The explosion that put Discovery Channel’s MythBusters on the map was lit back in 2005, when five thousand pounds of ammonium nitrate fuel oil, or ANFO, vaporized a cement truck. The same explosion ends MythBusters tomorrow night, closing out the best and most impactful science television show since Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.
I first saw MythBusters when I was 12. A fresh-faced Adam Savage and a never-aging (possibly robotic) Jamie Hyneman were clamping the sphincters of a pig’s stomach so that a lively mixture of Pop Rocks and soda could rupture it. The show was fresh and fun, yet informative. It was a revelation to a kid who got most of his experimenting from LEGOs and CD-ROMs filled with dinosaurs. Everything about the show has changed since then, from the music to the structure to the hosts, but I’ve seen every one of the over 260 episodes.
MythBusters was formative. It first aired when I was approaching high school, gently guiding me toward more of the math and science courses that I was already interested in. In some cases, it even supplemented my lessons. Once, my physics teacher asked me incredulously where I learned what a Leyden jar was as he was explaining rudimentary circuits and electrical currents. “An episode of MythBusters,” I told him.
I applied to colleges knowing that I wanted to be an engineer. How could I be anything else when my role models were builders and makers? But midway through college I discovered that I liked discussing and trying to explain science more than actually practicing it. My professors balked at my decision to pursue a graduate degree in communication rather than engineering. If they had seen me waiting, on a brisk July night in 2010, behind the auditorium where Jamie Hyneman had just finished speaking, hoping to shake his hand, they might have understood better.
Befitting a science show, the numbers tell the story of MythBusters too. In the last 14 years, the show has tested 1,100 myths in 3,000 experiments across more than 260 episodes. With 921 explosions, each of those episodes featured 3.5 booms on average.
The series finale, airing tomorrow night, is highly combustible as well. It begins with 855 pounds of ANFO detonating at a truly wondrous 50,000 frames per second, and ends with the largest explosion in the show’s history: 5,001 pounds to make a cement truck disappear. The episode packs all of the fans’ favorite finales into one. Buster gets a heartfelt goodbye riding the only experiment that has ever left Adam Savage truly speechless: the infamous rocket sled.
But the best part of the finale has no explosions at all. For his last ever rig, Jamie crafts a diabolical metal wedge to go on the front of a big rig. The rig proceeds to barrel across over a mile of track filled with more than 200 props from MythBusters’ 14-year history. For a bombastic show about world-firsts and “don’t try this at home” milestones, destroying the results of the team’s many experiments seems a fitting way to close out the years. Adam tears up at the sight of so much work and effort and love in one place. It’s because he knows MythBusters was never just about the booms.
I stuck with MythBusters because of what it meant to me, and what it represented.
Numbers can’t quantify what MythBusters taught us. What made the show the best science conversation on any TV network or website was the process. Experimentation was the beating heart of MythBusters. The scientific method was its skeleton. Adam, Jamie, Kari Byron, Grant Imahara, and Tory Belleci were its face, and the fans its soul. No other show has embraced and engendered critical thinking so much; there isn’t a science show in history that has gone back and re-tried an experiment if the results may have been wrong. And going back wasn’t even looked at as a failure—it was part of the process. Fans didn’t riot when the team showed us something we’ve seen before because we were all learning, together.
Failure was always an option, after all.
I was shocked when MythBusters announced that the build team—Kari, Grant, and Tory—would be leaving after the 2014 season. Like many fans, I wasn’t sure that the show could go on, at least not in the same way. And it didn’t. Many have speculated that the show’s new direction wasn’t premeditated, but a reaction to a contract dispute that led to the build team’s departure. Whatever the reason was, the show carried on with Adam and Jamie alone.
The seasons after the build team left focused more on the process of building and testing, enhanced by a new graphics package. Episodes looked and flowed better, though one wonders if the cost of switching gears was softened by Kari, Grant, and Tory’s leaving. It felt like the end of the show was near, though it had been renewed for at least five more seasons. I stuck with it because of what it meant to me, and what it represented.
MythBusters leaves behind a significant void in a media landscape already bereft of quality science content. I imagine a similar chasm yawned wide when Bill Nye the Science Guy went off the air, or when Mr. Wizard stopped teaching kids how to pull an egg into a soda bottle. The space won’t be filled soon or adequately, but maybe fans will be the ones that finally do fill it. I at least owe it to them to try.
The Mythbusters have done some incredible things in 14 years of testing urban legends. They’ve built a lead balloon, shattered a wine glass with their voices alone, and split a car in half using a beam moving faster than the speed of sound. At the end of tomorrow’s finale, Adam Savage says his most “astonishing” moment was when he got to ride a U2 plane to the edge of space. “Not a bad view,” he says.
“What has changed me as a person is what I’ve learned on this show,” says Savage.
Jamie Hyneman preferred the myths where he struggled and succeeded. Building a steam machine gun or seeing that he could waterski behind a rowboat, that’s what got his prodigious (again, possibly robotic) mustache tingling.
“What has changed me as a person is what I’ve learned on this show,” says Savage as the finale winds down. That’s exactly what has changed the fans, too. MythBusters was a perfect encapsulation of an enthusiasm for a way of thinking about and seeing the world. Now that it’s over, we have to look elsewhere for that geeky zeal. It was more than a show to us.
Savage ends up speaking for the fans, reflecting on he and Jamie’s run on the show. MythBusters was “the greatest learning experience of our entire lives.”
Images: Discovery Communications
Kyle Hill is the Science Editor at Nerdist. Follow on Twitter/Instagram/Snapchat @Sci_Phile.