IRA FLATOW, HOST:
Up next, blowing things up for science.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "MYTHBUSTERS")
UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: It's that familiar "MythBusters" waiting game.
JAMIE HYNEMAN: That sewer is getting pretty full of methane.
UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Small scale proved that the perfect stoichiometric ratio sent manholes flying. However, will the full scale equivalent, 100 cubic feet of methane, prove just as effective?
ADAM SAVAGE: Shall we do it?
HYNEMAN: I think it's time.
SAVAGE: All right. Call it.
HYNEMAN: All right. Real-world sewer explosion best-case scenario, sparking in three, two, one.
SAVAGE: Wow. Look at that.
HYNEMAN: That had to be 100 feet.
SAVAGE: That was insane. (Laughing)
FLATOW: There they are. They are the "MythBusters." If you watch the Discovery Channel, you know those two voices, the two guys who investigate, well, almost any myth you can think of. They get lots of ingenuity, duct tape, and the ever-present, occasional explosion. They and their team have looked at everything, from whether astronauts really landed on the moon, to whether you can actually knock someone's socks off. In that episode that we just heard, that you heard a bit of, they were trying to prove whether or not methane gas can blow the cover of a manhole. And as you heard, the answer is yes.
As I say, you may have guessed from that big boom, the explosion that had. The "MythBusters" are here with us for the rest of the hour. You can talk about their show and how they bring science to TV in unlikely ways. Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage are co-hosts of Discovery Channel's "MythBusters" show. They're joining us from KQED in San Francisco. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
SAVAGE: Thanks, Ira. Hi.
FLATOW: Good to have you with us today.
SAVAGE: How are you doing?
HYNEMAN: We're delighted to be here.
FLATOW: How many myths have you - think you've busted by now?
SAVAGE: I think we're breathing down the neck of a thousand. We've done almost 200 hours of "MythBusters" over the last decade.
FLATOW: Wow. Are either one of you trained in - as scientists?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SAVAGE: Jamie's got a degree in Russian studies, and I have a high school diploma, so no.
FLATOW: Jamie, your wife is...
SAVAGE: We're totally unqualified.
FLATOW: Your wife is a science teacher though, right?
HYNEMAN: She is, yeah. She has a real degree in science and so, you know, she's very critical of what we do, needless to say.
FLATOW: She watches it very closely. We're talking, this hour, about informal science education. And do you guys view yourselves as informal science teachers?
SAVAGE: We never set out to be, but it seems to be that this is a role we are fulfilling. I actually just got a lovely card from a little girl who happened to come by our shop a few months ago. And I happened to be on my way out to lunch, and I took a picture with her and her family. And she said that "MythBusters" is legendary among her home-schooled friends. She's home-schooled and says that it provides the foundation for all of the science they learn in home-schooling. And it's a little shocking, because honestly, we never set out to do that. But it's, you know, it's a very - it's a role we take seriously.
FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman of the "MythBusters." And, you know, one of the interesting things that I show that you don't really see, but it soaks in, is that to do science, you have to collect data, right? You have to be able to not just, say, something is going to happen, but you have create an experiment and then collect the data on it.
SAVAGE: Absolutely. This actually came to a head very early on. When were just sort of finding the shape of the show, we were doing, will a penny dropped from the Empire State Building kill you when it hits the ground. And we had some complex math that had been done by a NASA scientist as a hobby, where he figured the terminal velocity of a penny both on its edge and on its face. And we've included a little sequence, where Jamie and I talked through the math. But we were flying back from a location and I realized that I didn't think that was enough. Then I thought I could actually build a wind tunnel with two different speeds.
And I was able to go back to the shop and make this. And actually, once I put the penny in this wind tunnel with both a high terminal velocity and low terminal velocity, the penny tumbled up and down inside the tube. And for me, that was the first point at which I started to really engage with - it's always about showing, not telling. We want to show what's going on. We want the audience to have the same intuitive grasp of the conclusion as we hopefully end up with.
HYNEMAN: Well, and also, without collecting the data, basically, what we do on the show would be not unlike what, say, a teenage boy would do if you handed him some firecrackers and matches. I mean, you know, he'd run around and blow a bunch of different things up. But he probably wouldn't write down the results, and he wouldn't do it methodically, or at least as methodically as we do. And oddly enough, that's part of the appeal of the show because it shows that this kind of stuff is actually fun. I mean, generally, science class isn't looked at as something where one runs around and blowing things up. But, you know, it - a lot of the different things that we approach, we're approaching the same way. We try things out. We get playful with them. We experiment, sometimes, you know, with a great deal of mischief in mind, but we're always actually fairly methodical about it.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And one of the attractions about learning and teaching, is that sometimes, you may think you know the answer, but until you'd go out and do the experiment, you really don't and maybe just the opposite of what you think.
SAVAGE: Absolutely. That happens - people, that's one of the most common questions we get, how often are you guys surprised by the results? And the answer is, every freaking day. We just finished a few weeks ago filming a whole episode about the "Lethal Weapon 2" toilet explosion, where Danny Glover's stuck on a toilet with a bomb underneath it, and he and Mel leap into a bathtub, covered themselves with a bomb blanket.
And we, like we do on the show, set out to replicate each portion of the myth and break it down, and then put it all together at the end. And the results absolutely gobsmacked us. We were unprepared for where they went. It was an amazing episode. And that's one of the best parts about it, is having an intuition, chasing it down, and realizing that you're wrong.
FLATOW: Yeah. So it's quite interesting. Our number: 1-800-989-8255. We're with Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage, co-hosts of the Discovery Channel's "MythBusters" show. And you got a question, you have a myth you want them to tackle, if it isn't on - they've already - haven't already tackled it in a thousand myths, give us a suggestion. Our number: 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet at - tweet us @scifri, S-C-I-F-R-I. I have my own favorite myth that maybe will get busted. So we'll talk about it when we get back. Stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, talking with the "MythBusters": Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman. Jamie is the one with the moustache. Yeah. People wonder how to keep them apart on the radio. He's on the left side. I'm right side. Our number - 1-800-989-8255 is our number. You guys are going on tour, I understand.
SAVAGE: We are.
HYNEMAN: Yeah. We'll be all over the United States. And we've got a - you know, it's funny because when we go out in public, we're often asked to blow things up and so on, but we can't really do that because, well, you know, shrapnel and things like that. And so we've done our best to recreate some of the kinds of things that we do on the show - without shrapnel.
SAVAGE: We also get asked a lot to, you know, go do some appearance and bust a myth, and we point out that that would be a demonstration, and, truly, what we do on the show is an experimentation. So we've also tried to weave that in, and we plan to actually do some experiments on the audience itself. There's a ton of audience participation built into this show. We've been writing it for the last few weeks, and we are super, super excited about it. I should point out that tickets can be bought at mythbusterstour.com, and they went on sale today.
FLATOW: Yeah. 11/11/11. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's take a few more calls here. Hi. Bonnie in Fairfax, Virginia. Hi, Bonnie.
BONNIE: Hi there.
FLATOW: Hi there. Go ahead.
BONNIE: So, I just have to say thanks to the "MythBusters" there because they give me so many lessons for my science classes. I've taught high school earth science, and these last two years I've been teaching middle school, seventh and eighth grade science classes. And, guys, you guys just give me so much material for class.
It's uncanny, because I can be teaching about Newton's laws or whatever, and I can pull up a clip of your show and demonstrate, just looking at the show, you know, some of the applications of Newton's laws. And then the kids and I can talk about, you know, what are some other ways that we could have tested that myth? Or how are the laws being applied in that particular episode? Or - who knows; I can't remember all of the different times I've used it.
FLATOW: Oh, good for you. Thank you. Thank you.
BONNIE: So - thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
SAVAGE: You're welcome.
BONNIE: It's a fabulous, fabulous show. And my family watches it, including my six-year-old.
FLATOW: There you go. Thank you, Bonnie. And that's really - you love to hear those calls, don't you, when people...
SAVAGE: Totally. But keep the six-year-old away from matches.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
FLATOW: And exploding things.
FLATOW: I wonder how these teachers can do this stuff without exploding the stuff up in their classrooms, doing...
SAVAGE: Yeah, we get - we - Jamie and I have spoken a few times at both the California and National Science Teachers Association. And while there are definitely people who know deeply how much we screw things up, their - the level of appreciation and affection we get from science teachers is humbling. And they actually even say that, specifically, when we mess things up, it gives them even more fodder for Thursday mornings in class.
HYNEMAN: Yeah, if only to point out what we did wrong, which we're perfectly OK with. You know, it's - we revisit a lot of the experiments we do, and we actually - it's very, I think, very powerful to point out that we like it when we do things wrong because that means that we make note of it and we learn about it. If you don't fail at something, if you don't screw something up, you're just going through the motions.
And so, in our case, whenever we screw things up - you know, this is something that's important to get across to students, as well. It's not - science isn't about going in and just, you know, following the numbers. You're - you know, if you screw things up, that's good. Pay attention to it, and maybe you won't do that next time.
FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah. We have scientists all the time saying that the road to success is littered with failures, all of them, eliminating what doesn't work. 1-800-989-8255. I used to do a show called "Newton's Apple" on PBS, 25...
SAVAGE: I remember that show.
FLATOW: ...25 years ago, where we used to do demonstrations all the time. Thank you for remembering that. And I remember there was a huge staff behind me that no one ever saw. And I can imagine there must be a bunch of staff people behind you, helping you out, thinking how to make the experiments and putting them together.
SAVAGE: We - well, the figuring out of the experiments is Jamie and I. We have a fantastic crew here in San Francisco. It's about 25 people strong. In the 10 years I've been doing this show, many of our crew have been with us for the better part of a decade, so, at this point, it's like a big family.
HYNEMAN: Yeah. We've got a couple of engineers on staff that - primarily, the brain power that comes out in the show is through our producers and us interacting along with the - what we call our researchers, or APs, that do all the digging when we find something that we need. If there's something we don't know and we need to find out more about it or we need materials or additional setups on a location, then the APs swing into action, and they kind of push it all through. But...
SAVAGE: They get us the permits that you're not supposed to be able to get.
FLATOW: Right. I get that. One of the tweets - a few people are tweeting in and asking: How many cameras do you break or blow up during any one of your episodes?
SAVAGE: In our camera room, we actually have a cabinet for all of the burnt, broken, waterlogged, blown-up cameras. We did have one camera which lasted for several years. It was like the undead cam, and we called it crunchy cam. While we were filming "Can you ignite gasoline from - that a car is spilling," we set fire to a camera, and this camera actually filmed itself on fire. And so we got it replaced, but it still worked. So it became our sacrificial lamb. And whenever there was, like, a ground zero, we'd put that camera there, and it kept on surviving, kept on surviving. For about three years, it was the camera that wouldn't die.
FLATOW: I have one of my myths - and I'll talk a little bit about it later - that you guys have busted, was about using cell phones on airplanes and affecting the navigation system, was it, and you debunked that myth. Tell us about that a little bit.
SAVAGE: Well, yeah. Kari, Grant and Tory tackled that, and it was very - that was actually one of the most difficult ones the researchers and APs ever had to permit. The FAA has a guideline that bans all use of cell phones on aircraft in the United States. And it's not legally binding, but the airlines don't go against it. And we couldn't get a special dispensation to do it. We had to do it as a ground test. So Kari, Grant and Tory found no correlation between the use of electronics and interruption with the avionics of the plane.
That's not to say that it's not possible. There's been studies that have shown some links, studies that have shown no links. There's no smoking gun. But honestly, the more I think about it, the less I care, because I just don't want the guy next to me on the plane talking on his phone.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
FLATOW: But you at least like to know if there are any real data showing any links, you know. And if it were really dangerous - I'll talk about this later. It's just that...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
FLATOW: I would just like to see the studies. You know, will that go one way or the other?
HYNEMAN: Well, there is a...
SAVAGE: Well - so Boeing actually did a - I'm sorry. Go ahead, Jamie.
HYNEMAN: There is a side note that one could make about that, which I don't believe we've actually tested, and we probably will at some point: when bomb techs or blasting - people that are doing blasting are in the zone where they're actually about to set something off, it's a radio-silence area. They're - it is possible for radio waves to create a spark by accident somehow. And so they often use - in fact, the standard for them to actually set off high explosives for mining and so on is something called NONEL, which is - it's not an electrical wire like you would expect from the, you know, the box with the plunger in it that shows up in movies.
It's actually a plastic tube with a chemical in it that requires a small detonation to light that, that chemical off, which zips down this tube to the other end that - and sets off the blasting cap there. So this is a real issue as far as radio waves are concerned. Obviously, on - as far as cell phones, you know, the amount of power that they're putting out is so small that it really is questionable that it would cause anything like that. But...
FLATOW: And now we have...
SAVAGE: Well, Boeing did a...
FLATOW: Go ahead. I want to hear about that. No, go ahead, talk about the Boeing...
SAVAGE: Boeing did one of my favorite studies in conjunction with a magazine, where anytime a pilot felt like they'd seen an anomaly that they could trace to someone having turned on a device on a plane, they actually worked very diligently to buy as many of those - like, someone would turn on their phone and they might see something in the avionics, they'd rush right back there and offer them money for the phone. And then they would take it back to their labs and test it against their avionics. And throughout this extensive set of tests, they weren't able to find any correlation between the operation of the devices and the interruption with any of the functions of the avionics.
FLATOW: And now we have - you're allowed to use WiFi on the airplane.
SAVAGE: Right. Exactly. And my WiFi transmitter is a pretty powerful, powerful antenna.
FLATOW: Yeah. So we're going to actually do a - ask for a shout-out on the - at the end of the program, people to send us any information they may have. We'll be happy to pass it on to you and...
FLATOW: Yeah. I know. Maybe I can get to come on your show and present some sort of...
HYNEMAN: You're welcome anytime, Ira.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
FLATOW: Thank you. 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Tom in Connecticut. Hi, Tom.
TOM: Hey there.
FLATOW: Hi, there.
TOM: I am a fan. I'm 67, and I still love your show. And I was, as a teenager, blowing up stuff with firecrackers. But anyhow, there is urban myth in - on the Internet, and my wife says, look at that. You can't do that. Anyhow, it's the cell phone, when you're filling up the car. Does it ignite anything? Or is it just bogus?
HYNEMAN: We found that it's bogus, but it's one of those interesting things that points out the value of experimentation, because when we were - we staked out a gas station and watched what people were doing. I mean, of course, first we tried to just simply cause sparks and set fires with cell phones. We were unable to do so. But then we staked out this gas station and watched what people were doing...
SAVAGE: Which is a horrifying exercise if you ever do it, watching how cavalierly people deal with gasoline.
HYNEMAN: People with a cigarette in one hand and a cell phone in the other while they're filling gas. But what we saw happen was a lot of people were getting in and out of their cars. And they were - they might have been...
SAVAGE: While they were filling up.
HYNEMAN: Yeah. While they were filling up. And so we did some tests, and we found that it is possible - and a lot of people know that it's possible - to have a static spark generated by the upholstery in their car or by, you know, from the car itself. Sometimes you get out of the car and you get sparked. And so they might have thought that it was their cell phone that set off a fire, but it not necessarily was. It could have been that static spark. And that's - you only see that from experimenting and trying things out.
SAVAGE: And people don't realize that the, you know, the resistance of air is about 10,000 volts per centimeter. So if you static spark a half-inch spark off your fingertip, that's 5,000 volts. And we showed on the show that was plenty to ignite gasoline. And now, in California, there are stickers on the gas pumps that say, specifically, don't get in and out of your car while you're filling with gas, because you can build up a static spark, and that could cause an explosion.
FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. Talking with the "MythBusters," Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage. What people don't realize about gasoline is that the fumes hug the ground, don't they? They can just travel along the ground without having to see the liquid at all.
FLATOW: And you guys showed that in one of your "MythBuster" experiments, causing...
SAVAGE: Yeah, I think - yeah, it's very scary stuff. I've had it burning on my skin. We did one myth where we were throwing Molotov cocktails. And, yeah, the invisible gases are the thing I have gained the most respect and fear of in the course of doing this show.
HYNEMAN: The other thing about gas fumes that we've tested and we've learned a lot about is that in the tank of gas in the car itself, it's only a very rare situation where it's - where there's - the fumes would be flammable. Outside the car is a different story, where there's plenty of air. But inside the tank, if there's any gasoline in there at all, it's going to be too rich, and it won't support flames. So all of those movies where somebody, you know, shoots at the car and, you know...
SAVAGE: The car blows up.
HYNEMAN: Yeah, the car blows up because the gas tank got hit is just not...
HYNEMAN: Yeah. It's not possible. Only if the car was just, like, bone dry, practically.
SAVAGE: And you were shooting it with an incendiary tracer round.
FLATOW: Are there anything - short of a nuclear explosion. Are there any experiments - maybe I shouldn't even take that out of the equation - that are too...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SAVAGE: We've been asked to do the "Indiana Jones" refrigerator survival of the nuclear explosion many, many times.
FLATOW: Is that right?
FLATOW: And short of that, is there anything you can't do, that you would not try?
SAVAGE: There's been one that's on the - well, there's two. One that's been on the list forever is to do the "Titanic." Will a sinking ship suck you down when you - if you're standing on it? And we've several times tried to get cameras on the decks of ships that they've sunk for artificial reefs around the world, but we've never been able to coordinate it.
But we do have this one on the books about a tanker of liquid oxygen spilling on a roadway and turning the whole roadway into a bomb. And we did enough research into liquid oxygen to discover that it's, like, the scariest stuff on Earth. And it is super-volatile, super-unpredictable and really spooky.
HYNEMAN: Yeah. What would be happening in that case was that the asphalt in the, you know, in the pavement would be saturated with liquid oxygen, and it can become explosive. But - and we could test that on a small scale or whatever, but when it comes to doing it full-sized, we realized that there are things that you have to worry about, like what if there was a - you know, this is tons of liquid oxygen from one of these tanker trucks. And it's going turn into, you know, oxygen gas very quickly once it leaves the tank. Well, does that mean if you're, you know, a half a mile away from a highway, are all the cars going to, all of a sudden, be like they're on nitrous oxide and go 100 miles an hour?
SAVAGE: I love this image of a cloud of oxygen arriving on a roadway and all the cars accelerating to double the speed.
FLATOW: We will wait to see you guys do that one.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
FLATOW: Thank you to Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage, co-hosts of the Discovery Channel's "MythBusters" show. Good luck to you, and thanks for your work.
SAVAGE: Thanks, Ira.
HYNEMAN: Thanks very much.
FLATOW: Good luck on your road show. That's - one of the myths we tackled today by "MythBusters" was about using cell phones on airplanes. I talked about, and they concluded that the cell phones - the idea that cell phones interfere with airplane navigation was a myth. But we'd like to actually - because it's SCIENCE FRIDAY, we want to take that one step further. We'd like to know what tests, experiments, data back up the need to turn off all the cell phones in your airplane. If cell phones are, indeed, a threat to the safe operation of an airplane, why don't they take them away from you, like they do a weapon? They don't tell you to put your gun on safety. They take it away from you.
Well, in addition, when airplanes fly at 10,000 feet or lower, not only are cell phones not allowed to operate, but all electronic devices are turned off - everything, as they say. So what is it? What's the problem? We've gotten so many different explanations. We're not questioning that there are valid reasons for these things. We'd like to see the evidence. What studies have been done to show that cell phones, electronic devices should not be used on airplanes?
Not anecdotal evidence we hear about; we want to see the real evidence, and if you have it, send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you know where the evidence is, if you have the evidence, if you work for a federal agency, anybody, you have evidence about why none of these things should be - cell phones, electronic devices should not be used. Are there real tests that show them? Are they - do they exist? Send us an email, email@example.com, and go to our Facebook and leave us a little note and a trail to find it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.