Q&A with the MythBusters: Why Liquid Oxygen is "the Scariest Sh*t on Earth"

It's got drama! It's got danger! It's got action! It's... a science show? Yep, and an extremely popular one, too. While science is certainly no stranger to television—there are hundreds of shows on the topic—it rarely seems as entertaining (or explosion-filled) as it does on MythBusters, the long-running Discovery series responsible for bringing the scientific method to the masses. The show returns with new episodes this week, and it's sure to bring with it a fireball or two.

In honor of the program's latest debut, I sat down with pyrotechnically inclined hosts (and now executive producers) Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage to discuss the "big" issues—including how to make science accessible for a mainstream audience and how to do an episode about sperm without actually using the word "sperm." The guys also fielded a few questions from @tvdotcom's loyal Twitter followers. Here's what they had to say.

You guys have managed to use science, which has traditionalk as the basis for an incredibly popular, all-ages TV show. What do you think you did right?

Jamie: Well, I think it’s driven by our own curiosity. We had no intent to have this effect, but it’s a genuine fascination with exploration in the world of things and processes—"when man meets technology" and all those sorts of things. It just resonated. We’re inundated with technology in our everyday lives, and to such a degree that people often don’t know how to parse it all out. I suppose we're providing some sort of scientific method to [understand] your world.

Adam: Jamie’s often fond of pointing out that we didn’t set out to make a show that was educational or that got people interested in science. We started out as hired talent and found our level with a show that turned out to be about our enthusiasm for what we were doing. Much of what we do on the show is stuff that we would do even if we didn’t have the show. And I think that because we’re not trying to teach kids or talk down to people, people respond to it. One of the most common comments we hear is, "I don’t let my kids watch TV, but MythBusters is the exception."

Is the secret in the presentation, then?

Jamie: There are a bunch of key elements. We’ve thought a lot about it, since it seems to be working. There’s a very strong thread of playfulness to everything we do. If we do something with science, we’re often blowing it up or going off on tangents, and we’re being very childlike, in a way. That’s obviously going to be more appealing than, “we’re scientists and this is how this works.”

Adam: We also don’t set out to conduct the scientific method—it just that when you want to explore something, the scientific method is the way to do so. It’s organic.

Jamie: It's the quickest way to get from Point A to Point B, and we’re driven to do that, so if it happens to be science then it’s not our fault.

Adam: It grids right on top of the narrative arc, you know? We work really hard to tell a coherent story.

You been doing the show for over eight years now. I'm sure you hear this question all the time, but I have to ask: Do you ever worry about runing out of myths to test?

[Laughter. Yep, they get this question a lot.]

Jamie: Well, there’s one answer, which is the fun answer: We’ll run out of things to test when people run out of stupid things to believe. But MythBusters is about a lot more than urban legends, it’s an exploration of “stuff” and how it interacts with people. And there’s a lot of “stuff” out there. Personally, we're really amazed that every time we start looking for something new to do, we find it.

Adam: Very early on we veered far off the track of urban legends and became a show about perception; what’s your intuition about how this works, and how does it actually work? And the best times that we’ve had are the ones where our intuition is 150 percent wrong. It means that what we got out of the experience was real education and real knowledge, and we’re both thrilled by that.

How about for the new season—do you guys have a favorite experiment to tease?

Jamie: There’s wrecking ball…

Adam: Wrecking ball is a great one.

Jamie: You know those Newton’s cradles, the things with the ball bearings, where you pull one back and it just keeps clipping away? We ended up making 2,000-pound ball bearings, like that [holds his arms out wide] and, you know, that’s as classic as it gets. It’s funny because it’s so out of proportion. It plays toward our strengths of manipulating materials and processes in ways they were never intended. And that’s eight years into it and we’re finding all this stuff that’s still right up our alley, and that’s why I say, you know, when you ask if we’ll ever run out of stuff… it just astonishes us. We don’t.

Adam: One of the things that has happened over the years is that we’ve gotten more sophisticated about our knowledge base, so we can tell more complicated stories. As a result, we have started to build relationships with scientists all around the country who are willing to fly out just to help us out, and hang out and bounce ideas around. And it’s not that they’re just telling us how to do things, it’s a peer relationship, where we’re all trying to figure out how to do things, and that’s something we hope evolves much more in the future.

As do your adoring fans! And so before I let you go, I want to ask a couple questions from @tvdotcom's loyal Twitter followers:

Adam: Jamie’s married. [Laughs]

Both @leebest and @frankdma01420 asked whether there any myths you're dying to test, but can't due to legal reasons?

Jamie: Uh, well first off there are a lot of product-based myths, and I guess that would be a legal thing because then we’d get sued. [laughs]

Adam: Or, if it’s not a legal thing, it’s a financial thing, because they’re potentially advertisers. “Your product doesn’t work.” “Your product is actually bad.” We’re never going to test whether bottled water is better than tap water, let’s put it that way. It’s funny, though, that there’s a perception out there that there are all of these things that we’re dying to do that Discovery might not let us do. And actually, if it’s spectacular, Discovery wants to work with us to find a way to do it. Everyone wants to make a great show. Though there are a couple of stories we wanted to do, but couldn’t… and one of them is about a truck filled with liquid oxygen: supposedly, once it breeches and spills on the highway, it turns the entire highway into a bomb. It’s the interaction between liquid oxygen and the asphalt. We started doing some testing on this—small tests, without filming—but it was enough to discover that liquid oxygen is the scariest shit on earth. It can really turn an oily rag into a high explosive.

Jamie: And we were talking about dumping semi-truck sized loads of it onto a huge surface, and you wonder, almost, what happens to that cloud of pure oxygen as it drifts over a highway nearby?

Adam: There were two potential outcomes: Either the whole highway did become a bomb, or nothing happened and no one would want to go near it. And honestly, nothing happening is one of the scariest things that can happen on our show.

Jamie: We’re used to dealing with high explosives all the time, but this was one of those things where an entire highway can become a massive explosive and the bomb squad we were working with didn’t have the kind of experience they’d need for that kind of thing—the only people in the world who do are not consultants that we can really hire to work for us. But one thing we have been able to do throughout the course of our show is frame certain things we aren’t allowed to talk about in ways that won’t get us in trouble—we’ve done entire episodes referring to something we’re not allowed to use the word for.

Adam: We did one about a Civil War soldier who got shot through a testicle and the same bullet then went through the womb of a woman and supposedly impregnated her. We went all the way to getting all the males on the show to give samples, putting it into a baggy, and then having a Civil War expert shoot through that baggy and into a ballistics gel womb 50 feet away. And then we searched the bullet hole for any viable sperm, but we were never allowed to use the word "sperm."

Woah. So what word did you use?

Jamie: We called it “genetic legacy.”

Adam: You know, the show is all about problem solving. For us, there’s no difference between trying to engineer a full-sized sewer, and trying to meet Discovery’s expectations about how to do a family-oriented show about some tasteless material. Those are both problems to solve, and we get equally as excited about solving them.

Here's a question from @psychtyckque: "While we know you’re both critical/rational thinkers, do you have any shop superstitions?”

Jamie: That’s an interesting question that we’ve never gotten before. Uh... I would say… no.

Adam: We walk under ladders and break mirrors all the time.

Jamie: The closest we’d come to that would be, if something does go wrong, we pay very careful attention to it and get very rigid about it. We will become gun shy about something that has bitten us, even if it’s not entirely logical, but superstition, I’d say no.

@jroszak wants to know which of your past experiments required the longest amount of prep time?

Jamie: Lead balloon. It took us two years to track down the lead that we needed to do that. We built a balloon out of lead and inflated it with helium. It was fourteen feet across and weighed thirty pounds and it actually floated around until we popped it. But the lead had to be so thin that it was thinner than a human hair, and, well, it’s kind of hard to find stuff like that.

Adam: Eventually we found a company in Germany, and not only were they able to roll the lead as thin as we needed, they donated it to us and shipped it over—and it takes a tremendous amount of effort to roll lead that thin, because the consistency is like wet toilet paper.

Jamie: And that was also our favorite episode, because when you realize what that means, it’s so fragile that you could fold it up and blow through it, yet it’s so heavy—a balloon that weighs twenty-eight pounds! As far as the thrill meter goes, being able to do something like that is the kind of thing that gets us excited.

Adam: In the end, we lobbed a baseball at it, which went through it like nothing was even there—and when it popped it just thudded to the ground. That’s how close we were to a catastrophic failure the whole time.

Finally, @katstarr1 would like to know what advice you'd give to a young person who wants to grow up to do what you do?

Adam: Read.

Jamie: Yeah, that’s the one answer. Adam and I are clearly different people, but the thing we have in common is that we’re voracious readers. We’re hungry for information, and reading is the quickest way to get it.

Adam: It’s reading, and it’s reading outside of your discipline, as well. What we found when working with experts, for example, is that what we needed most were people whose discipline bridged across one or two fields–and those are the types of people who can think outside the box of their own field. It was the same in special effects–the people who had the broadest base of knowledge were able to extrapolate outside of their own zone, which made them better.

Jamie: Reading is the only way to assemble that kind of knowledge base without direct experience. You do have to, at some point, apply those things that you read, so that’s the other thing. We’re both very hands on. Read it, experiment with it, and go out and do it.

Adam: One last thing I’d say is that we like inventing new skills. One of the things that I think holds people back is that they think, “well, I’ll never be an expert welder, so why start?” And the fact is, neither of us is an expert at any of the skills that we have–in fact, we’re solidly mediocre at almost all of them–but all together they become a very impressive quiver from which to draw a skill to solve a problem.

Mythbusters airs Wednesdays at 9pm on Discovery.

Comments (6)
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Oct 05, 2011
I love this show.
Oct 03, 2011
It's always fascinating to watch people who are far smarter than myself. I really enjoy these guys' science-mindedness. American kids really need to become interested in sciences, and who better to introduce them to science than the kind of people like Adam and Jamie.
Oct 01, 2011
I like this show:) Hope they will continue good work.
Sep 30, 2011
I love that show. But as a European, only one thing is shocking : you can't use the word "sperm" due to the family audience (I'm surprised because it is not vulgar or sexual) whereas it is not a problem to show week after week guns of all kinds to shoot at stuff and showing it as funny.

I get that we have our cultural differences and our own taboos but seriously, that's a lot of guns for a family show ! However, I still enjoy it. Keep up the good work guys.
Sep 30, 2011
I am officially addicted to this show.
Sep 30, 2011
I'm the first to comment. Really? For shame, my fellow TV.com members. Where is your enthusiasm for science? Your curiosity of the unknown? Your eagerness for exploration? Your zeal for . . . . hold on a sec, Keeping Up with the Kardashians just started.