It was no surprise that the Marriott Imperial Ballroom was packed Saturday at 11:30AM to hear Adam Savage answer audience questions. He bounded onto the stage with characteristic enthusiasm, taking a moment to make sure to wave to all parts of the room before taking his seat. The questions ranged all over the place from mythbusting to Tested.com to tips on parenting. Savage is the father to twin boys who he refers to as Thing 1 and Thing 2.
One of the first questions was about how he keeps from getting frustrated and giving up when something he is building just refuses to work out. He quipped that he gives up all the time, but then more seriously he noted that the times he gets really frustrated are when he is underprepared for a next-level task. He told a story about a build he was doing on a short timeline that he utterly failed to deliver on, and when he was able to implement an alternative solution, the people who hired him told him they didn’t like how it looked and to take it out. They paid him anyway. But it led to one of the most important lessons he ever learned from fellow Mythbuster Jamie Hyneman: The only thing that matters is getting the commercial or whatever in the can. All the recriminations about how his solutions failed could be left behind.
When it comes to Mythbusters, Savage was asked about which episode was the scariest for him to film and it took him about two seconds to answer that it was the underwater car episode. The myth was about whether you could survive being in a car that ends up underwater if you regulate your breathing and wait until the air pressure equalizes so the door can be opened. Savage put his own body on the line to test this myth, and even though both he and Hyneman had tested each part of the car and made sure all of the fluids and been emptied, they hadn’t accounted for the person who owned the car being a smoker. The nicotine that soaked into the car’s upholstery was immediately washed out, making Savage’s eyes burn as he tried to open them. The car was also turned upside down, so Savage was disoriented when he reached for the safety diver behind him to give him oxygen. He put the mouthpiece in upside down, getting a big lungful of water along with his breath. He said he could feel his body giving him all of the “this is bad” messages that we’ve evolved to receive in dangerous situations. He recalled thinking to himself, “I really want this to stop.” And then, “Calm people live, tense people die,” and he forced himself to relax his muscles so he could reorient the mouthpiece, purge it, and get the oxygen he needed. Savage’s mother is still not allowed to watch that episode.
It’s also no surprise that Savage talks passionately and reverently and excitedly about science and scientists. He said that he’s come to learn that being a scientist and engineer is more about a way of thinking than education. One of the myths that he worked on was about whether tossing a penny off the Empire State Building could kill a person. (He noted that when you go up the Empire State Building, all of the levels below the observation deck are just littered with change.) They ultimately busted that myth, but during that process, he built a wind tunnel that had two different wind speeds because it turns out that pennies have two different terminal velocities depending on whether it falls flat or falls edge side down. His theory was that putting a penny in this tunnel he’d built would just oscillate up and down, and when he tested it, it did exactly what he expected it to! It was then that he had a moment of “Oh! Science!” He said he still gets goosebumps talking about it, and it was the moment he realized he had a point of view that he could bring to the show.
It’s clear that Savage is having as much fun as he possibly can, saying that he feels the most creatively fulfilled now making 400+ videos a year for Tested.com on YouTube. He recently got a 3D printer and one of the first things he printed was a 1:1 ratio print of his head to model his cosplays on. He’s also using it to have an animatronic severed Adam head, complete with castings of his actual teeth. It’s possible that Savage is a little terrifying. He made the point that science is specifically about collaboration. “Measurement exists because we’ve agreed to be nice about it.”
Savage also had some wise words for his teenage self as well as for parents who want to encourage their children’s interest in science. To himself he would say, “slow down.” He talked about how he is just now starting to come to terms with the kid he was and the ways in which he had to simulate charisma because he didn’t really understand the social interactions around him. To parents he said to see their children as people and meet them where they are. If they are showing interest in a thing, keep putting that thing in front of them. And if they lose interest in it, let it go. “There’s all sorts of detritus on the way to finding our passions… there’s more time than you think.”
There were several poignant moments as Savage shared a couple of stories about how he met the late Grant Imahara, who was a staple of the Dragon Con family for several years. He talked about how they met at the Industrial Light and Magic model shop, as geeks find other geeks fairly easily. One of Savage’s deepest pleasures was making a joke that was so obscure that Imahara would be just a little bit ashamed that he got it. He also said that Imahara was an amazing mimic but that he always did it out of love. He was the one who came up with the slightly infamous Jamie Hyneman impression where you wave your fingers above your mouth to imitate Hyneman’s moustache. Imahara also came up with variants of it, including “surprised Jamie” where you extend the fingers out and “underwater Jamie” where the hands cross and the fingers wiggle to the side of the face. It was moving to listen to Savage reminisce so lovingly about his late friend.
The thing that resonated the most was Savage’s definition of what a maker is. You’re a maker any time you take your point of view and use it to make something that didn’t exist before, whether it’s a poem or a robot or anything in between.
After the panel, Savage took a couple of minutes to chat with the Daily Dragon.
Daily Dragon (DD): Welcome back to Dragon Con! It’s amazing to see you. Tell me what you love about Dragon Con.
Adam Savage (AS): I love the commitment to—gosh, it’s really specific. At Dragon Con, which I consider the cosplayer’s con, there’s a commitment to the depth of cosplay. And that doesn’t mean that every costume you see is of the highest quality because that’s not really what’s important. What’s important here is that the costume represents what you wanted it to represent. And that’s what gets celebrated here. That’s what I love.
DD: That’s fantastic. I really loved what you said at the end about your definition of what makes a maker. Can you talk about the depth and variety of the types of people you meet, not just at Dragon Con but cons in general?
AS: What I love about the con scene is that there are cosplayers and there are actors and there are voice over artists, but there are also physicists and chemists and chemical engineers. The science track at the cons is this really amazing thing that doesn’t get written about a lot, but it’s at every con. And I also don’t know why utilikilts are here by the way but they are!
DD: It’s definitely a thing, yeah! Is there something that you learn when you come to cons? Do you learn something each time? Either about yourself or about the space?
AS: Absolutely, I like to think of the panels as a sort of open discussion that I’m having over a period of a couple of decades with a certain part of our culture. So I love the panels. I love the questions from the audience which are always surprising. Today I got asked one that I hand’t been asked before which was what advice would I give 11-year-old me. What a great frame to think about, and I really enjoyed it. Every panel for me is like that. It’s like a brand new interview.