How Do Simple Questions Lead To Big Discoveries?

Sep 12, 2014
Originally published on May 6, 2015 2:10 pm

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode From Curiosity To Discovery.

About Adam Savage's TED Talk

Mythbusters co-host Adam Savage talks about three people who inspired him to be curious: his dad, a former Earth-science teacher, and physicist Richard Feynman.

About Adam Savage

Adam Savage, the co-host of MythBusters on the Discovery Channel. On the show, Savage and his co-host Jamie Hyneman put urban myths and rules of thumb to test in visceral, often hilarious ways. Savage is also a longtime special-effects artist. He's worked on films such as Galaxy Quest and the Matrix sequels, as well as Episodes I and II of the Star Wars series.

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

So today on the show, we're talking about how curiosity leads to discovery. And, Adam, you are up next. Can you introduce yourself?

ADAM SAVAGE: All right. My name is Adam Savage. I am currently cohost and executive producer of "MythBusters" on the Discovery Channel, and I'm a lifelong maker of things and curious person.

RAZ: So, I mean, does curiosity, like, run in your family?

SAVAGE: You know, my dad was definitely a polymath. He was a painter. He was an animator, a filmmaker, a wonderful writer. But I'm trying to think if there was a moment I had - you know, he did make me a race car.

I had this teddy bear named Gus, and I wanted a racecar for it. And my dad spent weeks out in his studio making this thing out of hardware cloth, like wire mesh you'd make a hamster cage out of, and fiberglass - polyester fiberglass, which I still consider one of the worst material to have to work with. And just the act of, I'm interested in a toy, I can make that toy, that's what he said to me by giving that to me. He didn't know how to do it. He was just winging it. And that was completely formative for me.

RAZ: And like his dad, Adam's a maker. He's designed models and props for big films. But you may know him best from the TV show "MythBusters," where he and his cohost, Jamie Hyneman, test out questions like, if you drop a penny off the Empire State building, would it kill someone?

SAVAGE: We realized that the strongest episodes were the ones driven by the narrative of our curiosity, you know. That is the nature of science. It's often that you - you know, the discovery is not the end of a line of looking for something. It's tangential to it because something happens you didn't expect. Someone said that the phrase that typifies real discovery isn't, eureka, but, huh, that's funny.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MYTHBUSTERS")

JAMIE HYNEMAN: OK, go ahead, Adam.

RAZ: Has there been an episode where, like, the outcome was not at all what you expected?

SAVAGE: Yeah, there's a really good example. There's a myth about a guy who got very drunk at a party and convinced a friend of his to drive him home, except the problem was his friend was legally blind. But they got home because he gave his blind friend directions from the back seat.

RAZ: Yeah.

SAVAGE: So Jamie and I actually got a real blind guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MYTHBUSTERS")

SAVAGE: Jerry's 100 percent blind.

We put him in the front seat of a car while we sat in the back on a closed course, of course.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MYTHBUSTERS")

HYNEMAN: Start to brake. Now turn hard left. Perfect.

SAVAGE: But to really tell the story, we needed to have a drunk person. So Jamie got drunk.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MYTHBUSTERS")

HYNEMAN: Floor it. (Laughter) He knows better than to listen to me.

SAVAGE: And the most astonishing thing happened that we did not expect at all was that Jamie's directions...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MYTHBUSTERS")

HYNEMAN: Straight now. Right, right, right, right, right, right.

SAVAGE: ...Immediately made the blind guy drive like a drunk person.

RAZ: Wow.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MYTHBUSTERS")

SAVAGE: I swear, he is weaving a lot more around the road. It's like - oh.

Behind the car, it was totally clear that there was a drunk person in charge of the car. (Laughter) That's one of my all-time favorite results.

RAZ: OK, so nobody exactly won a prize for that experiment. But the point is Adam checked out a weird idea, and he discovered something kind of interesting. And nobody got hurt. Here's Adam on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SAVAGE: One of the funny things about owning a brain is that you have no control over the things that it gathers and holds onto, the facts and the stories. And as you get older, it only gets worse. Things stick around for years sometimes before you understand why you're interested in them, before you understand they're important to you.

When Richard Feynman was a young boy in Queens, he went for a walk with his dad and his wagon and a ball. And he noticed that when he pulled the wagon, the ball went to the back of the wagon. And he asked his dad, why does the ball go to the back of the wagon? And his dad said, that's inertia. He said, what's inertia? And his dad said, ah, inertia is the name that scientists give to the phenomenon of the ball going to the back of the wagon.

(LAUGHTER)

SAVAGE: But in truth, nobody really knows. Feynman went on to earn degrees at MIT, Princeton. He saw the Challenger disaster, and he ended up winning the Nobel Prize in physics for his Feynman diagrams describing the movement of subatomic particles. And he credits that conversation with his father as giving him a sense that the simplest questions could carry you out to the edge of human knowledge and that that's where he wanted to play, and play he did.

RAZ: I mean, I think about this story, and you think, like, if Feynman wasn't that kid, if he didn't have that sense of curiosity, could he have gone on to do what he did? Like, it's almost like he had to ask those questions. He had to be the kind of person.

SAVAGE: Yeah, I mean, he had the brain. He had the brain that totally wanted to exercise itself. There's another story about Feynman of him cooking a spaghetti dinner with a friend. And his friend, as he's breaking the spaghetti to put it in the pot, he notices that the strands of dry spaghetti don't just break cleanly in half, that there's often a third piece that springs out between the other two.

RAZ: Yeah.

SAVAGE: And from a material science standpoint, that is a strange behavior. And as the story goes, they never got to eat it. They ended up breaking every piece of pasta they could find in the house to try and figure out why the molecular structure of pasta led it to do this weird thing where it broke a third piece off.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SAVAGE: This is what really gets me going about science. Whenever I'm having trouble understanding a concept, I go back, and I research the people that discovered that concept. I look at the story of how they came to understand it. And what happens when you look at what the discoverers were thinking about when they made their discoveries is you understand that they are not so different from us. We are all bags of meat and water. We all start with the same tools. I love the idea that different branches of science are called fields of study. Most people think of science as a closed, black box. And in fact, it is an open field.

RAZ: Do you, like, see the process of discovery as almost like a journey rather than a place that you need to get to to figure it out?

SAVAGE: Oh, that's 110 percent. There is no end. There is no point at which you think, well, I'm done. There is the chasing the moment of interest and turning it into a moment of understanding, however small.

RAZ: I mean, I guess I'm always amazed, like, when you talk to a child - right? - they're full of questions about just the universe, about everything around them, about why cars move and how they move and how a telephone works...

SAVAGE: Right.

RAZ: ...And all these questions that, at a certain point in our lives, they're not answered. But we just accept that there's unanswered questions, and we move on. But, like, that's sort of sad defeat on the part of us adults, don't you think?

SAVAGE: Yes, and I was very lucky that in high school I had two science teachers that were really influential on me. One was my freshman earth science teacher who, he would say things in class that would rock my world. And I was a lonely kid. I didn't have much to do at lunch, so I would go back to his classroom which was right across the hall from the lunch room. And I would sit there and just ask him questions. And this is - I like to say, this is so long ago, he was sitting there in an off-period, grading papers and smoking in the classroom.

RAZ: (Laughter).

SAVAGE: But he would sit and answer questions. And then, you know, any line of questioning leads to the ultimate I-don't-know....

RAZ: Yeah.

SAVAGE: ...Because we don't know...

RAZ: We don't know.

SAVAGE: ...The most fundmental...

RAZ: Right.

SAVAGE: ...Parts of everything.

RAZ: Or sometimes, when you do have the answer, and your 5-year-old says, that's not true, you just say, well, if you don't think it's true, stop asking me.

SAVAGE: (Laughter) And this teacher would sit there, and when I got to the end of line of questioning, he'd say, I have no idea. I don't know why the flame - I don't know why a candle flame goes pop when you flick it with your finger.

RAZ: Yeah.

SAVAGE: And for a teacher to say that to a kid is really important. It's actually critical for kids to learn that the people in authority don't know everything - in fact, really don't know anything.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SAVAGE: We are all explorers. The people that made discoveries just thought a little bit harder about what they were looking at, and they were a little bit more curious. And their curiosity changed the way people thought about the world, and thus it changed the world. They changed the world, and so can you. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: Adam Savage is a cohost of the show "MythBusters." Check out his two talks at ted.npr.org. Oh, and in case you were wondering what does happen if you drop a penny off the Empire State building...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MYTHBUSTERS")

HYNEMAN: Three, two, one.

SAVAGE: Ow. (Laughter) That didn't actually hurt that much.

RAZ: Our show today, From Curiosity To Discovery, how it begins, how we keep it alive in ourselves. Stay with us. I'm Guy Raz, and this is the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.