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Adam Savage: Don't let science scare you

From CNET Magazine: The "MythBusters" co-host spent 14 seasons conducting some pretty crazy experiments and debunking myths. His proudest achievement, though, is influencing a generation of kids -- even if that was by accident.

Santiago Arribas Peña

"MythBusters" co-hosts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman did all sorts of wild, crazy, dangerous stunts with the help of their hardworking crash test dummy, Buster.

Over 14 seasons and 248 episodes, they conducted 2,950 experiments, set off 900 explosions and used 83 miles of duct tape to either prove or debunk 1,000 myths. Savage, who also had stints as a projectionist, animator, graphic designer, carpenter and toy designer, racked up 40 stitches on the job for the Discovery Channel's popular program, which ended in March.

Savage appeared on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" a few days before the series finale. Audiences watched the show's host shoot Savage with a penny from a pneumatic gun to re-create one of earliest debunkings about a coin dropped from the top of the Empire State Building.

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"I love the idea that we've shown that science is messy and can lead to changing your mind," says Adam Savage.

James Martin/CNET

"It hurt," says Savage, "just enough to be funny."

Savage spoke with Connie Guglielmo, editor in chief of CNET News, about science, a myth he didn't get to bust -- and the fate of Buster.

On the notion that science is just facts
Culturally, we put science in this category of things smart people do. That does us a disservice. When I was a high school student I would have never considered the sciences as a career because I thought, "That's for people smarter than me." The problem is when we teach to tests, we end up giving kids the impression that science is the study of facts. The facts are nothing without context.

Science is a deeply creative field. If you keep asking "why," eventually you get to the answer, "we don't know." Any discipline you choose, the answer at the end of every line of questioning is, "we don't know." And in that space lies a [place] where we can all contribute. That's beautiful.

Now Playing: Watch this: The one myth Adam Savage didn't get to bust on 'Mythbusters'
2:23


On inspiring kids
It's totally amazing to me that people tell me they got into engineering because of "MythBusters." We never thought of making a show that was educational, that was instructional about science. Our goal was to satisfy our curiosity and, for me personally, to tell a good, rip-roaring story about it. The idea that it changed the trajectory of [what people] were fascinated by, is more than I could've ever hoped.

I love the idea that we've shown that science is messy and can lead to changing your mind.

On critical thinking
In the early days of "MythBusters," a fan sent me a letter saying "Somebody told me the air encompassing the Eiffel Tower weighs more than the Eiffel Tower itself." I thought, "That's interesting. I could probably figure this out." So I figured out the density of air and I figured out the weight of the Eiffel Tower, both of which are knowable. And then I drew a box around the Eiffel Tower's perimeter and I calculated its volume, and it didn't weigh more than the Eiffel Tower.

But then I thought, "What if I drew a cylinder based on the diagonal diameter of the Eiffel Tower's base rather than a square?" And there, even calculating for the thinness of the air at the top of the Eiffel Tower, the air does weigh more than the tower. I'm not a trained scientist. That's critical thinking, and that's sorely needed in this country.

On his affinity with bomb squads
Some of the most simpatico crews I have worked with over the last 14 years have been the bomb squads. The personality of a bomb tech reads like a description of me. A commanding officer showed me a chart of what to look for [in recruits]. It read like a list of my personal qualities: irreverence, dark sense of humor, willing to work with other people, thinks outside the box, good team player, innovative problem solver.

Now Playing: Watch this: What Adam Savage is doing now that 'Mythbusters' is over
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On the myth they never aired
Apparently, if you want to hunt ducks, a great method is to float pumpkins in a duck pond so the ducks become acclimatized to pumpkins floating around. Then you put a pumpkin on your head, presumably with a couple of eyeholes in it, and you swim up to the ducks. They don't even notice because it's just another pumpkin. According to a friend who is a hunter, you can literally grab the duck by its feet and pull it under.

Now, to be clear, we weren't gonna do that on television. We're not gonna drown [ducks] or abuse them. But I was gonna go up in a pumpkin and catch a duck.

On Buster's last stand
There's an international church of Buster because he's been resurrected so many times... We put him on a rocket sled, accelerated him to the speed of sound and ran him into a brick wall. And you can see fire at the outline. There's so much friction between him and the concrete wall that things catch fire, which is astounding. We found about 20 pounds worth of Buster chunks. We never found his rib cage, his head, his pelvis. We never found the largest portions of him. We think he is pretty much vaporized. And that's right and proper. Buster deserved to go out that way.

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See more stories from CNET Magazine.

Mark Mann

On keeping busy now that he's unemployed
I've been putting a lot more time and energy into my website, Tested.com. I do a lot of one-day builds out of my shop. I never want for projects. I have at any given time 15 or 20 things I have constructed. I keep notebooks on all the things I'm interested in building. So, there's no shortage of stuff to do. The real question is doing that in conjunction with setting in motion the balls for the future -- pitching other shows, writing, performing.

To see more videos of our interviews with Adam Savage, click here.

Connie Guglielmo (@techledes), editor in chief of CNET News, is a veteran tech journalist who has worked for MacWeek, Wired, Bloomberg News and Forbes. She prizes her first-generation iPod and counts Zork, Dark Castle and Tetris among her favorite computer games.

This story appears in the summer 2016 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.