Mythbusters: Teaching Through Wonder—and Failure

Adam Savage, co-host of the hit Discovery Channel show, talks about why a catastrophic experiment often comes with the most valuable lessons.


When I set out to write about unconventional educators, the first person on my wish list was Adam Savage. Savage and his partner Jamie Hyneman make up the Discovery Channel team known as the Mythbusters. In more than 205 episodes, Savage and Hyneman have subjected nearly 1,000 cultural legends, historical myths, and internet rumors to the crucible of the scientific method. And my 11-year-old son Finn has watched each and every one.

Every episode of Mythbusters begins with a question: Can eating pop rocks and soda cause your stomach to explode? Is running better than walking for keeping dry in the rain? Can you bounce a laser off the moon? Can an unamplified human voice shatter a wine glass?

As Savage and Hyneman explore these questions, they dive deep into the background knowledge required to understand the problem at hand. Consequently, they have taught my sons physics, geometry, chemistry, astronomy, biology, and history. While I appreciate the academic knowledge they have imparted, the most valuable lessons Savage and Hyneman have given Finn are on the nature of wonder. Savage and Hyneman kindle his sense of wonder about the cool stuff that exists out in the world and give him the impetus to wonder how it works.

The Mythbusters are based in San Francisco, but they recently toured Australia, Canada, and the U.S. for a Behind the Myths Tour, a live show dedicated to their passion for scientific inquiry, play, and bone-rattling explosions. I sat down with the 47-year-old Savage in his tour bus before a show in Worcester, Massachusetts. Despite a grueling tour schedule, Savage greeted me (and a glowing, beaming Finn) with a warm welcome. He's the affable, verbose, and hyperactive half of the Mythbusters team—but what does not translate on-screen is his quiet thoughtfulness. Savage listened carefully and paused for long stretches of time to run his fingers through his ginger hair as he answered my questions about the ingredients in the Mythbusters’ special sauce: experimentation as narrative, failure as opportunity, and learning as play.

I asked Savage to explain how he and Hyneman have succeeded at entertaining and educating their fans since the show launched more than a decade ago.

Look, we never set out to make something that was educational. That was not on the list of things we were thinking about. But I do know that kids don’t like being talked down to; they’re just opening a door and watching something happen, and there’s nothing more thrilling than that. If we teach them something, that’s great, but I’m with Rilke; I think it’s best to remain ignorant of your best qualities.

He went on to explain to me that everything that happens on Mythbusters—the direction of the filming, the narrative arc of the episode, the priorities of the cast and crew—are all subject to the unpredictability of the experiments at the heart of the show. Fidelity to that goal, he said, is what differentiates Mythbusters from other shows that have tried—and failed—to package education as entertainment.

Usually, we know what the last experiment in the story is going to be, and then we build towards it. Sometimes, building towards it doesn’t go as intended, so we change direction. The experiment takes precedence over the filming. I’m equally interested in the rigor of the experiment and the overarching story it fits into, and balancing these two things is both the most tiring and most fun part of doing the show.

The Mythbusters have a wide array of cool gadgets at their disposal at M5, their television studio and workshop. Savage and Hyneman have, according to the show’s introduction, “30 years of special-effects experience,” and they need every bit of that experience to build the robots, remote-control cars, human-analog dummies, electrical circuits, physical sets, and other equipment they need to investigate myths. Part of the show’s appeal for Finn is watching the Mythbusters use those resources to create something they need out of spare parts: a welding torch, some screws, and a two-by-four.

Savage grew up making things. His parents encouraged his enthusiasm with their time, teaching, and resources—and he attributes much of his success to their early support and education. I asked Savage if he worries that fewer kids have the time and opportunity that he did to mess around with tools and learn how to make things with their hands.

I’m not sure that there are fewer role models in building, actually, and I think the tide is turning in vocational education. Sure, we have devalued and blue-collared away making stuff and using your hands for a living, but now you have Dean Kamen’s FIRST, and’s STEAM. Now you have, in most major cities in the U.S., Hacker Labs and Maker Spaces. Last year there were over sixty Maker Faires around the world. I think of the Maker movement as a gateway drug. I mean, look: when an 11-year-old girl has a YouTube video showing how to program Arduino, I think the world is looking pretty sparkly.

Talk of making led, as it so often does, to the subject of projects that have failed, and we spoke for a long time on the subject of failure. It’s one of Savage’s favorite topics and the subject of a Mythbusters catchphrase I spotted on more than a few audience members’ T-shirts.

'Failure is always an option' came up as a joke in season two, when we were screwing something up over and over again, but it’s an awesome way to think about the scientific method. We tend to think about science as a series of facts and absolutes that we need to study in order to understand stuff; a scientist saying, “I want to prove this thing,” and then coming up with an experiment to prove it. Nothing could be further from the truth on both counts. The scientist simply says, “I wonder if?” and then builds a methodology to test whether his theory is correct, or even to figure out what his theory might be. So to think that an experiment could “fail” is ludicrous. Every experiment tells you something, even if it’s just don’t do that experiment the same way again.

And catastrophic failure? Failure that results in explosions and smithereens and the painstaking process of collecting the shrapnel in order to understand a scientific principle? That’s Savage’s favorite kind.

During the show, Savage ran a compilation video of the Mythbusters’ favorite explosions and catastrophic failures from the series. The montage of exploding water heaters, cement trucks, and cannons made out of trees, complete with custom-made Dolby sound, thrummed in my chest and made my son Finn wiggle with glee. At the conclusion of the video, Savage sighed happily and quipped, “That is the sound of falling in love.”

Savage before he became obsessed with juggling (Adam Savage)

Savage took to the stage with juggling balls, explaining that his childhood interest in the hobby became an all-consuming obsession.

I used to practice juggling for hours in my upstairs bedroom, and the sound of me dropping the balls over and over again—thump-thump-thump, thump-thump-thump—as they hit the ground was the sound of my teenage years. I spent entire afternoons practicing tricks that just would not work. But as I slept, and my brain fermented on them overnight, the next morning they would suddenly work. I thought I was just learning how to juggle, but I wasn’t. I was learning how to learn.

That thump-thump-thump? That wasn’t the sound of failure. That was the sound of learning.

Learning any skill is best accomplished through enthusiasm, Savage asserts, and play is the first and most pure expression of one’s enthusiasm. “Play is simply a process of running experiments,” he told the audience at the conclusion of the show. “We do things because they are fun. And remember …” He paused, allowing the audience to complete his sentence: the classic Mythbusters catchphrase.

“The difference between screwing around and science is writing it down!” audience members shouted, chanting along with Savage.

Savage and Hyneman took their bows to raucous whoops and cheers, and I’ve never seen Finn clap so hard—for so long. Savage had opened the show with the observation, “It’s a great time to be in love with superheroes.” And, watching my exhausted and over-stimulated son give Savage and Hyneman a standing ovation, I couldn’t agree more.