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"The Mythbusters: Jamie's Farewell Tour" Drops Some Science On St. Louis
For thirteen years now, Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage have been making science fun again. When I was in high school (way back in the last century) science classes were often dry, boring exercises in memorization. I really have never understood the American school system’s devotion to memorization. I mean sure, I could be walking along and encounter some metallic substance I’ve never seen before, but having the Periodic Table of Elements in my head won’t do me any good without any wat to measure the atomic weight or analyze its composition—I’d imagine raw, natural tin, aluminum, lead, nickel and silver all look pretty much the same to an untrained eye. I used to be interested in a career in chemistry, but I found science so tedious in my formative years I quickly put science at arm’s length. We never really did anything but memorize formulas, units of measure, blah-blah-blah…zzzzzzzz…
And then along comes the Mythbusters. Long after I was out of school, I flipped over to the Discovery Channel one evening and find these two odd fellow, the bespectacled, almost hyper Adam Savage rubbing his palms together with a mad scientist’s glee, and Jamie Hyneman, the heavily mustachioed, beret-wearing counterpoint, droll to the Nth degree, but somehow not quite as dry as many of my science teachers through the years. I was hooked right away—these guys were tackling the kind of questions I often pondered, and many I’d never considered. They did with mostly readily available materials, they did it safely, and I felt I’d learned something after every episode.
To bring science to their fans on a more personal level, Jamie and Adam have been going on tour for the last couple of years, giving talks at theatres and halls across America. They returned to the Fabulous Fox this year on April 18, and were greeted like rock stars. This year the show is subtitled “Jamie’s Farwell Tour,” which really wasn’t explained in the show, but it appears that Jamie has had enough of the road and is retiring from touring, not from the show! Although one has to wonder how many more science myths are there that they can reasonably tackle--determining the weight or viscosity of “dark matter’ is probably a little bit beyond their means. They have usually steered clear of “oogie boogie” myths like the existence of Bigfoot or aliens, so those crypto-zoological urban legends won’t be covered anytime soon. I’ve always wanted to see if they could build a period-accurate apparatus for the urban myth of “Spring-heeled Jack” which at least has some scientific component to test (perhaps old buggy flyleaf springs used to make jumping shoes—in theory not too far from the spring-form prosthetic feet we seen today?).
Adam and Jamie spent a good two hours talking about the behind-the-scenes stuff that goes on while shooting Mythbusters, going into further detail of some of their favorite myths, and demonstrating some of the science they use to explain these myths with the assistance of members of the audience. A mother and daughter team shuffled together two phone books which later took the weight of Adam, suspended by a rope high above the stage, by the power of friction. I remember being amazed when they did the phone book piece on the show at the amount of force two shuffled phonebooks could withstand, so it was a joy to see it demonstrated in person. They brought a pro-wrestler –sized fellow seated right behind me to the stage to engage in feats of strength with a thin young girl, who beat the hulking insurance salesman soundly thanks to basic scientific principles like force and levers. Jaime brought four high school aged gentlemen on stage to demonstrate a very basic and quirky little feat of engineering—he built a table of the boys, and then had them rotate en masse in one direction while trying to keep a beach ball in a static position by rotating it in the opposite direction. They brought out a young lady clad in the medieval platemail armor they once used to dive with sharks as safety gear while they riddled her with paintballs from a paintball cannon that Jamie built—it looked like something from “Robocop” or “The Empire Strike Back.” They also demonstrated by themselves the science behind the old fakir “Bed of Nails” trick, the difficulty of throwing knives, and several other feats.
The duo also took a few questions from the audience, which were hard to hear but they repeated them before answering. The questions were pretty good, ranging from “What myths have you done that’s never made it on the air?” to “How can educators get kids more interested in science?” The former was explained as there only being one myth that has never been aired—“Is the box that sugary breakfast cereal comes in as nutritious as the cereal itself?” Adam explained that they had a control group of mice that ate scientifically balanced “mice pellets” like you might find at a pet store, another group ate Fruit Loops and loved them, and the last group ate pellets Jamie made from the cereal boxes with a little sweetener added to entice the mice. After a week or so, the first two groups were fine, but the third group looked a little edgy. A day later, Jamie checked on the mice to discover that the cereal box group had been cannibalized overnight, leaving one well-fed mouse and a couple of carcasses reminiscent of the Bugs Bunny cartoons (presumably the Beaky Buzzard episode) They nicknamed the surviving mouse “Killer” and promptly fed him to Jamie’s pet snake. The Discovery honchos saw the footage and were, according to Adam, like, ‘Ha-ha-ha-ha! That’s great! That will never be shown on television.” The latter question was touched on throughout the show, and at one point, when Jamie was just about to drive a sledgehammer through a cinderblock resting on Adam’s abdomen as he was lying on a bed of nails, Adam said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if Jamie and I wrote all the science textbooks?” Unquestionably!
I wouldn’t expect high schools to start purchasing surplus military grade machineguns to test the movie of myth of diving underwater to protect yourself from a hail of bullets (which is true, surprisingly enough!) but science at every level needs to be more hands on. That’s how humans learn. I’ve seen children so young that their parents still give the child’s age in months that were further along on “Angry Birds” than I’ve ever gotten. They’re learning by doing, experimenting with velocity, lunch angles and other factors they didn’t know the words for yet, but they could do it. While their minds are still receptive to tactile input, our school systems dumb it all down to rote memorization. History teaches us nothing, because all they ever teach is dates, people and places, but not the why or the effects of a given event. Math suffers the same fate—all theory, little practical application. It wasn’t until college where I started practicing the art of eavesdropping and people watching, taking in vocal tics, hand gestures, noticeable gaits and other mannerisms to give my fiction writing more punch, making the characters seem more real rather than writing-by-numbers as I was taught in a Houghton-Mifflin workbook. If the Mythbusters could spark the joy of doing science in young children that they so clearly share themselves, albeit in distinctly different ways, that would be one step in the right direction.
Jaime was clearly more comfort giving short answers and actively demonstrating concepts while Adam would cheerfully babble away for minutes at a time. It’s their differences that make Mythbusters a television institution. Someday it might be someone from the Fox audience that takes up the show’s banner when (or if) Jamie and Adam decide to retire. I don’t think either of them would mind turning the show over to someone they’ve inspired in the least.
For more about the tour, check out the official website: www.mythbusterstour.com
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