned earlier, is meeting people in every discipline and being treated like peers by them because they see our approach is similar to theirs, and so you get to talk to these people and you go “oh, you’re an expert in this field, I want to talk to you about this because I don’t understand this thing in this article that I read” and they’ll spell it out for you. Jamie was bending the ear of this scientist at New Mexico Tech about what’s happening when you weld two pieces of steel together with explosives and the actual physics of what’s going on, it’s totally fascinating. And we’re placed right in the vicinity of the world’s experts on this kind of thing, and getting to talk to them about it, it’s awesome.
JH: There’s stuff that, because of what we’ve seen on the show, playing around with explosives for example, I was able to get right into some of the state-of-the-art stuff that these guys are playing with all the time. Pressure-waves, for example – this is very telling about what we’re experiencing by doing what we’re doing, there’s a huge sort of crossover of technology and understanding of the world at large that we see so clearly. Most people wouldn’t make the association between explosions and acoustics; when you’re talking about pressure-waves, they’re identical. The only difference is in the volume and speed. Talking to these people about pressure-waves, being able to ask questions – for visual reference, when an explosive goes off, there’s like a bubble that travels outward, this sound wave. If you photograph it on high speed, you can see it because the air is distorted. So going in and asking questions like, does that have a dimension to it?
AS: How thick is the threshold between the inside and the outside?
AS: Is there a difference between what’s happening on the inside and the outside?
PS: And is it like a shell coming out? Or a wave –
AS: The shape is different depending on the explosion. We’ve created explosions that mostly have spherical shockwaves, but we were looking at high speed shots of what we did in New Mexico and they had conical shockwaves and tubular shockwaves!
JH: And in fact what we were doing with explosive welding on the site, what was required to weld two pieces of metal together using explosives was a linear shockwave. They set explosives on the top of the two plates to be stuck together, but they initiate the explosion from one side in a line, and it sweeps across the metal, rolling it out kind of like two pieces of clay that are being rolled together to form one.
AS: It’s awesome.
JH: So when you start to play with things like that, and seeing those crossovers, looking at those kinds of things, talking to them in terms of mitigating blast pressures, which I’ve been playing around with, with the military, by using techniques that acousticians might use to dampen sound in a radio studio or something.
PS: Oh, because all these people are coming back [from Iraq] with head injuries that are really subtle.
JH: Exactly. And one of the things that we’re working on is that very fact, that a lot of times they’ll walk away from an explosion and feel fine, and then drop dead a day later.
AS: That’s Jamie’s preferred technique. (they laugh)
PS: It’s harder to track it back to you if you can pull that off. (more laughter)
JH: So we’ve been working on ways of identifying when this occurs, because people can get treatment if it’s been identified. If they can get treatment before it’s too late, then you can save lives.
PS: What fiction have you read?
JH: Well, how much time do you have? (laughs) Recent things that I’m rather fond of, that I consider good reading – one is Stiff, by Mary Roach – have you read that?
PS: Yes, and her other books, too.
JH: I think she’s based in San Francisco, I’ve meant to contact her. Yeah, there’s that – I’m trying to think in terms of fiction, but I’m mainly just reading periodicals now. I’m developing a new form of internal combustion engine which is taking a lot of my time up. There’s obviously a huge amount of history and technology that’s gone into what we have now that I need to know inside and out before I start poking around with what I have in mind. I don’t have time for novels. (laughs)
PS: Is that frustrating?
JH: Well, the strange thing is that I’m finding it just as entertaining to read non-fiction. In particular, the thing that I’ve realized, especially recently – people talk about the impact of the Internet, and I’m sure different people use it, obviously, differently, but for me, it’s just absolutely fantastic because I have no end of questions and I can answer those questions almost instantly. Obviously a lot of it’s crap that you’re going to run across; if you learn how to filter it, you’re better off. I was halfway through my master’s in Library Science, had a degree in Russian Language and Literature before that, I was already really into Information Science, way before Mythbusters, before getting anywhere near where I am now. But the Internet – I think of it as something that’s practically mind-altering. The amount of power that you have for advancement and development of technology – I don’t think we’ve really seen the impact of it quite yet – people may not realize the potential of it. But when one learns how to really use the Internet, it’s like you’ve multiplied your intelligence, your abilities by huge factors.
PS: And you can collaborate with people from all over the world.
PS: I write book indexes, a lot of technology books – I get to do the MAKE books, so I get to dip in to all sorts of places.
JH: Well then, you know. You’re going at light speed. It’s like a hive mind.
AS: (back from his errands) Hive mind?
PS: We’re talking about the Internet, and having access to all this incredible stuff.
AS: You know MetaFilter, right? That’s the nickname for MetaFilter, the hive mind. I’m going to meet Matt Haughey tomorrow in Portland, the guy who started MetaFilter.
PS: Do you have a favorite childhood book?
JH: Oh sure, there’s A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, Chronicles of Narnia were good, the Tolkien series, there’s a lot of stuff by T.H. White -
PS: Oh, Once and Future King.
JH: Yeah. There’s some religious context in there that I’m not so big on, but I didn’t know it at the time. Let’s see – I’m trying to go back 50 years and remember what I was reading.
AS: I liked the Great Brain books, Encyclopedia Brown, the Wolves of Willoughby Chase; I read a ton of science fiction back then, a lot of Stanislaw Lem, I don’t know why but it was just in my library, I read craploads of him and he’s amazing for a kid. I mean, he’s an amazing writer and for a kid to stumble on him is just great.
PS: Yeah. How old were you when you were reading Lem?
AS: Sixth grade? Seventh grade?
AS: I don’t know what age that is, 11 or 12?
JH: A lot of science fiction is fun. First and Last Men, by Olaf Stapledon, Mote in God’s Eye by Niven. Stapledon is one that most people haven’t heard about.
PS: Yeah, I haven’t heard of him.
JH: He was a philosopher, mainly, and I think collaborated on that book with someone else – there were actually two novels, First and Last Men, it was sort of a chronicle of man from his beginning to his end and through key periods. There are some fun science fiction aspects to it but it’s very thoughtful. Science fiction was the primary thing that I was preoccupied with all through my youth. I have a particular thing about the picaresque novels like Gargantua and Pantagruel by Rabelais.
(I think they could have kept talking for hours, but we had to quit here because they had to do the show – but Adam took the time to demonstrate his amazing Faro shuffle and we talked about magic tricks for a bit – maybe we’ll see more sleight of hand on Mythbusters.)