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The MythBusters Answer Your Questions!

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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.)

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15 Subatomic Word Origins
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In July 2017, researchers at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) found evidence for a new fundamental particle of the universe: Ξcc++, a special kind of Xi baryon that may help scientists better understand how quarks are held together. Is that Greek to you? Well, it should be. The names for many of the particles that make up the universe—as well as a few that are still purely theoretical—come from ancient Greek. Here’s a look at 15 subatomic etymologies.

1. ION

An ion is any atom or molecule with an overall electric charge. English polymath William Whewell suggested the name in an 1834 letter to Michael Faraday, who made major discoveries in electromagnetism. Whewell based ion on the ancient Greek verb for “go” (ienai), as ions move towards opposite charges. Faraday and Whewell had previously considered zetode and stechion.


George Stoney, an Anglo-Irish physicist, introduced the term electron in 1891 as a word for the fundamental unit of charge carried by an ion. It was later applied to the negative, nucleus-orbiting particle discovered by J. J. Thomson in 1897. Electron nabs the -on from ion, kicking off the convention of using -on as an ending for all particles, and fuses it with electric. Electric, in turn, comes from the Greek for “amber,” in which the property was first observed. Earlier in the 19th century, electron was the name for an alloy of gold and silver.


The electron’s counterpart, the positively charged proton in the nuclei of all atoms, was named by its discoverer, Ernest Rutherford. He suggested either prouton or proton in honor of William Prout, a 19th-century chemist. Prout speculated that hydrogen was a part of all other elements and called its atom protyle, a Greek coinage joining protos ("first") and hule ("timber" or "material") [PDF]. Though the word had been previously used in biology and astronomy, the scientific community went with proton.


Joining the proton in the nucleus is the neutron, which is neither positive nor negative: It’s neutral, from the Latin neuter, “neither.” Rutherford used neutron in 1921 when he hypothesized the particle, which James Chadwick didn’t confirm until 1932. American chemist William Harkins independently used neutron in 1921 for a hydrogen atom and a proton-electron pair. Harkins’s latter application calls up the oldest instance of neutron, William Sutherland’s 1899 name for a hypothetical combination of a hydrogen nucleus and an electron.


Protons and neutrons are composed of yet tinier particles called quarks. For their distinctive name, American physicist Murray Gell-Mann was inspired in 1963 by a line from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake: “Three quarks for Muster Mark.” Originally, Gell-Mann thought there were three types of quarks. We now know, though, there are six, which go by names that are just as colorful: up, down, charm, strange, top, and bottom.


Made up of a quark and an antiquark, which has identical mass but opposite charge, the meson is a short-lived particle whose mass is between that of a proton and an electron. Due to this intermediate size, the meson is named for the ancient Greek mesos, “middle.” Indian physicist Homi Bhabha suggested meson in 1939 instead of its original name, mesotron: “It is felt that the ‘tr’ in this word is redundant, since it does not belong to the Greek root ‘meso’ for middle; the ‘tr’ in neutron and electron belong, of course, to the roots ‘neutr’ and ‘electra’.”


Mesons are a kind of boson, named by English physicist Paul Dirac in 1947 for another Indian physicist, Satyendra Nath Bose, who first theorized them. Bosons demonstrate a particular type of spin, or intrinsic angular momentum, and carry fundamental forces. The photon (1926, from the ancient Greek for “light”) carries the electromagnetic force, for instance, while the gluon carries the so-called strong force. The strong force holds quarks together, acting like a glue, hence gluon.


In 2012, CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) discovered a very important kind of boson: the Higgs boson, which generates mass. The hadrons the LHC smashes together at super-high speeds refer to a class of particles, including mesons, that are held together by the strong force. Russian physicist Lev Okun alluded to this strength by naming the particles after the ancient Greek hadros, “large” or “bulky,” in 1962.


Hadrons are opposite, in both makeup and etymology, to leptons. These have extremely tiny masses and don’t interact via the strong force, hence their root in the ancient Greek leptos, “small” or “slender.” The name was first suggested by the Danish chemist Christian Møller and Dutch-American physicist Abraham Pais in the late 1940s. Electrons are classified as leptons.


Another subtype of hadron is the baryon, which also bears the stamp of Abraham Pais. Baryons, which include the more familiar protons and neutrons, are far more massive, relatively speaking, than the likes of leptons. On account of their mass, Pais put forth the name baryon in 1953, based on the ancient Greek barys, “heavy” [PDF].


Quirky Murray Gell-Mann isn't the only brain with a sense of humor. In his 2004 Nobel Prize lecture, American physicist Frank Wilczek said he named a “very light, very weakly interacting” hypothetical particle the axion back in 1978 “after a laundry detergent [brand], since they clean up a problem with an axial current” [PDF].


In ancient Greek, takhys meant “swift,” a fitting name for the tachyon, which American physicist Gerald Feinberg concocted in 1967 for a hypothetical particle that can travel faster than the speed of light. Not so fast, though, say most physicists, as the tachyon would break the fundamental laws of physics as we know them.


In 2003, the American physicist Justin Khoury and South African-American theoretical physicist Amanda Weltman hypothesized that the elusive dark energy may come in the form of a particle, which they cleverly called the chameleon. Just as chameleons can change color to suit their surroundings, so the physical characteristics of the chameleon particle change “depending on its environment,” explains Symmetry, the online magazine dedicated to particle physics. Chameleon itself derives from the ancient Greek khamaileon, literally “on-the-ground lion.”

For more particle names, see Symmetry’s “A Brief Etymology of Particle Physics,” which helped provide some of the information in this list.

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Look Up! The Orionid Meteor Shower Peaks This Weekend
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Ethan Miller/Getty Images

October is always a great month for skywatching. If you missed the Draconids, the first meteor shower of the month, don't despair: the Orionids peak this weekend. It should be an especially stunning show this year, as the Moon will offer virtually no interference. If you've ever wanted to get into skywatching, this is your chance.

The Orionids is the second of two meteor showers caused by the debris field left by the comet Halley. (The other is the Eta Aquarids, which appear in May.) The showers are named for the constellation Orion, from which they seem to originate.

All the stars are lining up (so to speak) for this show. First, it's on the weekend, which means you can stay up late without feeling the burn at work the next day. Tonight, October 20, you'll be able to spot many meteors, and the shower peaks just after midnight tomorrow, October 21, leading into Sunday morning. Make a late-night picnic of the occasion, because it takes about an hour for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. Bring a blanket and a bottle of wine, lay out and take in the open skies, and let nature do the rest.

Second, the Moon, which was new only yesterday, is but a sliver in the evening sky, lacking the wattage to wash out the sky or conceal the faintest of meteors. If your skies are clear and light pollution low, this year you should be able to catch about 20 meteors an hour, which isn't a bad way to spend a date night.

If clouds interfere with your Orionids experience, don't fret. There will be two more meteor showers in November and the greatest of them all in December: the Geminids.


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