Q&A TED Conferences

Inspiring youth with science: Q&A with Adam Savage

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Photo by Ryan Lash

At the recent TEDYouth event, Adam Savage, of Mythbusters fame, told three stories of groundbreaking discovery made with incredibly simple tools. TED’s Ben Lillie caught up with him just after his rehearsal to talk about what lead him to this type of inspiration.

This is an amazingly inspiring thing you’ve put together about what science is, and trying to get to kids. What are you hoping to get out of this, to inspire them?

You don’t have any control over what you collect in your head, the stories you collect. One of the commodities that I have is honesty. As a communicator, I have learned how to be honest about what I’m thinking and what I’m feeling, and that is what keeps me employed.

So, I think about the things that inspire me, and I make an assumption that those are going to be interesting to others. I mean, I’m going off Emerson, “To know that what is true in your secret heart is true for all men.” That is genius.

The stories that I’m telling here are stories that really make me excited. When I learned all three of these stories I got thrilled, and I got chills. And I want to communicate that, because whenever I’m having trouble understanding a concept I’ll often go back and read how the original thing was discovered, and that’s how I get it.

The other idea is that I love that they call scientific disciplines “fields of study.” Culturally, we think of science as a black box, and it’s in fact a field, and it’s a field in which we’re all explorers. That feeling that everyone has, that everything’s been discovered, has been felt by everyone throughout all of time. No one hasn’t felt like that, except for the people doing the discoveries.

You came to science through a convoluted path.

I was always a science geek. All of my key, important teachers, my earth science teacher in freshman year of high school, and my senior chemistry teacher. Sciency things, and doing math, and figuring out how things work has always been something that I’ve been doing.

Mythbusters has turned me into a scientist. It’s turned me into someone who thinks like a scientist. Show me proof; show me a second proof; show me the elegance of a simple equation, and I’ll feel like I understand something.

One of the things that strikes me is that shows like yours are an alternative, out of school, way of getting exposed to science and getting excited by science, that seems to be even more important than schools at this point.

Among the things that get slashed in every budget are all the things that get our hands dirty. Gym, theater, music, wood-shop—all the shops, I mean, auto-shop, forget about it—and all the hands-on demos that science teachers do. They just start cutting that.

I’m an honorary lifetime member of both the California and National Science Teachers Associations. They’re some of the most enthusiastic crowds, and there’s no one who knows more than they do how much I screw up at my job, but they appreciate the level of honest inquiry that we bring to it.

I also get e-mails all the time from home-schooled kids that say that among home-schoolers, our show is the science class—I hope those parents are checking with science teachers to know when we’re wrong. We never expected to do that, that’s not something we ever set out to do. It was completely a surprise that it came to be like that.

It’s the same thing you were saying, you’re doing what you’re passionate about and that carries through and people get the excitement of it.

Yes. And I learned that from comedy. I realized that all my favorite actors have either been stand-up comics, or did a stint of stand-up comedy. I’ve tried enough to know that I’m not a stand-up comic, but I understand the format. And the difficulty in riffing in a hostile environment forces you to look at yourself, and the best comedy comes from people being the most honest, and the least afraid of being humiliated.

That’s really what it comes to: being unafraid of being humiliated, and secure that this is going to be cool. So I’ve been humiliated on national television hundreds of times. I’ve vomited, I’ve been naked, I’ve been beaten up, I’ve been insulted. But it’s all for a better cause, because I know that because I’m being honest about it, it’s going to resonate.