Meet Adam Savage, The Man Behind the Myths

Meet Adam Savage, The Man Behind the Myths

Indoor Boys recently had the opportunity to catch up with Adam Savage at his San Francisco studio. Naturally, we used the Scientific Method to prepare:

  1. Ask a Question: Who is Adam Savage?
  2. Do Background Research: Done and done. Thank you, Wikipedia and Netflix Instant Watch.
  3. Construct a Hypothesis: Adam Savage is a master of the Scientific Method, a special-effects guru, and, on occasion, a gun-slinger.
  4. Test Your Hypothesis by Doing an Experiment: Meet Adam. Ask questions.
  5. Analyze Your Data and Draw a Conclusion: Adam Savage is pretty freakin’ rad.
  6. Communicate Your Results: Read on.

I was at the Mythbusters Live show in Cupertino. There was a kid sitting in the next row dressed up as you. He had the leather hat, a painted-on goatee, the glasses—it was adorable.

Every Halloween we get tons of emails from folks whose kids dressed up as us. That’s one of those things you just can’t ever imagine.

That’s got to be sort of a strange feeling…
It’s lovely. You know, we fart around on our little show, and it goes out the in the world and people have these really intense responses to it.

Well, you guys are making learning fun.
It was totally unintentional. So we try to remain ignorant of it.

During the live show, you talked about Richard Feynman’s influence on you.
Yeah, I love Feynman. I would really have liked to have a beer with him.

What would you have asked him?
I don’t know that I’d have had anything specific to ask Feynman, I just have this feeling that we would’ve gotten along really well. The beauty of his exploration is he doesn’t take anything at face value. And that gave him this tremendous ability to see things other people were missing.

I now have a bunch of friends who were friends of his, and they can confirm he was just a really sweet guy who would like discovering something new in being wrong about something. That’s really gorgeous to me.

My friend James Randi was a really good friend of Feynman’s. And they used to have this running thing that Randi would perform a magic trick and Feynman would think about it and then tell him how it was done. And, at one point, Randi was picking up Dick at the airport, and he knew that often when he picked him up at the airport he would be hungry. So it was an airport he hadn’t picked him up at before but, on a whim, he went to the closest diner there was to the airport. He walked in and said, “I’m gonna be back here in an hour. Please pretend not to know me. And may I please buy a spoon from you?” Then he did the pre-prep he needed for the bent spoon trick.

So, Randi picks up Feynman. Feynman says, “I’m hungry.” So Randi says, “How about this joint?” They pull in, sit down at the table, Randi does the trick for him.

And a couple days later, Feynman calls him up and says, “You had to plant the spoon knowing my hunger habits.”

Do fans ever send you weird stuff?
Occasionally, yeah. I guess the weirdest things are the caricatures of me and Jamie. I got a puppet of me as a rabbit. It’s actually a great puppet, it’s really well made. But, man, that shit creeps Jamie out. Which, of course, I find hilarious.

You’ve been doing the show for ten years now. And you’ve busted a lot of myths. Are there any myths about yourself you’d like to bust?
You know, every now and then, I go to Wikipedia and try to remove that ridiculous comment about proving natural selection. Simply because it just confuses the issue and it was a poorly made statement back then that I would make much better now. But, of course, I get a bunch of emails based on that comment.

Light Saber collection.

Could you say what the comment was?
I think it was something like, “Oh, I would love to bust natural selection on the show, but I don’t think Discovery would let us.” Which is not the point, Discovery doesn’t really care one way or the other about that. What I was really angry about is the Young Earthers, the people who think the Earth is 6,000 years old. That really gets my blood boiling. And I thought at that point, proving natural selection would quiet them. But that’s not the problem, the evidence for natural selection is so widespread that’s not usually something that’s in dispute. Well, there are a lot of people who still don’t believe in evolution, which I find really distressing. But I was angry about the Young Earthers when I made that comment, so what I was hoping to prove on the show wasn’t going to disprove or convince them. Also, I tend to prioritize. And I don’t want to pick a fight with someone unless I’m actually going to change their mind. So, I’m not interested in making provocative comments for the sake of making provocative comments.

And way back when we first started doing the show, everyone thought that we were gay. There was about a year window where there was this open question. And around that time, you could do a Google search and type in “Adam Savage” and Google would finish it with “is married.”

And I would get these forum pages forwarded to me from one gay friend who’s a bear, and he sent me this discussion about me and Jamie on a bear site where it said, “Well, I wouldn’t kick Adam outta bed for eating crackers. But, Jamie? Oooh!!!”

I imagine your house is filled with Rube-Goldberg contraptions to make stuff happen.
No, that’s what this place is for. My Rube-Goldberg is I’ve got dust retrieval in the ceiling there and it goes all the way up and around. And the dust retrieval is actually up in the loft. And it’s actually remote-controlled. I can go to any tool and turn it on.

In all the years you’ve been doing the show, are there any myths you’ve wanted to tackle, but just can’t?
There is this story called Oxygen Truck where a truck filled with liquid oxygen is supposed to spill its contents on the roadway after an accident. And the liquid oxygen in combination with the roadbed turns the entire road into a bomb. And the science behind this is, in order to make something burn, you need fire, you need oxygen, and you need a fuel source. And there are lots of different fuel sources. But if oxygen makes things burn, liquid oxygen makes them burn like nobody’s business.

And it can actually take an oily rag and make it into a high explosive. But it doesn’t do that predictably, however, which makes it the scariest shit on earth. And in this myth we would spend a lot of energy on spilling liquid oxygen onto a road that we’ve constructed, only to have nothing happen and have no one want to go anywhere near it. Because it’s potentially just a bomb literally waiting to go off.

I love it when your myths are really interesting but also carry practical, life-saving applications. Like the one about shooting guns into water. I now know to jump straight into water if I’m being shot at.
To me, there is nothing complicated about the methodology or the science behind it. Or the science is actually quite interesting, but the methodology is so stupidly simple that it’s one of those gateway experiments that introduces people to the scientific method.

Are you ever blown away by what you’re able to do?
It’s more like, there are times I forget that. We call it the “Mythbusters Moment.” That moment when you’re standing out in a field and we’re about to do something totally ridiculous and we’re like, “Who’s letting us do this? How is this possible?”

We’re about to do one called, “Don’t Bring a Knife to a Gun Fight,” where we’re testing knives against guns as weapons of fighting. So we’re gonna do the Lee Marvin, Magnificent Seven, the draw with the knife out of the sheath and the gun out of the holster.

And we’re gonna do two guns drawn against each other. And there’s a police exercise. Two people stand back to back. One is holding a gun, the other doesn’t have to be holding the knife, he’s just the assailant. The one not holding the gun starts to run. At that very moment, the one whose got the gun has to unclip, pull it out of their holster, take the safety off, and fire off a shot. The amount of time it takes you to do that, on average, the other person will be twenty-two feet away. Which, by extension, means if you have a gun in your holster, and the guy is as far away from me as you are, I’m in mortal danger. Even though I’ve got the gun and you’ve got the knife. Because you can get to me long before I can squeeze off a round.

And people don’t think like that. Actually, it’s a tough story to write because we absolutely don’t want to teach people how to hurt cops. But cops are dying for us to do this story—no pun intended. They want us to do this story because if they shoot a guy holding a knife it’s called excessive force. But, in many cases, it’s absolutely not excessive force. Especially when you see how far away from me a knife can be effective.

I’ve been wanting to do this story for like six years. To me, it’s a public service thing. The trick is doing it in a way that not like, “And here’s how to hurt the police.”

I guess you could always do it under the guise of the old west.
The old west is one way. The other way is to do the actual police training exercise. There’s a few different things we’re going to do. And we won’t be dressed as cops. We’ll be dressed as gun-slingers. Well, Jamie will be dressed as Jamie, I’ll be dressed as a gun-slinger.

In the Exploding Water Heater episode, you look like proud papa watching the high-speed playback. Can you describe what you were feeling?
Everything we do we have to do inside a couple weeks. We get advance time to think about how to do something, but when we’re actually into building it on Tuesday, we have to be ready for a shoot on Friday. So the number of times we are pushed to the limit to do things in an elegant and efficient way in a matter of a few hours or a couple of days, and the get some huge thing to happen, like blowing up a hot water heater and sending it up through a two-story house.

So when something finally does happen, like a big explosion, or the big experiment goes off, for the viewer it’s at the end of 45 minutes, but for us it’s the culmination of two weeks of hard work and it’s usually the last twenty minutes of the day. The sun is about to set behind the hill and if it doesn’t happen right now we gotta to come back tomorrow.

And, so, yeah, absolutely, “Oh, thank God!” is the feeling I feel. Because so many times when it doesn’t work, or we have to come back, or we have to redo it. And you’re so tired.

It literally looked like you were watching the birth of your first child.
[laughs] I was crying a lot more when my kids were born.

You made a lead balloon fly. What does it feel like to reverse a myth that is synonymous with the impossible?
It’s one of my all-time favorite episodes. For a host of reasons. One is the idea of doing something that’s impossible. Two is that I know it’s been done twice before, but never as cleanly as we did it. It was done with tape and a net to hold the lead together, and we did not screw around with such things.

Three is that it took two years to do that episode. It was two years between the time we decided to do it and the time we found a factory that could roll lead thin enough. Two different companies broke equipment attempting to roll lead that thin.

Generally, you can buy lead that 3– or 4–thousandths of an inch thick. It’s about as thick as your hair. It’s easy to find. It’s used in shielding for computers, for your home and other stuff.

We needed the lead to be thinner than that—we needed it to be 1 one-thousandth of an inch thick. In the end, we found this company called Epstein Foils in Germany, and when we got it it was rolled to 0.0007 of an inch thick. That means that seven sheets together were still thinner than the thickness of your hair. And you couldn’t even feel it as you tore it. It was like tearing toilet paper. Wet toilet paper.

And you know certain things like, if you crumple this stuff, it gets micro holes in it. Uncrumple it and hold it up and it looks like lace. So the lead can’t be moved more than once. That’s one of the rules of making an airtight balloon.

You basically have to unroll it out of a sheet, tape it in position, but it can never be moved from flat. Which means you have to construct the whole balloon flat. Now, we could have also made a big tube. That was totally within our abilities. But I didn’t want to. I wanted to make a balloon-ish shape.

So, I thought about it and I am actually a nerd about the platonic and Archimedean regular solids.

Could you describe what those are?
Tetrahedrons, cubes, dodecahedrons, icosidodecahedrons. All of these are three-dimensional shapes made of regular polygons, like triangles, squares, rectangles, pentagons, hexagons, etc.

So I thought about all the different platonic and Archimedean regular solids and decided on a cube. And the question was, how do you build a cube that you make flat and it doesn’t move?

And this is how we engage: I’m in the middle of doing something and someone says, “How are you going to do that?” And I say, “I don’t know. Find me the San Francisco Origami Club. I’m sure there is a San Francisco Origami Club. Get me one of their origami folders and bring them over here.”

Sure enough, there is a San Francisco Origami Club and they get this paper folder, and she arrives, and they say, “The San Francisco Origami lady’s here.” I was like, “Oh, crap! Send her home cause I don’t need her.”

I realized that origami is all about folding things to make three-dimensional shapes and we’re not folding things, we’re actually just building something. So, I’ve wasted her time, tell her I’m really sorry, and I went down to the shop to keep working.

So I started thinking and decided it’s gotta be a cube because that’s one of the simplest things. And the sequence that you see in the show is effectively what happened—I just did it twice. But I sat down at that table in our office with a sheet of 8.5” by 11” paper and I just started cutting up squares and started assembling them into triangles and squares and fifteen minutes later the structure was really clear to me.

It really took that long. But it was weeks of me thinking about it in little snippets until that became clear.

Once that was solved, there was this whole other set of problems, which is what do you do if a hole forms? When you’re trying to fill an irregular, soft shape, one of the problems is the helium will gather in one area and start to pull everything else along with it. If that happens in this on a corner it’s just gonna pull itself apart.

We actually have to distribute the load across the whole balloon as early as possible. So then we came up with the idea of covering it with a tarp and having 8 people all the way around the tarp evening out the pressure.

And then what happens if a tear forms? If a tear forms, we can’t stop and fix it. So Jamie came up with this idea of just spraying spray-glue on the piece and just tapping it onto the hole. Which turned out to be needed like 5 or 6 times in the course of doing the story.

We had plenty of helium to fill the balloon. We actually had more than enough. And in order to fill out the balloon we had to add air and we’d thought through that. We’d brought compressed air. I’d realized that our helium was going to be too buoyant for the size of the balloon, so we’re gonna need to do a mixture of helium and air. Because the difference between overly buoyant and neutrally buoyant is really huge. Neutrally buoyant and you add a little and it just starts rocketing to the sky.

And that amount of weight could also tear it up. So, thinking through all these different pieces made that one of the most fun stories to do. That solution of the cube that built itself is one of favorite, favorite bits of mental exercise on the show. And I think that episode, which was the first episode where we were nominated for an Emmy, is to me the most elegant description of why we love the job. It’s a super thrilling story and there’s no explosions, there’s no disaster, there’s nothing interesting from the outside standpoint that seems to happen and yet it’s thrilling.

I just love this picture.

It seems like you and Jamie have diametrically opposed approaches to problem solving. Have his methods influenced you? And/or vice versa?
I don’t know what he’s learned from me because he doesn’t talk about that. I’ve definitely learned from him to not throw out the stupid idea. Because one of his, I think, primary modes of thinking is, “What is the way of approaching this problem that is so stupid no one is thinking about it?” And so many lovely things can be found in that zone.

And when you get a little experience, it’s easy for you to throw out the dumb idea. But the dumb idea is often really worth examining just a little more.

My method is more to try everything I’m thinking as fast as possible, and I’m really fast, so I can usually build something three or four times in the same period of time it takes Jamie to build it once. And we both achieve the same result.

Which makes it excruciating for me to watch him build. I’m like, “Why are you taking so much time?! Just do it! Just drill there!” And then he’s thinking, “Why are you wasting so many materials doing this three or four times?! Just think about it!”

At the Mythbusters Live show, I was surprised to hear you and Jamie say you’ve never had dinner together.
Our partnership is based on a deep, mutual respect. That is the most critical thing. And it’s been earned—we’ve both pulled things out of the fire at the last minute and saved each other’s lives. And we trust each other more than almost anybody else. But a partnership isn’t a friendship. It’s based on very different rules. And it’s a very different kind of relationship than an emotional relationship. Emotions do play a part in it, but a very different part.

And, for us, we don’t actually enjoy socializing or chatting with each other about stuff. We do talk about our lives with each other, but only insofar as these are important details for us to know as partners, cause all the things that go on in our lives affect the other.

But, yeah, left to our own devices, we don’t eat together, we don’t hang out together. When we have stuff to discuss, we’ll sit and have lunch and talk about it, but even that’s quite rare.

If the A Team has the catchphrase, “I love it when a plan comes together.” What’s Mythbusters catchphrase?
Aw, man. One of them is “Failure is always an option.” Which is a joke, but also is a deeply scientific statement. Cause what it says is you don’t conduct an experiment in order to get a specific result. Nobody ever does that. You conduct an experiment to get data. And the data points you to your next experiment. There’s never an end with like, “I’ve discovered it!” Very rarely is there an end. So, to me, “failure is always an option,” is a way of explaining the scientific method in a deeply philosophical way.

There’s another one where we were spending all day trying to make something work and everything we tried kept on screwing up. Every last thing we tried was a bust. But each time we did it, we’d set something up and we’d think through, “What could possibly go wrong here?”

“I don’t know.”

“I can’t see that anything could go wrong.”

And Jamie would say, “I can’t see any reason why this shouldn’t work.” And now that’s one of our catchphrases for when we know we’re just about to screw something up. “I can’t see any reason why this shouldn’t work,” only means, literally, YOU can’t see the reason, but it’s probably about to screw up.

Explosion-proof clock. But, of course.

If explosions are like a fine wine, describe your favorite vintage.
Hot water heaters. I love the sound of hot water heaters. It’s actually a certain type of explosion called a BLEVE (Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion). And, unlike a chemical explosion, which involves the rapid oxidization of some type of cascading chemical reaction, in this, you simply seal a liquid into a vessel and you heat it.

Liquid will boil at a certain temperature, but when it’s under pressure it can’t boil, so it goes way above it’s boiling point. And the liquid in this case—water—expands until its compressed the air in its chamber. And you have to have a certain amount of air, like 20-25%, and it expands until it can’t be compressed any more and at that point the vessel fails. But hte moment the vessel fails, all that water is at like 320° Fahrenheit. It’s well above its boiling point. The moment it’s exposed to the air it all flashes to steam.

And the “thud” is so much slower than a normal high-explosive, which is more like a cracking sound. It feels very satisfying.

You and Jamie seem kind of like the Odd Couple. Say, like Felix and Oscar, you had to live together. Who would kill who first?
If we were forced to live together…

I think it’s pretty obvious who would be Felix and who would be Oscar.
That’s absolutely true. I think Jamie would drive me crazy long before I drove him crazy. Cause he’s a stoic, “Well, this is the new thing I have to deal with.” You know? He would just take it.

Absolutely. I would kill him first. But we would never, ever live together. Ever. I would sleep on the roof.

I think it’s so obvious in so many ways why you are an Indoor Boy, but why would you say?
It’s hard to answer that yourself. I think it’s because I think there’s something inherently lovely about the idea, in the confidence to have the ability to make your own world. And it’s also a very geeky trait.

I heard that title and thought, “That is a great title for a website,” and I totally agree that I should be there. And I came home and I told my wife and she was like, “AWESOME.”

What’s next?
“Unchained Reaction.” We’re trying to make a competition show that we would want to enter. That’s our goal.

Mythbusters and Unchained Reaction air weekly on Discovery Channel.

Indoor Boys



Add yours
  1. 4

    “We’re trying to make a competition show that we would want to enter.”

    I guess failure really is an option. A competition where you win nothing, and the worst team always gets voted by you as the best? Rough offshoot. Just do Mythterns instead, and bring back the fallen Mythbusters of past to lead newbies.

  2. 7

    Awesome interview – I love his honesty about the process and I love his unwavering passion for his work. He makes physics, science, chemistry, and blowing things up all equal and exciting…although blowing things up always kind of takes precedence…

    Friend plug: the rabbit puppet he spoke of was made and sent to him by my friend Elizabeth – she runs Atlanta-based puppet performance company and workshop Puppatoons ( / and if you like Adam’s rabbit-clone, she does commissions! She also did a walrus for Jamie, and I think Adam wanted one soon after as well… 😀

  3. 8

    Bwahaha!!, you cad, Adam. You asked for that puppet and I made it for you! 😀 (and he sent me a wonderful present that I will treasure!)

  4. 13
    Michael Nouwen

    I watch every day mythbusters and unchained reaction when it is on TV. ( I know my englisch isn’t very good because I’m a Belgian 😀 ) You guys are amazing! All the things you are testing are so nice! I hope I ever met you guys!

    See yah!

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