The MythBusters Answer Your Questions!

It's here -- the mental_floss interview with the MythBusters, featuring your questions! (Also here: a new season of the show, starting tonight: Wednesday, October 6! Set your DVRs -- the new season premieres at 9pm. Also check out Kari Byron's new show Head Rush, a commercial-free hour of experiments on the Science Channel every weekday at 4pm.)

For this interview, I combed through over a hundred viewer questions. I selected the best, threw in a few of my own for good measure, and sent them off to Adam Savage, Jamie Hyneman, and Kari Byron. Below are the questions (in red) and their answers. Read to the end to see if your question made the cut!

mental_floss reader Robert C. asks: Would you ever consider asking the crew of the International Space Station for help busting a myth? Are there any myths they could help with?

Adam: "I would LOVE love love LOVE to get the ISS's help with a myth. If they're game, we're game, we've got a crapload of stuff they could do for us. Let me just find my list... (squee!)"

Jamie: "That's a good idea. We sure would, if the need came up."

Kari: "Of course we would. Space is our final frontier."

mental_floss reader Jamie asks: Questions for Kari, did you experience any long term after effects after the Chinese water torture episode? Also, did you have that microchip removed from your arm or are you still "tagged"? And one comment, way to go working through your whole pregnancy! You go girl!

Kari: "Chinese Water Torture was a terrible idea for a myth. Anything where the best case scenario is torture should be given a second thought. I don't have any long term effects from that experiment but I would never do it again.

"I just recently had the chip taken out of my arm. I am no longer 'tagged'.


mental_floss reader CJ the Curious Diver asks: We all have seen what becomes of the gadgets and rigs created to bust myths. Pieces get reused (sometimes a sword-swinging robot is rebuilt to throw things and later is reincarnated as a sword-swinging robot), but what happens to all the little, i.e. not valuable, bits?

Adam: "I save them. Anything burnt, broken, cool. I am the unofficial archivist of MythBusters esoterica. I've even created shadow boxes that i hang around the shop to display some of my favorite stuff."

Kari: "They are in boxes and shelved. Our shop is starting to look like the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. You never know when the little bits could be very valuable."

E.g. when you float a sunken boat using ping pong balls (and pure awesomeness), what happens to the ping-pong balls afterward? When you truck in huge quantities of dirt for a ramp, does the proverbial dirt shop accept returns?

Adam: "We kept a huge amount of them [ping-pong balls] stored on the roof. Many got moldy. We donated most to charity (the James Randi Educational Foundation) and we gave some to a burlesque show. Because they asked. I still have some in storage. See [my answer about esoterica, above] as to why."

(Optional "Columbo-style" addendum: By the way, how much do bulk ping-pong balls cost, and wouldn't MythBusters detritus make for cool conversation-starting souvenirs? ;)

Adam: "This was a huge issue. We needed potentially 50-75k of them and they're not cheap. One of our researchers found a Japanese avalanche researcher who was willing to give us 200k for the cost of shipping to the US, but the shipping cost was prohibitive. Eventually we made a deal with a ping pong ball company and they gave us a discount."

Kari: "They were put in garbage bags and stored on our roof. That is until a huge windstorm blew the bags open. We thought it was hailing but the hail was bouncing. Sometimes we live in our own sit com. After a lengthy clean up, the balls went to a good home."

Many of our readers (LainTexas, Barb, Jessica, and Bicycle Bill) are curious about the role of off-air workers in setting up myths, rigs, and so on. Can you talk about the role of the team you work with, outside of the on-air personalities?

Adam: "We have an amazing team in San Francisco, about 24 people make the show including the hosts. We have an amazing director in the form of the inimitable Alice Dallow, and we're all supported by a 3 person research team that finds us the locations, expertise and weird objects we need to experiment with. The other team, Kari, Grant and Tory has the same. We also have a couple of shop people who do some of the behind the scenes welding, assembly etc, though we still build a surprising amount of our rigs without help."

Jamie: "The key creatives on the show are Adam and I and our producer/directors. Otherwise we rely on a team of several researchers for materials and background information, setting up locations and resources and the like. Then we have a couple of shop guys/builders that help us if we have work done that does not need to be on camera. Otherwise there are runners, coordinators and so on. Relative to most productions we run very lean, and there are about 4 people other than Adam and I who work very closely together to do the heavy lifting as far as generating content on the show."

Kari: "We always have expert advisors to keep us safe and make sure our science is accurate. As far as the builds, up until recently, we did 100% of the building for our machines and experiments. With our aggressive production schedule and ambitious set of myths, we have brought in a couple of off air workers to get the bigger projects done."

Several mental_floss readers (Gina and Matt) ask how you get IRB (Institutional Review Board) approval to do your experiments involving people? I assume you can avoid US government IRB approval because your experiments aren't funded by the FDA or HHS, but I wonder whether you have any sort of third-party oversight of your experiments on people? (For readers unfamiliar with IRBs: in the US, the FDA and HHS have IRBs that oversee publicly funded research on human subjects.)

Jamie: "We haven't involved the IRB as far as I am aware, and the experiments on people other than ourselves have been very limited and non invasive."

Adam: "Actually, when we've worked with Universities on things where we're testing ourselves, we've had to fill out many forms to make it clear that we're NOT doing officially sanctioned experiments. Specifically because they'd get into trouble for doing so if what we were representing was that we were doing real science."

Kari: "The production company takes care of all that."

mental_floss reader ChrisH (no relation) asks: Jamie once said, "So far our neighbors think it cool being next to the MythBusters. That can change." Has the situation changed?

Jamie: "Yes, we have a second shop or other locations we go to if there is something problematic. We are regularly using hundreds of pounds of high explosives, weapons, high pressure systems under stress and so on -- we just go away from the shop if there is anything that seems questionable."

Adam: "Our neighbors love us. We're pretty respectful, we let them know when we're about to make a loud bang, a bad smell etc. We know what side our bread is buttered on..."

Kari: "Our neighbors continue to be very tolerant."

mental_floss reader Mary A. Milan asks: My son Matthew, who [turned] 8 on 9/25, asks: Why do so many of your experiments have to do with blowing up stuff? Can you [get the network to] have a marathon of all your blowing up stuff shows? He would be over the moon if you answered his question; he and his 12 year old sister are huge fans. I have to keep "MythBusters" on the DVR.

Adam: "Well Matthew, it seems people like to watch things blow up. If that's what it takes to trick them into watching a science show, and potentially learning something, then we're willing to take one for the team."

Jamie: "We just kind of got into the habit of using explosives, and everybody seems to like it. I have to say that I don't like being casual about them -- even if we do have fun with explosives there are a lot of people who are killed every year by explosives and it's not funny at all. But used the way we do, where nobody gets hurt, there are some exciting things we have done which would indeed make a great special."

Kari: "I believe the Top 25 special has a montage of our best explosions. Is there a better way to end a myth?"

mental_floss reader Mark asks: Are there any myths/episodes that you regret, and for what reason? I keep thinking of the one where you guys fire paint ball pellets at each other to see who quits first.

Jamie: "I'm more thinking of things like mind control or pyramid power -- the supernatural is not something testable and doesn't fall within our interest."

Adam: "I don't regret the Ultimate Mythbuster Challenge. I regret that we ever went near Pyramid Power. It's what we'd now call a "woo woo" myth. Full of total malarky and in science parlance "Not Even Wrong". Sorry about that."

Kari: "I don't do regret. Besides, we revisit anything that needs more exploring."

mental_floss reader dtphoto asks: Can there be a Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy themed episode? (iPhone+wikipedia for all--knowing device, Towel usage fails, etc.)

Adam: "I love this idea! Any excuse to read the books again, listen to the BBC radio show again, see the movie again. I'm a huge Douglas Adams fan and I think you might have something there."

Jamie: "That is a great idea. I'd like to do that."

Kari: "I will suggest it. :)"

In the "Goldfish Memory" myth, it was mentioned that Jamie used to run an aquarium shop. As a former aquarium nerd myself, I want to hear more about this ---- do you still keep an aquarium? If so, what species of fish do you prefer? I'm guessing you're a cichlid or discus man. Eh?

Jamie: "I don't keep aquariums anymore. It's kind of like having a farm -- the animals have to be fed, cleaned, looked after. No vacation, you can't just take off and go someplace without looking after the pets. That said, my favorites are in fact goldfish. They don't require a heater, they are colorful and can have distinct personalities. If you are an enthusiast, you can get all sorts of exotic hybrids with bug eyes, vivid colors and so on. Just a few of those are just as visually interesting as dozens of smaller tropical fish and they are easier to take care of."

Tim Hunkin's "Secret Life of Machines" has a lot of parallels with the MythBusters ---- it's about two guys building/taking apart machines and explaining how scientific principles work (and many episode end with some kind of mechanical sculpture and/or fiery explosion). Was SLOM an inspiration for MythBusters, and have you ever met Tim Hunkin or Rex Garrod?

Adam: "I've never seen SLOM, though I now want to."

Jamie: "I'm not sure, but I believe the producer who had the idea to do the show originally was very familiar with it. I have never met either of them."

Kari: "I don't think it was the inspiration for MythBusters but I do know the show's creator was an avid [fan]. I have never met them but I am sure they would fit in nicely around here."

[Editor's note: "The Secret Life of Machines" is a TV show well worth watching -- and you can actually watch it online for free thanks to the Exploratorium.]

A huge number of readers asked if you're hiring. Got any advice for aspiring MythBusters?

Adam: "Turnover on our crew is very low. We've been doing this show now for the better part of a decade and we're all like family now. But you never know: get yourself through engineering school and learn to weld and we might have a need for you one day."

Kari: "Nope, I don't think any of us are abandoning our current careers. Host of MythBusters isn't a high turnover job."

Jamie: "Not at the moment. Be curious."

That's All, Folks

There you have it. Tune in tonight at 9pm for some brand new mythbusting. Here's a clip from tonight's episode ("Hair of the Dog") to whet your appetite:

Many thanks to Adam, Jamie, and Kari for taking time out of their schedules to talk to us -- and to our readers for submitting such awesome questions!

(Images courtesy of Discovery Channel.)

John Phillips, Getty Images for Tourism Australia
New Plankton Species Named After Sir David Attenborough Series Blue Planet
John Phillips, Getty Images for Tourism Australia
John Phillips, Getty Images for Tourism Australia

At least 19 creatures, both living and extinct, have been named after iconic British naturalist Sir David Attenborough. Now, for the first time, one of his documentary series will receive the same honor. As the BBC reports, a newly discovered phytoplankton shares its name with the award-winning BBC series Blue Planet.

The second half of the species' name, Syracosphaera azureaplaneta, is Latin for "blue planet," likely making it the first creature to derive its name from a television program. The single-cell organisms are just thousandths of a millimeter wide, thinner than a human hair, but their massive blooms on the ocean's surface can be seen from space. Called coccolithophores, the plankton serve as a food source for various marine life and are a vital marker scientists use to gauge the effects of climate change on the sea. The plankton's discovery, by researchers at University College London (UCL) and institutions in Spain and Japan, is detailed in a paper [PDF] published in the Journal of Nannoplankton Research.

"They are an essential element in the whole cycle of oxygen production and carbon dioxide and all the rest of it, and you mess about with this sort of thing, and the echoes and the reverberations and the consequences extend throughout the atmosphere," Attenborough said while accepting the honor at UCL.

The Blue Planet premiered in 2001 with eight episodes, each dedicated to a different part of the world's oceans. The series' success inspired a sequel series, Blue Planet II, that debuted on the BBC last year.

[h/t BBC]

5 Ways You Do Complex Math in Your Head Without Realizing It

The one thing that people who love math and people who hate math tend to agree on is this: You're only really doing math if you sit down and write formal equations. This idea is so widely embraced that to suggest otherwise is "to start a fight," says Maria Droujkova, math educator and founder of Natural Math, a site for kids and parents who want to incorporate math into their daily lives. Mathematicians cherish their formal proofs, considering them the best expression of their profession, while the anti-math don't believe that much of the math they studied in school applies to "real life."

But in reality, "we do an awful lot of things in our daily lives that are profoundly mathematical, but that may not look that way on the surface," Christopher Danielson, a Minnesota-based math educator and author of a number of books, including Common Core Math for Parents for Dummies, tells Mental Floss. Our mathematical thinking includes not just algebra or geometry, but trigonometry, calculus, probability, statistics, and any of the at least 60 types [PDF] of math out there. Here are five examples.


Of all the maths, algebra seems to draw the most ire, with some people even writing entire books on why college students shouldn't have to endure it because, they claim, it holds the students back from graduating. But if you cook, you're likely doing algebra. When preparing a meal, you often have to think proportionally, and "reasoning with proportions is one of the cornerstones of algebraic thinking," Droujkova tells Mental Floss.

You're also thinking algebraically whenever you're adjusting a recipe, whether for a larger crowd or because you have to substitute or reduce ingredients. Say, for example, you want to make pancakes, but you only have two eggs left and the recipe calls for three. How much flour should you use when the original recipe calls for one cup? Since one cup is 8 ounces, you can figure this out using the following algebra equation: n/8 : 2/3.

algebraic equation illustrates adjustment of a recipe
Lucy Quintanilla

However, when thinking proportionally, you can just reason that since you have one-third less eggs, you should just use one-third less flour.

You're also doing that proportional thinking when you consider the cooking times of the various courses of your meal and plan accordingly so all the elements of your dinner are ready at the same time. For example, it will usually take three times as long to cook rice as it will a flattened chicken breast, so starting the rice first makes sense.

"People do mathematics in their own way," Droujkova says, "even if they cannot do it in a very formalized way."


woman enjoys listening to music in headphones

The making of music involves many different types of math, from algebra and geometry to group theory and pattern theory and beyond, and a number of mathematicians (including Pythagoras and Galileo) and musicians have connected the two disciplines (Stravinsky claimed that music is "something like mathematical thinking").

But simply listening to music can make you think mathematically too. When you recognize a piece of music, you are identifying a pattern of sound. Patterns are a fundamental part of math; the branch known as pattern theory is applied to everything from statistics to machine learning.

Danielson, who teaches kids about patterns in his math classes, says figuring out the structure of a pattern is vital for understanding math at higher levels, so music is a great gateway: "If you're thinking about how two songs have similar beats, or time signatures, or you're creating harmonies, you're working on the structure of a pattern and doing some really important mathematical thinking along the way."

So maybe you weren't doing math on paper if you were debating with your friends about whether Tom Petty was right to sue Sam Smith in 2015 over "Stay With Me" sounding a lot like "I Won't Back Down," but you were still thinking mathematically when you compared the songs. And that earworm you can't get out of your head? It follows a pattern: intro, verse, chorus, bridge, end.

When you recognize these kinds of patterns, you're also recognizing symmetry (which in a pop song tends to involve the chorus and the hook, because both repeat). Symmetry [PDF] is the focus of group theory, but it's also key to geometry, algebra, and many other maths.


six steps of crocheting a hyperbolic plane
Cheryl, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Droujkova, an avid crocheter, she says she is often intrigued by the very mathematical discussions fellow crafters have online about the best patterns for their projects, even if they will often insist they are awful at math or uninterested in it. And yet, such crafts cannot be done without geometric thinking: When you knit or crochet a hat, you're creating a half sphere, which follows a geometric formula.

Droujkova isn't the only math lover who has made the connection between geometry and crocheting. Cornell mathematician Daina Taimina found crocheting to be the perfect way to illustrate the geometry of a hyperbolic plane, or a surface that has a constant negative curvature, like a lettuce leaf. Hyperbolic geometry is also used in navigation apps, and explains why flat maps distort the size of landforms, making Greenland, for example, look far larger on most maps than it actually is.


people playing pool

If you play billiards, pool, or snooker, it's very likely that you are using trigonometric reasoning. Sinking a ball into a pocket by using another ball involves understanding not just how to measure angles by sight but triangulation, which is the cornerstone of trigonometry. (Triangulation is a surprisingly accurate way to measure distance. Long before powered flight was possible, surveyors used triangulation to measure the heights of mountains from their bases and were off by only a matter of feet.)

In a 2010 paper [PDF], Louisiana mathematician Rick Mabry studied the trigonometry (and basic calculus) of pool, focusing on the straight-in shot. In a bar in Shreveport, Louisiana, he scribbled equations on napkins for each shot, and he calculated the most difficult straight-in shot of all. Most experienced pool players would say it’s one where the target ball is halfway between the pocket and the cue ball. But that, according to Mabry’s equations, turned out not to be true. The hardest shot of all had a surprising feature: The distance from the cue ball to the pocket was exactly 1.618 times the distance from the target ball to the pocket. That number is the golden ratio, which is found everywhere in nature—and, apparently, on pool tables.

Do you need to consider the golden ratio when deciding where to place the cue ball? Nope, unless you want to prove a point, or set someone else up to lose. You're doing the trig automatically. The pool sharks at the bar must have known this, because someone threw away Mabry's math napkins.


tiled bathroom with shower stall

Many students don't get to calculus in high school, or even in college, but a cornerstone of that branch of math is optimization—or figuring out how to get the most precise use of a space or chunk of time.

Consider a home improvement project where you're confronted with tiling around something whose shape doesn't fit a geometric formula like a circle or rectangle, such as the asymmetric base of a toilet or freestanding sink. This is where the fundamental theorem of calculus—which can be used to calculate the precise area of an irregular object—comes in handy. When thinking about how those tiles will best fit around the curve of that sink or toilet, and how much of each tile needs to be cut off or added, you're employing the kind of reasoning done in a Riemann sum.

Riemann sums (named after a 19th-century German mathematician) are crucial to explaining integration in calculus, as tangible introductions to the more precise fundamental theorem. A graph of a Riemann sum shows how the area of a curve can be found by building rectangles along the x, or horizontal axis, first up to the curve, and then over it, and then averaging the distance between the over- and underlap to get a more precise measurement. 


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