Randall Munroe, creator of the sensational web comic Xkcd, meets Mythbusters co-host Adam Savage to offer some helpful (and sometimes hilariously impractical) life hacks.
While some of our greatest innovations seemed like terrible ideas at the time, many bad ideas are actually just bad. Randall Munroe’s How To: Absurd Advice for Common Real World Problems imagines what would happen if we tried them.
What’s the worst idea you’ve ever had?
Maybe the worst was, “Can you harness the power from the movement of tectonic plates to generate electricity? Can you get those to compress a piston and turn a turbine or whatever?” I think the answer is definitely no. I think it would take about 36 million years to recoup the building cost.
How did you end up becoming an author after a career in science and working at NASA?
Now and then I would tackle some weird science idea on my website, and people started sending me questions, like, “Hey, if Superman tried to do this, what would happen?” And sometimes they would explicitly say, “We couldn’t figure out the answer to this but it also seems kind of too dumb to send to a real scientist.” So I would do a bunch of research and send back these long emails. I was like, “I’m putting a lot of work into these.” I always figured there were other people out there who are as excited about this stuff as me, so it’s been really cool to hear from people.
How “actionable” is How To?
I’m trying to be more exciting than a microwave instruction manual, but I don’t think I have anything very helpful to say about how to experience personal renewal or whatever. As a kid, I really liked how The Way Things Work would take a normal thing and dive into it in a way that was sort of fun and have a story to it but also answer a bunch of questions you always had.
Favorite book as a kid: The Essential Calvin and Hobbes.
Favorite word: Phoropter is the word for the thing you look through at the eye doctor. I really like words where it’s a word for a specific thing and I didn’t know there was a word for that thing.
Savage’s debut book, Every Tool’s a Hammer: Life Is What You Make It, chronicles his path from cosplay costume building (before that was a thing) to a career in special effects, and then creating and co-hosting MythBusters for the Discovery channel.
Your book is meant to give permission for people to pursue their interests and obsessions, and share their secrets thrills. Is it easier to do this now than it was for you coming up in the 1980s?
Absolutely. It’s a great time to be someone with a niche interest because the web allows you to find your people. At the same time, when you’re younger, you still can be attacked for liking the things that you like or for liking the wrong things, and that process can continue to inhibit people throughout their lives.
When did you realize that your ability to make things was your superpower?
There was a point in the ’90s when I was working for Jamie [Hyneman at M5 Industries, a special effects company], and I realized I was taking all of the things I’d learned from art and finding my excellence at this job. With MythBusters, I found a common plane to do all of the things I’m interested in, which is to communicate my enthusiasm and tell a story about being creative and being a member of my culture.
Were you inspired by any other how-to books?
W. Timothy Gallwey’s The Inner Game of Tennis, which is also the best book on pool. It’s about physical intuition and getting knowledge in your body rather than trying to put it in your head. He said you have to fall in love with the ball. I love that orthogonal approach to a skill. You have to fall in love with what you’re working on, which means it’s complicated and it takes work and takes you facing yourself, confronting your own biases and your intuitions.
Favorite book as a kid: The Encyclopedia Brown books.
Favorite book as a teen: All of Vonnegut.
Favorite word: Inculcate. I love the idea of a deep intersection of knowledge, of a fact and the way you understand it.
“What If?: A Quirky Conversation about Our Fascinating World with Adam Savage and Randall Munroe” 12:45–1:20 p.m. // Downtown Stage