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TV for people who use their minds: Why losing 'MythBusters' won't be easy

Commentary: The popular series will say goodbye in 2016. CNET's Bonnie Burton, a longtime fan and science nerd, explains why she's "already feeling empty inside" -- and why TV will never be the same.

Host Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman return in January for the very last season of "MythBusters."
Discovery Channel

Discovery Channel announced this week that "MythBusters" will go off the air in 2016, and I'm already feeling empty inside. After watching the show test 2,950 experiments, bust 1,050 myths and create 900 entertaining explosions, I was beginning to believe there was nothing a scientific examination couldn't make more interesting.

Using themselves as test subjects, hosts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, along with the former build team (Grant Imahara, Tory Belleci and Kari Byron) have jumped from buildings, buried each other alive and even imbibed large quantities of Pop Rocks and cola to see if their stomachs would explode. That's dedication to science.

"MythBusters" mixes lab methodology and humor to make chemistry, physics, math, biology, astronomy and every other scientific study interesting enough to keep us thrill-seeking couch adventurers from grabbing the remote and changing the channel. And that's not easy to do.

The Force was strong with "MythBusters" as they tested "Star Wars" movie moments with a science slant.

Video screenshot by Bonnie Burton/CNET

Before "MythBusters," Savage -- and two build team members, Imahara and Belleci -- worked at Industrial Light & Magic on films including the "Star Wars" prequels, "A.I.," "Terminator 3," "Starship Troopers," "Galaxy Quest" and "Van Helsing," just to name a few.

I was working at Lucasfilm (which owned ILM) at the same time, and I remember running into them in the hallways, secretly wishing I had enough artistic talent to defect to their impressive workshops.

In fact, I first met Imahara when I was shadowing him for an article I was writing for on the ILM crew as they built a 12-foot-tall fire-breathing R2-D2 for the TV program "Junkyard Mega-Wars: At the Movies." I saw firsthand how Imahara and Team ILM made the kind of weaponized astromech that could probably take down the Death Star without any aid from those Rebel scum.

Three years after "MythBusters" debuted in 2003, I interviewed Savage and Hyneman -- along with the build team -- about their love for a galaxy far, far away and everything in it.

When I asked them why testing sci-fi movie special effects was important to them, Hyneman replied, "The word 'science' in science fiction is the key here. Sci-fi enthusiasts like to think about the future and its implications to present society and culture."

"The show and science fiction is intended to be thought-provoking," Hyneman added. "Much on television and in the popular media is mindless. But some people, like our viewers, actually enjoy using their minds."

Hyneman couldn't be more right. We didn't just love watching "MythBusters" because of the impressive explosions or because we wanted to see if the team would survive crashing cars or lighting themselves on fire for our entertainment. In a world of endless drama-filled dating shows and fluffy sitcoms, we actually learned useful things from every "MythBusters" episode.

I learned, for example, that boarding an airplane back to front is the slowest method. I found out that overusing bug bombs can explode a house. I also discovered that you can't make a usable candle out of earwax and a refrigerator door can't stop 9mm bullets. And it really isn't easy to take candy from a baby.

When busting plane urban legends with science, it's a good idea to stow away "MythBusters" host Savage as a carry on.

Video screenshot by Bonnie Burton/CNET

Sure, it was exciting to watch the "MythBusters" team -- which also included a crash test dummy nicknamed Buster -- hurling themselves into dangerous experiments and exhaustive builds with abandon. But this was more than just adventurous reality TV, this was teaching the next generation that science could be cool.

In fact, this generation of Internet-raised fans has also made sure to suggest new myths and legends for the team to test on the show -- through message boards, online fan sites, social media and sometimes in person.

"It's great to be able to tell fans how important they were because they're they reason we're on the air, and they've given us 40 percent of the stories we've told," Savage told Entertainment Weekly this week. "The Internet and social media radically changed the way we made this show as we made it. We're now getting second-generation compliments from Ph.D. graduates who say they got into science because of 'Mythbusters' and now they're raising their kids on 'Mythbusters.'"

That's a testament to how much "MythBusters" has positively affected those of us who asked for microscopes and chemistry sets instead of skateboards and dollhouses when we were kids.

As a child, I would rather build a working volcano model than play with Barbie dolls any day. I would happily spend a whole Saturday at a natural-history museum learning about the eating habits of a tiger than waste hours shopping for clothes at the mall. I even accidentally smashed my foot with my dad's sledgehammer as I used it to break open large rocks on the gravel road in front of my house, just so I could see the sparkling geodes lurking inside.

When hanging out with "MythBusters" host Adam Savage, I'm always ready for the usual hijinks.

Photo by Bonnie Burton/CNET

I didn't have "MythBusters" growing up. All us kids of the '70s and '80s had to watch for our science fix was "Mr. Wizard's World" hosted by Don Herbert on Nickelodeon. That guy wasn't exactly energetic, to say the least. Kids helped him with his experiments, but you could tell he just tolerated their annoying questions and clumsy treatment of his delicate beakers and test tubes.

We also had the PBS science program "3-2-1 Contact," hosted by teens who probably shouldn't be allowed anything that could explode. The series also featured a regular segment about a group of young detectives called "The Bloodhound Gang" -- who used science to solve crimes. Think of it as an underage "C.S.I." series.

But all these pro-science shows were for kids only, and a far cry from the infectious hilarity and passion featured in "MythBusters." What makes "MythBusters" so great is its programming style that's fun for both kids and adults to watch.

The "MythBusters" team members start with a myth, take sides on whether they think it will hold up to scrutiny, be busted or in some cases lead to inconclusive results that could mean the myth is actually plausible. Then they build a device to test out their theories.

With this model, "MythBusters" breathed new life into both the oversaturated realm of reality shows and the underwhelming genre of educational TV. We'd find ourselves arguing with other fans about episodes, or using the series as a basis for our own scientific studies. I often found myself using my knowledge of "MythBusters" episodes as a way to break the ice with strangers at parties.

Special science high five to the MythBusters Build Team: Grant Imahara, Kari Byron and Tory Belleci.

Discovery Channel

I am so attached to "MythBusters" that when Savage and Hyneman announced last year that the show was getting rid of the build team -- Imahara, Byron and Belleci -- I took it personally. After all, by this time they were all dear friends. Who the heck were they going to get to do all the messy, weird experiments that Savage and Hyneman couldn't be bothered with?

I barely got used to not seeing Imahara, Byron and Belleci's smiling faces this new season, and now I have to prepare myself for the fact that after next year "MythBusters" will only exist on my TV in the form of syndicated reruns. No more new myths to be tested, confirmed or shattered.

I'll be in denial for a while, but at least I have one more season of "MythBusters" to enjoy starting in January 2016. Savage and Hyneman promise it'll be spectacular, so at least I can look forward to a few more awe-inducing explosions, more maniacal laughter from Savage and perhaps even a slightly-askew beret hat on the always stoic Hyneman's head.

All I know is that TV will never be the same without my favorite science crusaders. I may have to buy a chemistry set in their honor, but I can't guarantee I won't blow up my house without Savage and Hyneman's know-how to guide my experiments.