Interview: Get Your Hands Dirty!
MythBuster Hyneman Advocates Hands-On Learning and Blowing Up Stuff
By Benjamin P. Gleitzman
Before the Mythbusters presentation in Kresge Auditorium last Saturday, The Tech called Jamie Hyneman to discuss the popular television show and how he and Adam Savage first met.
The Tech: Is it frustrating when you can’t bust a myth?
Jamie Hyneman: I wouldn’t go so far as to say that we like it better when we can’t, but we’re actually interested to see what happens. We’re not interested in trying to make something turn out any particular way. It is what it is.
TT: How much planning goes into a regular episode?
JH: Production here is kind of like a derailed freight train. As far as planning, it gets made up on the fly. We have sort of fast and furious brainstorming sessions. Most of what happens on the show, you see.
TT: You and Adam Savage both have very distinctive looks. Are you often recognized on the street?
JH: Oh yeah. It really strikes us when we go into different countries … and people come up to you like you’re their oldest and best friend. It’s really quite disconcerting. After all, we’re just a couple of geeks that like to build stuff in shops. For us to become international celebrities is about the strangest thing you could possibly imagine.
TT: Has the beret always been a fixture?
JH: I actually sort of stuck with the same look for some decades because people remember who you are. As long as you’re not wearing a clown hat or something like that to make yourself stand out, it helps if people remember you.
TT: You get to play with a lot of neat toys and explosives on the show. What do you do to relax?
JH: Pretty much the same thing we do on the show. I’m kind of notorious for [being] at the shop late at night to the wee hours of the morning. The funny thing is, you’d think we’d burn out on this stuff. If anything we’re acquiring more of a passion for what we do. When we go into new situations now, we’re understanding things that we wouldn’t really have any reason to … understand normally. That’s the theory of a good education. That’s one reason why we’re excited to come to a premier school like MIT and talk about our experiences. The main interest here on the show is what we’re learning. We’re seriously interested with what we’re doing.
TT: You’ve come a long way since Robot Wars. How did you two first meet?
JH: Adam was an employee of mine. I kept having coworkers or other employees recommend him. He’s bright and he’s fast but he tends to leave a wake of destruction wherever he works, which is a bit of a problem, but he’s a good enough builder to make up for that. He worked with me on “Blendo,” a robot from Robot Wars.
We like to point out that we’re not even friends. We don’t hang out together. We don’t even really like each other, really, but we’ve made a point of keeping in touch over the years.
Somebody that had done a documentary on the sport of robotic combat interviewed me and remembered me when they wanted to do a show on urban legends. I thought … I could probably carry [the show] but I’m just too boring or laconic, and I figured I needed to get someone else involved so we could form a little contrast. I thought about who I knew that was pretty good at building but more of a ham.
TT: Do you find it odd that the show reaches such a wide base of people?
JH: I understand it on a certain level because it makes sense that watching something on a TV is attractive if it makes you think. It amazes me that the bulk of what’s on TV is mindless. Personally if I watch the tube I’m just starving for good content so I can learn while I’m watching. That being said, it’s just the general understanding in the American media that the stupider it is the more successful it’s going to be on network TV. So we’re definitely bucking the norm. We get feedback all the time from parents watching it with their kids. I have five-year-old fans and 90-year-old fans that contact us, and everybody in between. It’s really quite a phenomenon.
TT: What was your favorite myth to bust?
JH: For us, the biggest deal about this is just the incredible variety of what we’re being able to approach. For us it’s all the same thing. It’s problem solving. It’s thinking. There are high marks if you blow something up or put a rocket on something, but it’s like asking a parent which of their children they like best.
TT: Do you still receive many complaints from viewers?
JH: We receive complaints and criticism all the time, but if we have someone worked up well enough to have them contact us and bitch about something, I figure we’ve done our job. We’re not out there to educate the public at large about urban legends and what they need to watch out for. If we screw up it’s fair game.
TT: Do you have any advice for budding young MIT MythBusters?
JH: Usually when I get that question about advice for young people at large, I tell them to read anything and everything you can get your hands on. MIT students are already kind of there — they don’t need me to tell them that they need to be interested in a wide range of stuff and read a lot. I think many engineers … would tend to sit and their desks or in front of their computer to nut it out without getting their hands dirty. This sort of shoot from the hip approach to building [on the show] not only gets things done quickly, but having practical experience with hands-on work allows you to internalize the problem more effectively. The facts, the figures, the data, the formulas, if you don’t have practical experience it’s too much of a likelihood that those two will be disconnected. If you have your own blood speared over your tools, it tends to make things a little more accessible. There is a real value to hands-on. The facts and the figures and the formulas are crucial, and not to be denied, but you also need to get off your butt and build stuff.