“MythBusters” begins its 15th season on Discovery Thursday (July 10). It’s the show’s 244th episode (not counting specials), which means hosts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman have tested hundreds of myths, theories and popular notions.
You would think that a lot of those experiments would blur together for them, then — but you’d be wrong. Zap2it asked the hosts to recall an experiment whose outcome was the opposite of what they thought it would be at the start. Each had detailed memories of a different experiment.
“The favorite one that always comes to mind for me is are elephants afraid of mice? We had gone to South Africa to do stuff about sharks, but the seas kicked up and we couldn’t go out on the water. … So we decided to go inland to just get some fluffy stuff, some filler. We thought we’d go to a game reserve and test [whether] elephants are afraid of mice.
“We stopped at a pet store along the way and got a small mouse, and we show up at this game reserve expecting the elephant is just gonna ignore it when it sees it. We did make some effort to make it appear naturally. We got a big ball of elephant dung and hollowed out the bottom of it and put one very unhappy mouse inside and hid behind a bush with some monofilament tied to the ball of dung. When the elephant came along we yanked on the ball and out comes the mouse.
“We thought the elephant was just going to ignore it, but it stopped in its tracks and practically seemed like it tiptoed around the mouse before continuing on its way. We were gobsmacked, because the mouse has to look like an ant to something the size of an elephant, and why it would do that is anybody’s guess. I guess they’re just not used to seeing mice appear out of nowhere. But we figured, doing proper science because now we’re interested, maybe we should do it without the mouse and maybe the elephant was afraid of the animated ball of dung. So we ran the test again with a different elephant, and the elephant ignored the ball of dung. We tried it again with the mouse with yet another elephant and the same thing happened.
“That’s one of those things we run into all the time. A lot of the stuff we do is kind of ridiculous. … But time after time, once we get into it, we run into things that we either totally didn’t expect or something we were positive was going to go one way and it doesn’t. We are so worn into that groove that we don’t hesitate — unless it’s something that’s mind-numbingly stupid, we’ll try it. Because like as not, we’re going to find some gold in there somewhere.”
Take a look at the elephant experiment:
“There’s not a fisherman in the world who won’t tell you they know for a fact that if you get too close to a straining cable on a boat, that cable can slice through you like a sword. This is just taken as general knowledge among fishermen. We decided to test it on the show — we called the episode ‘Killer Cable Snaps.’
“We learned how to stretch cables to make them swing as fast as they possibly could swing, we set up multiple grades of cables from eighth-inch to quarter-inch to half-inch — really fat, braided steel cables. Then we set up a hydraulic cutter and best of all, we hung some pigs right in line to be hit by the cable and be sliced. We seriously began the day thinking we were going to be slicing through pigs all day, and the high-speed shots would be incredible.
“By around 11 a.m., we realized we hadn’t done anything but dent pigs. … All the parameters are there; we’re just not getting the speed or the cutting power we were looking for. At that point, I called up the lead researcher on that story — her name was Linda Wolkovitch [a producer on the show]. … I said, ‘In all the research, do you have a single first-person account of someone being sliced through? Of a witness to the slicing, rather than just a doctor who treated somebody who claimed they’d been sliced.’ She said, ‘Oh, I’m sure we do.’ Then she called me back about 10 minutes later and said, ‘Absolutely not. I’ve looked through it all and everything is secondhand.’
“I realized — it was sort of a really pleasurable realization. As disappointed as I was that the high-speed shots weren’t going to be as awesome as I was hoping, I realized we were going to have to bust this because we had come to a definitive conclusion. We never mind busting something. We’re agnostic about whether or not a thing is true. But being wrong about it is always awesome because you realize your intuition was taking you in completely the wrong direction.”