Science Sunday with the Mythbusters

I’m a big nerd.

I dunno if you know this or not.

I love science fiction, astronomy, physics… I can’t get enough. I subscribe to Crash Course Astronomy on youtube. I am counting the days to the new Star Wars movie. So I guess it was inevitable that I would love a show like Mythbusters, which takes a scientific look at everyday turns of phrase and bits of movie magic to see if there’s any actual truth to them.

After filming their final season, the show’s hosts have been on a tour lately, doing speaking engagements and sharing some of their favorite moments about the show around the country.

Last night, they were in Atlanta.

And because my wife is awesome, she got me tickets to the show for my birthday back in July.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that the show is a little nichey; that while it has its fans, it’s probably not widespread enough in popularity for most people to even be familiar with it outside of maybe seeing a rerun of it on the weekend. Still, they basically sold out the Fox theatre in downtown Atlanta. Further, the audience was wonderfully diverse: people of all ages and all ethnicities filled the rows, but maybe more impressive were the families, especially those with kids as young as six or seven. And I will happily admit that I spent the bulk of the show with a big dumb fangirly grin plastered to my face.

Still, I didn’t know exactly what the show was all about. I thought they’d show some clips from the TV show, answer a few questions, maybe do a few live demonstrations. But it was a lot more than that.

The show was full of lovely little moments. My heart warmed when they called their first volunteer up onto the stage — an eleven year old girl — who proudly proclaimed that math was her favorite subject in school. Adam talked about some experiments they had run but never been able to use on the show, like a ridiculously explosive, easily accessible chemical that they are forbidden to disclose, and a lab rat that turned cannibal during a food experiment. The usually stoic Jaime got emotional when asked about his most frightening moment on the show.

Simply awesome.

(My brother and I are about thirty rows back on the left.) You can tell based on my formless face-shaped dome head.)

But what I really want to talk about is Adam Savage.

Adam Savage is one of the nerdiest nerds around, putting a gusto and chutzpah into his geekiness that’s really enviable for a more low-key geek such as myself. While I expected to see a few neato science experiments and hear a few funny stories about being on the set (and there was certainly plenty of that), what really resonated with me was the opening moments of the night, wherein Adam told some stories about growing up geeky and what led him to the sort of thinking and experimentation and self-instruction that would eventually lead to a career doing special effects for movies and television and web series about science.

Being the big nerd that I am, I whipped out my pencil and notepad and began scribbling.

Out of the evening, I came away with a list of reading material that I need to look into (100 Years of Solitude, and the works of Raymond Chandler) and some lovely poignant aphorisms about science in particular and learning and being human in general. They were even, believe it or not, applicable to writing. So I thought I’d share a few of them here.

  1. The deeper you go, the harder it gets. Adam told a story about learning to juggle, starting with the absolute basics and eventually undertaking to learn tricks. At first, the gains and improvements came quickly and readily, and he was able to master new facets of the skill every couple of days. (As a fellow novice juggler, I can certainly identify.) But very quickly, you come up against a wall beyond which the improvements become harder to achieve. While he mastered basic juggling in under a week, it took him well over two weeks to master even a few simple tricks, and he found he simply didn’t have the drive or the time needed to undertake it further. As a result, he’s a decent if not impressive juggler. And, well, that’s like writing, or hell, like anything really, innit? Anybody can do it, anybody can undertake to string sentences together and even craft a narrative. But if you want to be good, if you want to impress people with your talent, well, you’ve got to slay a whole other sort of beast. You’ve got to live and breathe with your work for long months and years, you’ve got to study, practice, think about language, try and fail in a thousand different ways. In short, you have to put in the miles. I’d wager that most would-be writers don’t have the gumption to do that. It remains to be seen whether I do.
  2. The Champion of one notch above mediocrity. As a result of all this, he became just barely decent at a lot of things: he had fascination with tons and tons of different skills and ideas, but didn’t have the follow-through to devote himself to get really good at any one thing. As a result, he was seasoned in lots of areas and knew a little bit about a lot of subjects, but never became an expert in any of them. I think we could all take a page from that book. There’s value in trying lots of things, even things you don’t expect to plumb the depths of (see my collection of Flash Fiction for examples). Out of those tiny forays comes growth, comes a broadening of the experience.
  3. Failure is always an option. If you watch Mythbusters, you’re familiar with this little epithet already; rare is the episode that doesn’t feature an experiment blowing up — sometimes literally, often dramatically — in their faces. But this isn’t a setback. In fact, they seek this moment because if you simply skate through an experience and everything goes to plan, you maybe enjoy a bit of success, but you don’t really learn much. Failure, however, is a fantastic and ruthless teacher; nothing teaches you how not to suck like picking over the charred and smoldering remains of your failed forays beyond mediocrity. Unless you failed at skydiving. No second chances in skydiving.
  4. Art and science are just two different kinds of storytelling. This one shook me to my core. I like to think there’s something magical and even otherworldly about storytelling, in the artistry of a nicely turned phrase, the cleverness of a well-tuned plot. But as with so many things, the moment I sat down to think about it, the pieces started sliding into focus like a Magic Eye painting. Stories tell us why people do the things they do. Science tells us why the world is the way it is. We love art because it speaks to worlds and people and emotions that might be, and we love science because it shows us the magical things we never knew about the world we currently inhabit. Furthermore, I don’t think you can have a good story without science — even if it’s just the inexact science of human interaction — nor can you have good science without a bit of art — the elegant organization and tracking of variables, the spiraling recursion of repeatability.

I’ve gone on enough, but suffice it to say that while I went to the show expecting a bit of fun, I came home with a whole new respect for a show I once thought of merely as a diversion.


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