Adam Savage and Michael Stevens, two big names in science entertainment, symbolize successive paradigm shifts in the genre: Savage pioneered the personality-driven, blow-it-up TV spectacle that made cultural phenomena of science shows like MythBusters in the early 2000s; Stevens has fueled YouTube’s rise as a science communication hub for digital-age audiences via Vsauce, his popular thought-experiment channel, and his new YouTube Red program, Mind Field.
As the year gets underway—and as science communication increasingly confronts a world of “alternative facts”—Savage and Stevens are setting off on a 40-city science presentation called Brain Candy Live, which launches this month. Scientific American asked the hosts to talk about their tour, future projects and the role of science communication under a new political administration.
[Edited transcripts of both interviews follow:]
Scientific American Talks to Adam Savage
Launching in 2003, MythBusters propelled Savage—a natural entertainer who turned the scientific method into a sometimes edgy and often hilarious spectacle—from special effects technician to nerd superstar. For 13 seasons the show kept millions of curious viewers spellbound by empiricism made explosive, and empowered Adam to help build Tested, a nerd-culture digital magazine, along with his co-star, Jamie Hyneman, and a few associates. Since MythBusters’ finale, aside from YouTube videos he has been conspicuously absent from major entertainment projects—until now.
What do you think it is about MythBusters that made the scientific method and empiricism so palatable to such a wide audience? And how can we expect that secret sauce to manifest in Brain Candy Live?
I discovered at a point in my career that the scientific method and the Aristotelian narrative arc grid beautifully on top of each other...and what we’re applying in this show is that science and art, which are most often portrayed as two ends of a spectrum, are in fact both just forms of storytelling.
Could you give us some details on what we can expect to see at Brain Candy Live?
One of the things that MythBusters never was, was a science demonstration show. We never set up a classic tabletop science demo and said, “Here’s the concept we were referring to.” We were always experimenting, because Jamie and I don’t have a degree in science. And with Brain Candy, there are more scientific demonstrations.
Having spent years as a science entertainer, what's something you've learned about people's relationship with science and empiricism that has surprised you?
[Kids] who are “science geeks.” One of the things I love about meeting those kids is that they are just as freaked out to see and meet me in person as any given kid. ... But the science kids, they get over that weirdness almost instantly and want to actually talk to me about the mechanics and the science of the stuff we did on the show.
What role does science entertainment play in culturing scientific literacy, and how does the latter shape the way people evaluate and approach everyday issues or policies?
Well, the biggest thing that can happen is that people who have real scientific literacy, they’re going to be willing to have their minds changed.
As a “myth buster,” you met former Pres. Barack Obama and recently attended his farewell speech. Now that Donald Trump is in office, what would you like to say to him?
Please have another White House Science Fair. Please have another White House Maker Fair. Help keep inspiring kids from the highest office in the U.S. that these things are not beyond them.
Finally, you weren't originally a science communicator by trade…so what is the reward in it after all these years that keeps you coming back?
It’s the kids.
Scientific American Talks to Michael Stevens
Although the popular YouTube show Vsauce originally focused on video game comedy when it was started in 2010, host Michael Stevens was soon lured to educational content by his love of impossible questions. Now among YouTube’s most popular communicators, he heads a network of educational channels and hosts the new YouTube Red series, Mind Field—and (soon) Brain Candy Live.
What was it that made you decide to venture out from behind the YouTube camera, let Adam Savage tinker with your glasses and tour the country?
I’ve done a few speaking engagements before where I’ll tell facts and do a sort of fun version of a Vsauce video, but live…I’ve always wanted to do more of that. And when I heard that Adam Savage wanted a touring partner, I was like, “Obviously I’m interested.”
You’ve said that getting people to ask questions, and to see the fascinating ways science shapes often-overlooked wonders, is a guiding philosophy of Vsauce. What makes that so important, particularly right now? And how does it play into Brain Candy Live and Mind Field?
I think all living organisms have some form of curiosity—even if it’s just that they are buffeted by Brownian motion, and that allows them to do random walks. That allows them to find food. I think that it is, in the case of Homo sapiens, especially true that curiosity has put us where we are today.
With multiple YouTube channels, Brain Candy Live and Mind Field, you seem to like to cover science entertainment from as many angles as possible. How will you do this in your next projects?
Well, I would love to do more demonstrations, but specifically computer-generated ones. There are a lot of hypothetical questions that would be fun to talk about, but would be better to show.
Who or what was it that inspired you to ask questions about the idiosyncrasies of the world around you when you were younger? Who encouraged your passion for science?
I think a lot of it had to do with my parents, obviously. And a lot of the books and gadgets my dad had, or that I was given as a child, really fostered an interest in the scientific method and understanding the properties of the world. I’m really thankful for that.
What projects have you taken on that have made science communication personal for you?
One is pretty much every episode of Mind Field, because I had to be involved. I had to be there with the participants. In many cases we were exploring things that we might not like about ourselves—or that make us question our own memories. That might make us question our own intentions and fears—and it’s very personal. … I’d also say that the episode I did last year on Alzheimer’s was a very personal and difficult one, because Alzheimer’s took my grandfather in October. In a way, it took him even earlier than that.
What made you want to talk about the intricacies of something so personal?
It was raising awareness, and part of that is breaking down misconceptions—you know? Where people think things like, “Oh well, dementia is inevitable. It happens to all old people. Once you’re over a certain age, you’re going to be all mentally bad.” That is not true, and we shouldn’t resign ourselves to thinking that.