15 October 2004. I am watching my new heroes: Mythbusters Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman1 escape from Alcatraz, paddling to freedom in a boat made from raincoats. Fast forward 10 years and I am having lunch with Adam Savage, discussing how our research fits into his experience. Fast forward another 8 months and I am in a boat, made out of raincoats, escaping from Alcatraz. Following in the paddlestrokes of the heroes from my formative years!
The first episode of Mythbusters aired september 5th 20042. I was hooked. I was doing my MSc in physics (acoustics), and my image of science was formed by the big, expensive labs in our physics department. To me, ninety percent of science was putting existing knowledge in computer models to calculate all kind of different situations. Only ten percent was doing actual experiments. And suddenly, on tv, there were the Mythbusters, throwing my world upside down: does a duck's quack echo? You can reason it does, but why not just test it? Let's get a microphone, a wall and a duck and do an experiment. The beauty, the freshness, the newness of the Mythbusters was in the way they did the experiments. It always felt like I could have done them myself. Five years of formal physics training had mainly taught me to think about physics, two seasons of Mythbusters taught me that, with some duct tape, I could build and test anything I wanted.
It is hard to overstate the impact that the Mythbusters had. They taught a whole generation that ideas need to be tested to be considered true. That you can do most of these tests yourself. That building stuff is both doable and extremely fun. They showed that the best way to see if something can be done is by just starting and seeing how far you get. As Randall Munroe (from XKCD) noted: "Mythbusters is doing more to drag humanity out of the unscientific darkness than a thousands lessons in [scientific] rigor".
At the end of my MSc I spend three months in Kenya, studying groundwater. At one point we needed to know the hydraulic conductivity3 of the local soil. Had I not watched the Mythbusters, I might have tried to Google "hydraulic conductivity soil Africa" and use whatever I would have found. But I did watch Mythbustres, so we headed out to the hardware store, bought some PVC and built our own setup. Five meters high, in the courtyard of the school we were staying at. I was so proud: I, the clumsy, smart but not so handy guy, had built this thing! And it worked!
Had I not watched the Mythbusters, I might never have believed that I could hack my Wiimote and use it as a sensor, the single action that flipped my career from "nerdy signal engineer working behind computer" to the "hack, build and test anything"-engineer that I am known as today.
Fast forward to spring 2014. Colleague and friend Olivier Hoes shows me his latest model simulation for the San Francisco bay area in 2050. Water flows into and out of the bay, with average water levels up to a meter higher than the current levels. Olivier is looking into the effects of climate change: vital infrastructure upstream in the bay may be at risk. While he is proudly explaining what he has done, all I see is the island in the middle of his screen, and the water flowing around it. Back and forth with each tidal wave. I think about the three man that paddled in that water in 1962. And of the Mythbusters that recreated that escape in 2003.
"Olivier, if I give you historical tidal info, can you run your model for 1962?"
Hoes runs his model and passes it to Fedor Baart from Deltares, who adds a "particle" model, to simulate where the inmates could have ended up. Fedor makes online animations of our results, which we show at the AGU Fall meeting, december 2014, in San Francisco.
And then: a media-storm. The BBC is the first to cover our work and within no time we are doing interviews with all major networks in the USA. My twitter time-stream explodes. And suddenly Adam Savage joins the conversation.
I wanted to mention to you guys: the paddling was so much work that hypothermia wasn't an issue. Seriously. @RolfHut@MythBusters@CBSSF
When I watched that famous episode back in 2004, I could never have fathomed I would be having lunch with Adam, discussing water temperature and optimal raft building strategies!
It gets weirder. Back home, the media attention died out. But then I got an email: "I am Steven Hoggard, maker of documentaries and I've got money from PBS and Discovery Europe to make a documentary about your research. I want to film Olivier, Fedor and you building a raft and escaping from Alcatraz, testing your model in the cold water of the bay." I was baffled, Steven offered me the chance to revisit one of the most iconic Mythbusters episodes. Did I want to be part of that? Hell Yeah!
We had a gruelling, wonderful, weird, insane week of shooting in August 2015. We escaped under identical tidal situations that the inmates in 1962 experienced. I absolutely loved it. And now, March 2016, the full hour documentary that Steven made will be aired on television. March 27, (Easter sunday), 21:00 CET on Discovery Netherlands and March 29th on PBS.
I've come full circle. Eleven years ago, I watched Adam and Jamie paddle through the San Francisco bay. I got captivated with the myth of the escapees, but more than that, I got convinced that I could be a builder. And here I am, a builder, a maker and one of the few persons that paddled away from Alcatraz prison in a raft made from raincoats.
This year the final season of Mythbusters will be on TV. For almost two decades, Adam and Jamie4 have captivated, educated and empowered a generation of both current and future engineers and makers. Due to legal and political reasons between PBS and Discovery US the Mythbusters are not explicitly mentioned in the documentary. But let it be known: this had never happend if not for the Mythbusters. Adam and Jamie4, thanks for everything.
This is the original Mythbusters item on Alcatraz:
And this is the (dutch) trailer for our documentary.
And as a final goodbye to the show that formed me, and my career, I wanted to share this. Thomas Crenshaw made this awesome supercut with the best moments of Mythbusters.
1 and intern Will Abbott. I couldn't find his name online, but hours after posting this blog, Wills mother reached out to me, saying her son was in that raft, something she will never forget (which I can imagine!).
2 In the Netherlands. The first episode in the USA aired september 23rd, 2003 and the first pilot January 23rd 2003.
3 How easy water can pass through soil. Water drips easily through sand, thus it has a high conductivity. Clay on the other hand has a low conductivity.
4 And Tory, Kari, Grant and all the crew: making television is a team effort.