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Adam Savage Talks the Last Episode of MythBusters and His Favorite Builds

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In January 2003, President George W. Bush celebrated the first anniversary of No Child Left Behind, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers was in theaters, Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” was at the top of the Billboard charts—and a little show called MythBusters debuted on the Discovery Channel. The network promised that its “quirky new science and technology television series” would take “a light-hearted look at modern misconceptions and the bizarre claims of urban legends.” Discovery also added a version of the line that would soon become familiar to fans everywhere: “This series doesn’t just retell the stories … it puts them to the test!”

Now, after 14 seasons, 2950 experiments, 1050 myths, and 900 explosions, the show is coming to an end: The final episode of MythBusters airs this Saturday. That fact has finally sunk in for Adam Savage, who, along with Jamie Hyneman, has hosted the show since it began. “I’ve had a long time and a lot of stages to go through,” Savage told mental_floss over coffee earlier this week. “I love this thing. I’ve done this show longer than I’ve had any career, and I’ve grown up on it. I’m relieved to be putting it to bed on our terms—but that didn’t help in the destabilizing event of finishing something you’ve been doing for 14 years. I went through all the stages of death.”

BUILDING UP SCIENCE

Savage was working at the visual- and special-effects house Industrial Light & Magic when Hyneman, who had been approached about possibly hosting a show, asked if he’d co-host. The pair had worked together in Hyneman’s special effects shop, M5 Industries, for a few years, making commercials and building a machine for BattleBots. Though they had polar opposite personalities (and got on each other's nerves), they worked well together. So Savage said yes, the pair cut an audition tape, and they landed the gig.

What followed was more than a decade of incredible—and often ridiculous—builds. “For me, the builds that mattered are ones that also taught me something about what my job was,” Savage says. His favorite is one of his first for the show: A wind tunnel capable of two speeds that showed a penny had two terminal velocities, one on its edge and one on its face, and that it tumbles between them. He constructed the device to test whether a coin falling from the Empire State Building could kill a person below. (Spoiler alert: It can't.)

“We had math that described [the two terminal velocities], but it occurred to me—even that first season, when I was absolutely as green as green could be—that I didn’t like the idea of just explaining math on camera,” Savage says. Instead, he wanted to show it.

“The theory was that if I built [the wind tunnel] with the correct speeds in the entrance and the exit, and it was vertical, the penny would tumble up and down inside the wind tunnel, and it totally did,” he says. “To this day, it’s my favorite thing I’ve ever made. That was a harbinger that I could not just talk on camera cogently, or build things, but that I could contribute to the field of explaining and describing and showing things in ways that were compelling and that hadn’t been tried before. That was so thrilling.”

In order to complete their experiments, Savage and Hyneman were often required to build things that they either couldn't get, or simply didn't exist. In the second season, the duo was testing whether a SCUBA diver could be sucked out of a body of water by a pump attached to a fire-fighting helicopter and deposited in a tree. “For obvious reasons,” Savage says, laughing, “no one wanted to let us anywhere near one, especially with a fake SCUBA diver.”

So the pump needed to be built. There were a couple of problems, though: Savage had no idea how he was going to do it, and Hyneman was out with the flu, “which was weird,” Savage says. “That never happened any other time in the show.” Thankfully, they had been able to discuss a game plan before it was time to build. “I executed that plan and built a pump that exceeded the specs of the pump we wanted by 50 percent,” Savage says. “We needed a pump that pumped 2000 gallons a minute and mine pumped 3000 gallons a minute. It was beautiful.”

But it wasn’t all about big builds, or even challenging builds. Savage took equal delight in constructing machines for ridiculous purposes, like when he built a fart catcher for the show’s fourth season. “It’s so awesome,” he says. “We built it over a bathtub. The idea was that the rig was filled with water, and you’d fart, and your bubble would go to the top into a chamber that you’d be able to lock it off and capture a fart.” It took them all day to get the job done, though. “It turns out, when you get into a tepid bath, it’s really hard to fart,” he says. (That was not the last time he’d build something having to do with flatus: This season, he built a fart-generating machine.)

Over the years, the builds became bigger and more ambitious—and Savage used them to help tell the story. “In the early episodes, the builds are just builds, but in the later episodes, the builds have all sorts of colored tape and measurements and labels on them,” he says. “I wanted to tell the story more than just verbally, more than just visually—I wanted to tell it graphically. I want every frame from each camera angle to tell the story of the experiment. By the last season, just these builds were so lovely to me because they were telling all of these things.”

Did it bother Savage that they’d often blow the builds up, or otherwise destroy them? “No, because that’s the challenge,” he says. “If you’re making something just to make it, you make it under one set of rules. But if your job is to make it look good while it’s blowing up, that’s a whole other thing—it doesn’t achieve its fruition until you’ve blown it up.”

AN EXPLOSIVE FINALE

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It’s fitting, then, that MythBusters goes out with a big boom, and, as Savage puts it, “a wanton path of destruction.”

The duo abandoned myth-busting for the last show, and for good reason: “We realized that unless we had the best myth ever, there’s no myth that could handle the weight of being in the final MythBusters episode ever,” Savage says.

Instead, Savage and Hyneman opted to do what they felt would make the fans happy—and they start by blowing something up. Then there’s a walk down memory lane, which Savage says is the second-most expensive sequence in MythBusters history (it was narrowly edged out by Rocket Car). “Memory lane was a mile long and filled with 14 years of constructions from the show's history,” he says. “The ‘walk’ down memory lane takes about 80 seconds—and it's the most extreme and beautiful driving I have ever had to do in my whole life. After the first 15 seconds, I could not see out the front of my vehicle and I still managed to stay safe, stay on course, and complete my task.” The final sequence is “the biggest explosion in MythBusters’ history.”

Savage had all kinds of creative—and weird—ideas for the final shot of MythBusters. “I wanted to wake up in bed next to Suzanne Pleshette like Bob Newhart and go, ‘I just had the weirdest dream,’” he says. “You know the joke about how a cat always lands feet down, and toast always lands butter-side down, so if you strap a piece of buttered toast to the back of a cat, and push it off a table, it will levitate? At one point, I had this vision that the final sequence would be 80 seconds of me and Jamie going, 'Alright, let’s do it,' and we push the cat off the table, and this buzz happens—and all of a sudden, Jamie and I are standing on the street in Tokyo, and we’re like, ‘What the f*** just happened?’ and cut to black.

“We didn’t do that,” he says. “In the end, it’s a little elegiac, and it’s sweet, and it’s also final. There’s not much else we could have done.”

REVISITING DUCT TAPE

Luckily for fans, the last episode of MythBusters on Discovery is not quite the end. There's a reunion special and then, on Sunday night, a bonus episode will air on the Science Channel. It was filmed, Savage says, “as sort of an inaugural baton-passing for MythBusters to move from Discovery to the Science Channel,” where the show will air in reruns. And it revisits a frequent, and beloved, subject of MythBusters myths: Duct tape.

“We really thought that we had exhausted all the possibilities of duct tape,” Savage says. The show did everything from build bridges to hold cars together with the material, but Savage came up with one last duct tape idea. He just had to convince Hyneman.

“I’ll tell you, no one got pissier about discussing duct tape than Jamie, because he’s like, ‘I don’t want to build an episode just on a challenge,’” Savage says. “Then, I was like, ‘But I came up with an idea,’ and he was, like, ‘Oh, what?’ I said, ‘Trebuchet,’ and he goes, ‘Oh, that would work.’” It is, Discovery promises, “the duct tape build to end all duct tape builds.” They use the device to destroy something, of course.

LUCK AND LEGACY

Perhaps the most important myth busted during 14 seasons of MythBusters is the one that says science is a stuffy subject. Hyneman and Savage showed that science can be fun and creative, and that curiosity is pretty cool. MythBusters inspired kids to become engineers, and changed how science is taught—which Savage says is “humbling.”

But Savage and Hyneman never really thought about creating a show that would leave any kind of legacy. “We really were just trying to make the show on a day-to-day basis,” Savage says. “I still think of anything approaching a legacy as this amazing gravy on the top of this incredible thing that we did.”

These days, both (soon-to-be former) MythBusters are keeping busy. Hyneman is working on a number of projects unrelated to show business, and Savage says he’s spending lots of time in his shop, where he recently installed a full-size Bridgeport mill. He's working on a project with the California Academy of Sciences, creating and building for Tested.com, and writing two stage shows.

The end is bittersweet, but Savage says his prevailing emotion is something else entirely. “I’m the luckiest person alive that these stories that I was interested in telling turned out to have such a resonance in exactly the way that they meant something to me,” he says. “I’m so grateful. That’s mostly what it is, because I’m just supremely, impossibly lucky that my skill set was a key that fit this lock so perfectly.”

The final episode of MythBusters airs Saturday, March 5 at 8 p.m. EST on the Discovery Channel. The special bonus episode airs Sunday, March 6, at 8 p.m. EST on the Science Channel.

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Today's Wine Glasses Are Almost Seven Times Larger Than They Were in 1700
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Holiday party season (a.k.a. hangover season) is in full swing. While you likely have no one to blame but yourself for drinking that second (or third) pour at the office soiree, your glassware isn't doing you any favors—especially if you live in the UK. Vino vessels in England are nearly seven times larger today than they were in 1700, according to a new study spotted by Live Science. These findings were recently published in the English medical journal The BMJ.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge measured more than 400 wineglasses from the past three centuries to gauge whether glass size affects how much we drink. They dug deep into the history of parties past, perusing both the collections of the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology at the University of Oxford and the Royal Household's assemblage of glassware (a new set is commissioned for each monarch). They also scoured a vintage catalog, a modern department store, and eBay for examples.

After measuring these cups, researchers concluded that the average wineglass in 1700 held just 2.2 fluid ounces. For comparison's sake, that's the size of a double shot at a bar. Glasses today hold an average of 15.2 fluid ounces, even though a standard single serving size of wine is just 5 ounces.

BMJ infographic detailing increases in wine glass size from 1700 to 2017
BMJ Publishing group Ltd.

Advances in technology and manufacturing are partly to blame for this increase, as is the wine industry. Marketing campaigns promoted the beverage as it increasingly became more affordable and available for purchase, which in turn prompted aficionados to opt for larger pours. Perhaps not surprisingly, this bigger-is-better mindset was also compounded by American drinking habits: Extra-large wineglasses became popular in the U.S. in the 1990s, prompting overseas manufacturers to follow suit.

Wine consumption in both England and America has risen dramatically since the 1960s [PDF]. Cambridge researchers noted that their study doesn't necessarily prove that the rise of super-sized glassware has led to this increase. But their findings do fit a larger trend: previous studies have found that larger plate size can increase food consumption. This might be because they skew our sense of perception, making us think we're consuming less than we actually are. And in the case of wine, in particular, oversized glasses could also heighten our sensory enjoyment, as they might release more of the drink's aroma.

“We cannot infer that the increase in glass size and the rise in wine consumption in England are causally linked,” the study's authors wrote. “Nor can we infer that reducing glass size would cut drinking. Our observation of increasing size does, however, draw attention to wine glass size as an area to investigate further in the context of population health.”

[h/t Live Science]

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Researchers Pore Over the Physics Behind the Layered Latte
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The layered latte isn't the most widely known espresso drink on coffee-shop menus, but it is a scientific curiosity. Instead of a traditional latte, where steamed milk is poured into a shot (or several) of espresso, the layered latte is made by pouring the espresso into a glass of hot milk. The result is an Instagram-friendly drink that features a gradient of milky coffee colors from pure white on the bottom to dark brown on the top. The effect is odd enough that Princeton University researchers decided to explore the fluid dynamics that make it happen, as The New York Times reports.

In a new study in Nature Communications, Princeton engineering professor Howard Stone and his team explore just what creates the distinct horizontal layers pattern of layered latte. To find out, they injected warm, dyed water into a tank filled with warm salt water, mimicking the process of pouring low-density espresso into higher-density steamed milk.

Four different images of a latte forming layers over time
Xue et al., Nature Communications (2017)

According to the study, the layered look of the latte forms over the course of minutes, and can last for "tens of minutes, or even several hours" if the drink isn't stirred. When the espresso-like dyed water was injected into the salt brine, the downward jet of the dyed water floated up to the top of the tank, because the buoyant force of the low-density liquid encountering the higher-density brine forced it upward. The layers become more visible when the hot drink cools down.

The New York Times explains it succinctly:

When the liquids try to mix, layered patterns form as gradients in temperature cause a portion of the liquid to heat up, become lighter and rise, while another, denser portion sinks. This gives rise to convection cells that trap mixtures of similar densities within layers.

This structure can withstand gentle movement, such as a light stirring or sipping, and can stay stable for as long as a day or more. The layers don't disappear until the liquids cool down to room temperature.

But before you go trying to experiment with layering your own lattes, know that it can be trickier than the study—which refers to the process as "haphazardly pouring espresso into a glass of warm milk"—makes it sound. You may need to experiment several times with the speed and height of your pour and the ratio of espresso to milk before you get the look just right.

[h/t The New York Times]

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