My Favorites: MythBusters

I’ve always been fond of many facets of science but have never been great at fully comprehending any of them. I just passed the section on the ACT. Struggled in both high school and college biology. Slogged through astronomy class and the lab—if we hadn’t been allowed to have partners, I don’t know if I would’ve passed (thanks, Kevin!). Stoichiometry, Punnett Squares, the electromagnetic spectrum. I never bombed any of those classes but spent many an afternoon screaming over homework that took me several hours to complete.

I was a calm collegian who enjoyed the workload immensely, as you can tell.

(Actually I recall genetic coding being pretty fun, but I digress.)

Fortunately though, before all that madness, I had a math teacher who was also a science teacher who, when we had some extra time at the end of class, told one of my classmates to pick a MythBusters episode. He chose the one featuring the “Chicken Gun,” “Killer Washing Machine” and “Octopus Pregnancy” myths. We didn’t finish it before the bell rang, but heck if it wasn’t enough to reawaken a kernel of interest in experimentation, I reckon! This wasn’t The Magical School Bus or Bill Nye the Science Guy (both of which are awesome too, right, fellow Millennials?). No, this was something else—a different kind of adventure—and I couldn’t wait to explore it more. Been a fan ever since. Why?

1. The Cast. As far as I’m concerned the Discovery Channel couldn’t have asked for a more dedicated, creative and fun bunch of hosts as it got with Adam Savage, Jamie Hyneman, Kari Byron, Tory Belleci and Grant Imahara. The chemistry (ha) between them is so enthralling, I’ll sometimes watch chiefly for the interactions. Yes, I’m aware the Build Team is no longer with the program, but they were integral to the testing of secondary and tertiary myths for the better part of a decade and thus deserve an appreciative mention too. Through their time and effort, audiences received even more information. They may not have been the main hosts, but the trio clearly put in a comparable amount of work, explaining projects and processes with as much gusto and joy as their colleagues, so I was sad to see them go, particularly Kari (though I very much enjoyed Grant and Tory too).

After reading articles detailing Julie Rodriguez’s online petition, I better appreciate and agree with what she and other petitioners feel Kari represented in the scientific field. I also feel I wouldn’t have even been aware of our collective stand if my attention hadn’t been drawn in such a way to the loss of Kari as a co-lead, so whether one agrees with them or not, petitions can certainly make one think if nothing else.

Anyway, times change, as do network budgets, from what I understand, and it remains that I am grateful to have been privy to what Tory, Grant and Kari each gave, from fervor to their commitment to both tinkering and teaching.

But we still have Adam and Jamie, each of whom is sure to educate and charm viewers in his own entertaining way. I love the disparity between the two, how Adam’s zany brand of enthusiasm plays against Jamie’s blunt, composed nature, and how they’re so different but similar enough in their conceptualization, construction and communication skills to make an excellent pair of emcees.

A few years ago I was privileged enough to have attended one of the legs of their “Behind the Myths Tour.” I love people who love what they do and share that joy too. I enjoy seeing people get hyped up, having a laugh at each other and themselves, their frustration and subsequent triumph over stagnation or confusion and their moving on from screw-ups and learning from the experience. I admire those who appear to maintain their passion without a problem. Half the time I’m terrified of my vocation.

The “What-Ifs” get me down. What if I’m not good enough to be published? What if I’m not executing the ideas to their full potential? What if my research is inaccurate? What if I insult someone or if audiences hate the choices I made for the books? What if I never get published and get stuck doing something I hate for the next however many years? What if I can’t find a job and wind up a literal starving artist? Or perhaps even worse: What if I succeed? And what if I then make the wrong choices and screw up everything I’ve ever hoped to achieve? But I’m not nearly this anxious when engaged with the MythBusters. They do educational entertainment the way it’s supposed to be done—with constant ardor, consistent fun and literal grace under literal fire. Industry and artistry. Now that’s true reality television.

2. Easily Accessible Education/Storytelling Format. Settling in for MythBusters, with its mini-lessons in biology, aerodynamics, pyrotechnics, ballistics, energy and physics, became one of my go-to ways to relax during a period in college where three out of four of my courses were English classes (the other was biological anthropology, which quickly became my favorite that semester). It was an escape from “unpacking” (ugh, that term) language and philosophical literary theory. To see fables and conceits join with empirical data, talented builders and a fair amount of C4 was a nice change of pace for my brain, but the format offered enough familiarity so as not to upset my English-major sensibilities. On this show the subjects of cogitations take form. Myths are mandatory and what-Ifs are more than welcome and often outlandish, usually proverbial, slightly spooky and unfailingly thought-provoking. Once a tale’s been told we dive in with our hosts to see whether or not they can mold the myths into reality. Not only is it a cool concept, it can also be an interactive experience. One could think of it all as a good mystery.

Together with your modest leads you’re presented with a question to answer and clues that hint to some measure of feasibility. You theorize and make plans to test the elements of your supposition. You investigate, gathering more tidbits of information as you go: a blueprint here, a test result there. Interviews with experts provide exposition on the logistics of an experiment or about certain characters or locations. Finally you use everything you’ve learned up to this point to execute a final test to determine the accuracy of your best hypothesis. Then you interpret the data, deciding for yourself whether the question you started with has been resolved, allowing you to close and shelve the book, or if you’re going to have to bookmark it so you can take another crack at it later.

This is how a science show can make a person a better artist—by illustrating to us the art of both fostering and answering questions. Aside from learning things that help inform on what you already know, the genius surrounding the nature of questions also comes from the emotionality intrinsically attached to them: the satisfaction that comes with being able to answer some and the irritation or even wondrousness of the inability to answer others or certain aspects of others. For example the nebulous and challenging “Alcatraz Escape” myth strikes a chord with me every time, and that concluding line? I won’t ruin it, but ooh, spine-tingling!

Our work as artists needs to be that compelling or exhilarating or frustrating, needs to make audiences think and feel things they’ve never experienced, see things they never thought they’d see. We should broaden their horizons and our own by association! Influences like MythBusters can help with that too, can make us feel less afraid to research concepts we may have believed were beyond our appreciation or comprehension. For me it covers what I naturally see as intimidating material and gently guides me through it, and one way or another, I’m better for having taken the journey. Nope, still don’t know geometry or chemistry. Haven’t had a history class in nearly 10 years. Recurrently I’ll go through an episode I’ve seen five or six times and still not quite understand how the hosts reached the conclusions they did… but it’s okay. Here, they don’t throw stats at your face or pretend to know everything, and they never have. The education process is very honest with them, as it should be. They build rigs, run trials and use the results to expand on ideas and layers upon layers of questions and musings and stories inside of stories. The whole show’s like a frame story…kind of (whatever, I got my English degree).

MythBusters is, as I used to say about my good college classes, a safe place to learn, and it’s a blast (heh) to learn alongside this cast. They share knowledge in a way that’s somehow comforting to me and I bet a lot of others too, especially children, based on the majority of the audience members I saw on that “Behind the Myths Tour.” Aww, little kids learning. But it’s such an open, feel-good learning experience and that’s pretty extraordinary in itself. You feel good as a viewer—as a student of the world by virtue of being part of the world and by joining your brethren in a quest to sate some of that curiosity… or perhaps to generate even more! But that’s life, eh? While you live, you learn and you don’t stop learning. And for all our sakes, you shouldn’t even try.

If you’d like to share your appreciation for any of your favorite science/educational programs or influences, please go ahead and give them a mention below in the comments. Thanks!

-BP

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