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MythBusters Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman speak with WGN Radio's John Williams at Harris Theater on Sunday.

'Explosion porn' in Chicago? That’s how you know the MythBusters are in town

by Dani Friedland and Melissa Suran
March 04, 2009

If the phrase “I reject your reality and substitute my own” is familiar, then you’ve probably seen “MythBusters” on the Discovery Channel, where various myths and urban legends are put to the test using science.

MythBusters Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman came to Chicago’s Harris Theater Sunday to speak to a sold-out crowd of science enthusiasts young and old. The MythBusters’ first appearance in the Windy City was part of Science Chicago, a yearlong series of science-related events, according to its science director Rabiah Mayas.

Although neither Savage nor Hyneman had formal scientific training, they use the scientific method in each episode of their show. They form a hypothesis to test the myth in question. Then they conduct methodical experiments under various conditions before declaring the myth “confirmed,” “plausible” or “busted.”

“We end up miles from where we started and it’s thrilling,” Savage said. “If we had tried to teach people about science, we would have completely screwed it up.”

Savage and Hyneman discussed one of their favorite myths. Fans may be surprised to hear that the myth did not feature any explosions. The idiom “that’ll go over like a lead balloon”—an idea that sinks under its own weight—led them to try to actually build a balloon out of lead foil. It took them two years to find a foil thin enough to make flight plausible, they said, but they ultimately succeeded. One sheet of the foil is as thick as one-sixth of a human hair. The lead balloon they made hovered in the air, proving that lead balloons don't necessarily sink.

Savage described the lead balloon myth as “one of the clearest descriptions of how excited we get about the process of problem solving.”

Of course, problem solving gets more complex when plants or animals are involved. Although Hyneman noted the show has had worse luck with plants than with children or animals, Savage recalled an episode where they planned to remove the smell after a skunk spray. They filmed the episode shortly after skunk mating season, which apparently can be quite pungent. But there was a hitch.

“No amount of taunting or name-calling would convince these skunks to spray us,” Savage said.

Safety discussions took up much of the question and answer session. To the MythBusters, it’s easy to make mundane items such as household water heaters, cement trucks and denim overalls explode in spectacular fashion.

The high explosive shots are controlled, Hyneman said. Because a lot is known about explosives, there’s actually not much risk involved. Savage said he worries about invisible gases, particularly liquid oxygen, which is less familiar to firemen and can make other materials explosive.

“The more we play with it, the more I see that it’s a situation that could get out of hand so quickly,” Savage said.

Of course, playing with fire worries Savage’s mother – as does most everything else that he does on the show. One episode put several myths about escaping from a sinking car to the test. During the experiments, Savage sat in the front seat of a sinking car and tried to escape while Hyneman sat behind him (in full scuba gear) with a spare oxygen regulator at the ready.

After the episode aired, Savage’s mother asked him for advanced notice of potentially dangerous footage.

Hyneman described what they’re doing now as “many orders of magnitude safer” than earlier seasons. A company that previously worked on “Jackass” and “Fear Factor” programs assesses safety risks, Savage said. In addition to developing expertise on a variety of subjects, the MythBusters team has developed a system of identifying and logging risks. In fact, the most serious injuries have come from moving heavy safety equipment, Hyneman said. Most importantly, they’ve also learned to trust their intuition.

“If we feel like running, we’re gonna run,” Hyneman said.

Despite that, there have been some frightening moments. In one episode, the team packed a cannon carved from a tree with gunpowder. When detonated, the explosion sent chunks of wood weighing between 70 and 80 pounds flying over their heads. This event explains why there is no good shot of their next explosion: a Hawaiian Airlines airplane. A cameraman declined to stick his head out of the bunker to get the shot, Savage said.

One of the potential hazards of airing such experiments is a viewer attempting to recreate the results at home.

“It’s a good way of thinning the herd, I think,” joked Hyneman before acknowledging that he’s nervous about the possibility of fans getting hurt. The MythBusters make a point of stressing the hazards.

“If we need an (emergency medical technician), you’re gonna see a shot of the EMT on site,” Hyneman said. Each episode contains multiple disclaimers, in which Savage and Hyneman ask viewers not to try anything they see at home.

After the session, the MythBusters treated the crowd to a reel of “explosion porn,” their jargon for their favorite blasts, and some unaired high-speed footage of Savage igniting flatulence. Savage said the latter is an example of gratuitous entertainment leading to science. In this case, the MythBusters explored the chemical content of a flatus to determine what might make it flammable.

The event moderator, John Williams of WGN Radio, noted the high proportion of women in the audience. “MythBusters” falls solidly into Discovery’s male demographic, but this show in particular attracts more women, Savage said. A few women have worked on the show, but it’s hard to find female job applicants with the practical machining or welding experience the show’s construction demands, said Hyneman, who along with Savage, encouraged the girls in the audience to study science.

Savage and Hyneman also cleared up some burning MythBusters questions. Hyneman said he gets his berets, which are the same ones used by the military, directly from the manufacturer. Savage revealed the reason he mocks Hyneman’s signature mustache.

“For the same reason Edmund Hillary climbed Everest…because it’s there.”