Strip Batman of his Brioni DC-armor. Arm him with a cold, gunmetal Leatherman Charge. Fuel him with a dangerous
and insatiable curiosity - and add a pair of thick, black frames for dramatic effect. Adam Savage is not your commercial hero.
Savage takes the fantasy of slaying theoretical dragons ringside at a 21:00 Medieval Times
show fun for all ages - if the show involved two semis jousting or a team building Archimedes' death ray.
Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman have the noble and fun charge
of rescuing Elegant Science from her ivory tower every Wednesday on Discovery Channel's hit show Mythbusters.
We spoke to Savage prior to his standing-room only appearance at MIT.
Savage, armed with a quick-wit and a keen sense off humor, appeared confident and yet down-to-earth. He didn't mince words about his passion and gift for
problem-solving and the scientific method, the flattery of Slashdot lovin', and the pre-pubescent power of Legos.
If only we all knew what it would be like to be adored by The Strokes and have
the most popular kids at Sandia, Lawrence Livermore, and NASA on your buddy list. . . We would know what it would be like to be a Savage.
SC: You've talked about bringing out 'real science' in your experiments. What is 'real science'?
AS: What I mean is a real method. Any scientist will tell you that science is messy and confusing.
Jamie and I are not real scientists by any stretch of the imagination. He's got a degree in Russian
studies and I've got a high school diploma, but we do have a real curiosity and we do have a respect
for the scientific method as a way of correctly investigating that curiosity. There are so many ways
to answer this question. We like our empirical data to match our theoretical data. Those are red-letter
days. It doesn't always happen very much.
There are two parts to what we do: we are demonstrating various concepts that are going on with the myth
that we are doing, but we're also learning at the same time. Sometimes those things overlap and sometimes
we'll be learning about a different aspect. At the same time, we are making sure we get a bunch of stuff
on camera that helps to tell the story we want to tell.
I guess mainly the thing about saying that it's 'real science' is saying that it's a real process of discovery for us. We never cheat the data.
We never cheat the results. Everything you see us figure out on
screen is something we actually came up with while we were doing it and probably half the time we are wrong
about what's going to happen which is always really exciting because it means something else is coming up and
we have to change the whole design of what we're doing.
SC: A miscalculation can lead to the next step in the discovery process, but it also can be lethal. Who checks the math?
AS: Where danger is involved, we've had several wake-up calls during the course of the show, but we do follow industry
standards where rigging is concerned of 4:1, 5:1, 10:1 ratios of safety. Where explosives are concerned we follow 100:1 ratios.
We discovered a while ago that you can hire a pyrotechnician who is licensed to handle black powder but they are not someone
who actually knows how to blow things up in a safe manner.
Consequently, we have gravitated toward experts like the FBI and former FBI bomb techs whose entire training is about contingency
planning and they are absolutely the safest crew we ever worked with and we've learned a tremendous amount from them. We also have
two science advisors on the show. One who worked on the Huygens Probe and the other Steve Jacobs who is the science advisor for
Discovery Communications. He is actually our Science Advisor as well. He's the inheritor of Mr. Wizard's mantle. He helped the
MacGuyver people figure out a good portion of the things MacGuyver did during the run of their series. Whenever we want to know
what the likely outcomes are going to be we check it with various people like that and then we implement the safety procedures we
know will keep us safe in the worse case scenario. Where safety is concerned, you will hear us say it tonight, we make our living
replicating circumstances under which people specifically got maimed and killed most of the time that's a good portion of what we're
doing. So, it's inherently dangerous. We have learned. Luckily, there have been no major injuries.
SC: You brought up that your Science Advisor was involved behind the scenes with the ultimate problem-solving hero, MacGuyver. It's easy
to be seduced by the pyrotechnics and the big-bang of Hollywood. In movie F/X with Brian Brown, where the special effects man goes fugitive;
it's not so much the trail of explosions he leaves as it his ability to problem-solve under pressure.
AS: You have managed to nail it on the head in the third question, which is impressive. Everyone always says, 'isn't it great to have a job where
you blow shit up for a living.' Jamie and I will come right back and say, 'Actually, the blowing stuff up is mostly scary and a lot of times it
just plain unpleasant. It's hot. It's dangerous. The best part of every day for us is when we get results we didn't expect and we've got to figure
out what to do from there.
Both Jamie and I have different approaches to building things, but we have the same root programming in which we need to put the whole thing in our
heads in its entirety and then we can spin it around and see how we want to build it. Some of the most fun we have is mentally passing these images
back and forth, 'ok what if we did this, ok, wait, what if we did that, then we could try it this way.' The fact that we work so differently makes
us a lot stronger because of our different viewpoints. Jamie describes it as having a binocular vision. The pair of us solving a problem is inherently
much stronger than either one of us alone.
SC: Your show sparks a lot of discussion on the Discovery discussion boards. How do you handle the criticism? Are you nervous speaking in front of crowd from MIT tonight?
AS: I'm a little nervous about tonight but in a very excited way. I feel like we've made it by coming to MIT. I feel we will be very well received.
I have a lot of friends who have gone here. I have a good sense of the culture here and that it is simpatico with the way we do things.
I deal with the critics on the Discovery site, which absolutely can get vitriolic, by not reading it. I make it a point of not reading it.
When Jaime and I ever do interviews they generally end up on Slashdot and the Slashdot boards can make the Discovery boards look like a walk
in the park. Those people can be very, very nasty. There was a point a couple of years ago that I read the Slashdot postings and they changed
the way I was doing things for a week. They changed my manner on camera. They made me self-conscious in a way that I hadn't been. I found it
really unpleasant. Honestly, I know we are supposed to have data sets that are larger than one. I know that we could be more rigorous.
We could know more about what we are doing, but to be honest, there wouldn't be a show if we knew what we were doing.
SC: You guys move fast.
AS: Yes, whatever you see us doing on the show we are doing start to finish inside of five to seven days. That's five to seven days to crash
two semis into each other or to train two goldfish. It's the same no matter what. What I know is that every working, dedicated science-loving
scientist I've ever met knows that we are on the right track and we are doing important work. We are trying to satisfy our curiosity.
We've gone half way through a show and realized we were asking the wrong question and made that part of the show. 'You know what? We've been asking the wrong question.'
That is something you never hear about when you hear about science in the abstract. It's not about the answers. It's figuring out what the hell are the questions you are asking.
That is something I know when we get emails from Sandia, Lawrence Livermore, Oak Ridge Ballistic Labs, NASA, Jaime and I have been contacted, consulted and congratulated by
people from all those places [pause]. . . and, that's the first time I've ever come up with that alliteration before (laughs).
SC: That's some serious name-dropping.
AS: Those guys really do feel like we are their spiritual peers in that type of discovery. It is one of the most satisfying aspects of what we do.
We spoke at the IBM Almaden Research Center. The people there were incredibly warm and inviting. Next month, we are going to speak to some Honda engineers.
Those are our people. I love the fact it's merely because they have watched Jaime and I farting around the show working with what we do.
SC: Speaking of farting around, the skunk episode was on about half an hour ago.
AS: That's a great example of the kind of stuff that happens constantly with us.
The show is a perfect example of Murphy's Law writ large. Who knew skunks wouldn't
spray us no matter what during mating season.
SC: Who is the coolest/most intimidating person you've met so far.
AS: Daniel Dennett. This was part of a whole crazy weekend. James Randi contacted Jamie and I and asked us to come to The Amazing Meeting in Las Vegas to speak.
He said, 'You guys are my heroes.' And I was like, 'That's James Randi, man. I'm not your hero! That's crazy talk.' We went down there. James Randi was just amazing.
We met Julia Sweeney, Jamy Ian Swiss, Penn Jillette was our interviewer on stage and he was one of the warmest, most genuine interviewers we've ever had and then I got to meet Daniel Dennett.
My introduction to any kind of real study of philosophy was through Daniel Dennett's books. I was 17 or 18 years old. To meet him. . . I waited throughout this fundraising
dinner to go talk to him and when I finally did, we mind-melded for 45 minutes solid. It was fantastic.
SC: So, do you get star struck?
AS: Oh, absolutely. We got a call a few months ago. A friend of mine is a concert promoter and he calls us up and says that The Strokes are in town and that they are big fans of the show.
They want to meet you guys. Jamie goes to bed at nine and so he's like, 'whatever.' So I go down to the show and don't know what it's going to be like. I go alone.
I get to the front door and someone is like, 'Oh, he's here!' I get this thing slapped on my chest and get backstage. I'm watching The Strokes from backstage and
this hand comes down on my shoulder and this guys says, 'The boys are real pleased that you've come. They want you to follow me.' He leads me to my seat on stage.
Here's my seat and there's the soundboard op [points] and there they all are. I sat there for the whole concert. Immediately, after the concert, it turns out that
it's Fabrizio Moretti who is the big fan of the show. He's like, 'Dude, I love your show.' We go into the bus and he's like, 'I can't believe you're here.'
He was so sweet and incredibly enthusiastic. I gave them all Mythbusters hats and he said they wore them to IN-N-OUT Burger later on.
SC: What is your favorite equation/scientific theory?
AS: [Long pause. . . Hmm. . I know there is one. . . I'm not sure I can answer that one.
SC: Favorite tool?
AS: The Leatherman Charge.
SC: Space vehicle you would like to own.
AS: Faster than light travel.
SC: What is the most badass robot you've ever seen?
AS: The Cain Robot from Robocop 2.
SC: Your favorite superhero?
AS: Batman. For all the obvious reasons.
SC: What is your favorite movie and what movie do you think has the best effects?
AS: For me, it's a constantly revolving Top 20. Way up there would absolutely have to be Blade Runner.
I spent five years working at Industrial Light & Magic and still can't believe that we have yet to
produce anything that looks at good as that.
SC: Is there anyone in Hollywood that you would like to work with?
AS: There are people still making great movies like Brian Singer. The new Superman movie is unbelievably great.
Guillermo del Toro with Hellboy is fantastic. I love what those guys are doing.
SC: How have Legos influenced your life?
AS: Being a designer for Legos, was the very first job that I ever wanted.
The second was to work on Star Wars [laughs]. They were a key part of my fantasy world until I discovered girls at 15.
I had Lego cities, economies going on in my room.
SC: And the kids?
AS: I have tons of Legos for my kids. I'm always looking for Legos on Craigslist for anyone who's got big batches off it.
SC: You use Craigslist?
AS: I know Craig from years ago from the very beginning of the web community in San Francisco in the early 90s. I used to see him at art openings with his camera.
SC: You had that Victor Victoria moment when the heavy metal guy shattered the glass. Is there anything else you would like to break?
AS: Next week, I'm going to get sunk in a car about a dozen times and figure out a bunch of ways to get out of the car. I also want to test monster cable against lamp cord.
SC: Adam, thank you for your time.
AS: It's been a pleasure.