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The Savage truth

Talking Feynman and failure with science champion Adam Savage.

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EUREKA! "Mythbusters" star Adam Savage co-stars in a traveling show designed to spark understanding of scientific principles through live demonstration, "Brain Candy Live."
  • EUREKA! "Mythbusters" star Adam Savage co-stars in a traveling show designed to spark understanding of scientific principles through live demonstration, "Brain Candy Live."

The things that special-effects designer Adam Savage is responsible for include, but are not limited to: 14 seasons of the Discovery channel show "Mythbusters," a molten metal shell for a snowball intended to give it the proverbial "chance in hell," a torture device called the "Pizzinator" for Pizza Hut's "Mr. Bill" commercials, a replica of the Overlook Hotel Maze from Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining," and a 7-foot, 3,000-pound ball of Legos. Since the sunset of "Mythbusters," Savage has been acting as editor-in-chief of a vast set of experiments on tested.com and serving on the board of a new nonprofit initiative called "Nation of Makers," where he, Burning Man co-founder Harley K. Dubois, Winston-Salem State University Professor Pamela L. Jennings and former White House Senior Advisor for Making Stephanie Santoso work, as the organization's website states, "to ensure that more Americans have access to the spaces, communities, and tools that enable them to make things, not just consume things." He's currently on tour with Michael Stevens, host of YouTube's "VSauce," in an interactive science show called "Brain Candy Live," which lands at Robinson Center on Tuesday, March 28. I talked with Savage ahead of that appearance, excerpted here. Check out our online arts and entertainment blog, Rock Candy, for the full conversation.

You've said that the idea with "Brain Candy Live" is to "physicalize understanding," which is a beautiful phrase, and something a lot of people buy very expensive drugs for.

Yeah! You know, Richard Feynman is totally famous for being brilliant, being a genius, but specifically being a certain kind of genius. Murray Gell-Mann said, "If you're a normal scientist, you sit down and you start diagramming possible solutions, unless you're Richard Feynman, in which case you think of a problem, think about it really hard and then write down the answer." Feynman has a wonderful video online where someone says, "Can you explain magnetism; why magnets attract and repel each other?" And there's a pause. And the guy says, "I think it's a reasonable question." And [Feynman] says, "Oh, no, it's an excellent question," he says, "but when you get to the 'why' of something, it gets very complicated very quickly." He said, "Look, my problem with explaining to you why magnetism works is that I couldn't explain it to you in any ..." — I always sort of drift into Richard Feynman's patois – "I couldn't explain it to you in any terms that you could understand without five years of school. I could explain that it has to do with weak magnetic force, and I could explain that the reasons why magnets attract and repel is similar to the reason why my hand doesn't go through the arm of this chair; why they resist each other. But ultimately, I couldn't explain it in terms that you'd understand, which means that, ultimately, I don't understand." Richard Feynman is so beautiful because what he's saying is that genuine understanding means that you could explain it to a 5-year-old. Anything less than that means that we don't fully understand it. That's what I mean by the physicalization of understanding.

In a video introducing your new nonprofit organization, the "Nation of Makers" project, you said, "Making is a new term for the oldest of human endeavors, and that is: the reaching out into the world and manipulating it to better suit our needs. And, by the way, when I say 'making,' I don't mean specifically laser cutting or 3D printing or carpentry. I mean everything: poetry, rapping, singing, dancing, cosplay, and all the things you're already thinking of as 'making.' " That's lovely, but it's a lot squishier, results-wise, than a "Mythbusters" experiment. How will you know if you've succeeded?

We talk a lot about education in general right now as a culture, and we're using the word "failure" a lot. We're saying it's incumbent upon us as parents and educators of the next generation to help kids learn to fail better. "Fail" is a great word, because it catches one's attention. It's a shocking word. It's not a word you expect in education. For all those reasons, it's narratively interesting, but I don't think it's the right word, actually, and I don't think it means what we are really representing that it means. By that, I'd say that a real failure — an abject failure — is, like, getting drunk and missing a job interview. Like, that's objectively screwing the pooch. What we mean when we talk about helping kids to fail better isn't that. It's very specifically what I call "keeping them awake to the path." Here's what I mean by that. Whenever you set out to alter the world (and this is what I'm referring to when I say "making"), whenever we make something we create something out of nothing. Whether that's a song or a poem or a car or a bicycle, we are manipulating the surroundings around us, and whenever we set out to do that, one is never going to end up where you thought you were. That's just the default. And that's why we do any art form. If every painting we embarked upon looked exactly like what we thought it was going to look like at the beginning, nobody would paint, because it would just be a foregone conclusion. ... So when you ask how we'll know if we've succeeded, to me there's a reality to the end result, when you realize, 'Oh, I've traveled along an arc, and something is different now than it was before." But that only happens when you're awake to the path. So, to me, I think that helping kids see that is just letting them make stuff and realize just how far and wide things can go from where you thought they would go.

I was thinking, scientists are a lot like the Supreme Court of the United States. Both science and law like to believe they are anchored by truth, sequestered safely from the political environment swirling around them. And really, science — at least in practice, if not the purer aspects — has never been safe from political bullshit. And maybe especially now. Do you worry about that?

I do worry about that. ... And I think — how do I put this? I think on one hand you have the politicization of science, which itself is never not a tragedy, because it's subverting what all those of us who participate in the sciences think of as a pure discipline driven only by the acquisition of accurate information. And that's terrible. At the same time, we need to help our kids understand what real critical thinking is, to understand that when they see a newspaper headline that says "Scientists do blah blah blah," to take that with a jaundiced eye because of the sensationalist nature of storytellers, which is totally in their nature, and part of my nature, too. Finally, I think that the biggest disservice to science we continue to do isn't political; it's that we continue to put it in the category of "something smart people do." I think there are fewer more damaging things we can do to a kid.

I think this question can be answered without the necessity of revealing any political leanings you may have, but if you had to offer one piece of scientific advice you think would most benefit someone in the current administration who is looking for an anchoring point, what would it be?

Well, we have these very damaging, polarizing discourses in this country, and all over the world. There's been plenty of empirical data showing that when you show people things that disagree with stuff they believe, rather than changing their minds, they entrench. They hold tighter to their beliefs, and this is very scary. People say, "Oh, but science is just as much of a religion — you have faith in science." And I point out that, no, actually not at all. Science is specifically going to adjust its belief system based on the data available. There's no inherent faith in any specific version of the story. At all. So the real thing that, culturally, we should strive for is being willing to have our minds changed.

"Brain Candy Live" comes to Robinson Center 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 28. Tickets range from $33-$63, and are available on Ticketmaster or at robinsoncentersecondact.com.

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