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When Rowan University signed Adam Savage, best known as co-host of the TV series “Mythbusters,” to be keynote speaker for the Class of 2020’s graduation ceremony, they didn’t know they’d be holding a virtual commencement with Savage speaking via YouTube. They only knew they were getting a man who steams through life like a locomotive fueled by scientific curiosity.

Savage co-hosted Mythbusters for the show’s entire 13-year run. Together with co-host Jamie Hyneman, the duo conducted 2,950 experiments, busted 1,015 myths and collected 8 Emmy nominations. He later starred in another Discovery show, “Savage Builds,” producing content for his website Tested.com. He also recently completed a memoir, “Every Tool’s a Hammer.”

Speaking from his cluttered garage in Southern California last month, Savage donned the brown and gold commencement robes of Rowan and received an honorary Doctor of Science degree. His heartfelt message was spot-on in the Season of Quarantine.

“What life will repeatedly teach you is that there is no master plan to follow,” he said. “When you’re curious, and you apply that curiosity like a beam onto what is happening, you start to surmise that the trick isn’t figuring out the overall path. The trick is figuring out what the next step is.”

“How do we face the future?” he added. “Together, of course.”

We talked with Savage to find out more about his own journey along a long, winding, hyperactive and fulfilling path.

 

Q: What episode of “Mythbusters” stands out for you?

There was an episode, “Will a penny dropped from the Empire State Building kill you when it reaches the ground?” In my research, I had found out a penny is a unique object. It can have different velocities when it falls between 25-70 mph. It’s my first season, and I’m thinking, “I don’t want to do a verbal piece on math. I want to show the audience things.” So I came up with a wind tunnel that had two speeds in it, and I was able to demonstrate physically that a penny had two velocities.

 

Q: The episode where you were underwater in a car – was that your scariest?

That’s the most panicked I’ve ever been about my shoot. My mom is still not allowed to watch that episode. The myth is if you drive off a road into a body of water, as your car fills with water, you become disoriented. They find a lot of people in the wheel well, because they couldn’t figure out which way was up.

 

Q: So you did the experiment once just fine, but then viewers said you can’t just lower a car into a swimming pool, because cars tend to go in nose first and turn over. What happened the second time?

I take my last deep breath, and the water fills the car. And then it’s time to see if I can figure out how to get out. I open my eyes and they burn because, while we had cleaned out this car of all of its fluids and like a thousand cigarette butts, we hadn’t cleaned the tar and nicotine out of the upholstery. And it made the water brown. It stung like I poured salsa in my eyes.

At that point, I closed my eyes, waiting for them to stop hurting, and then realized I had totally lost my bearings. So that part was totally true.

Then I reached out to my safety diver, who was buckled upside down in the back seat. I took his other scuba regulator, and I put it in my mouth. What I hadn’t calculated was the regulator he handed me was upside down, too. I’m thinking I was taking a big breath of air, but I sucked up a bunch of water, too. Inhaling a bunch of water when you’re already underwater and out of breath is the worst thing I have ever experienced. I tensed up, and thought to myself, “I want this to be over.” Then I thought to myself, “Calm people live, and tense people die. Physically calm yourself.” I relaxed my muscles from my shoulders to my feet, turned the regulator around, took a nice deep breath, and I was fine.

 

Q: You say “failure is always an option” on Mythbusters. Why?

Well, it started out as a joke because we were screwing up an experiment. But then I realized it’s actually a deeply scientific statement. A scientist doesn’t do an experiment to get to a specific result. They conduct an experiment to learn something. Every experiment yields data, even if the data is how not to conduct the experiment.

 

Q: What message did you want to give the students graduating Rowan?

One thing I hope they understand is they should follow the things they’re curious about and see where it leads them. When we indulge our brain in the things it finds interesting, we find ourselves. I think there’s no more powerful lesson you can teach a young person than that they have a point of view that matters and that they can use it to make the world a better place.

June 2020
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