MYTHBUSTERS Recap: Hats-Off Episode to Volunteers


Saturday night’s new episode of MYTHBUSTERS was an homage to its volunteers. Over its 14 years, MYTHBUSTERS have used more than 3,500 volunteers to test its myths, and Adam thanked them all saying, “To all our intrepid volunteers, we say we literally couldn’t have done it without you.” As a show that has been as devoted to them as to its fans, this says a lot about the devotion of hosts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, who often focused their episodes around the feedback of its viewers.

One part of the program in particular is a testament to that, revisiting and retesting the question: Which is the more effective tool against a rallying crowd of zombies, an ax or a gun? Viewers said that Adam’s first attempt to wield an ax to slay zombies was lame. So in this zombie finale, they put the question to one final test.

In the second part of the program, Adam and Jamie tested a question requiring a sophistication and effort they likely couldn’t have achieved without the experience they’ve gained over the years: Which is the more efficient method for grocery shoppers to wait to get to the checkout line, pick a line and wait or wait in a serpentine line for the next available cashier?

Just Ax a Zombie

When MYTHBUSTERS last tested the Zombie Apocalypse myth, Adam wielded a fake ax and scored a “kill” by simply touching a zombie in the head. That made it appear to be the best method. But viewers insisted that it would take way more than a touch in the head to kill a zombie, a point that Adam willingly accepted. So this time, Adam rigged his ax with an accelerometer that would require striking a zombie at 7.8 meters per second, enough  force to kill a zombie. When the foam-coated axe blade struck a zombie head at that speed, a “bing!” sounded and a light board showed “Kill” and the zombie would fall to the floor.

With the ax ready for swinging, Adam and Jamie gathered 200 volunteers mocked up in their best zombie wear in an empty warehouse and began the test. Adam stood in the center of a circle surrounded by zombies, and as Jamie let loose a siren the zombies closed in on Adam, who commenced the chopping. But it wasn’t long before Adam was overwhelmed and Jamie once again sounded the horn to call off the horde. Counting the dead, Adam had only slain eight zombies, not a very effective showing.

Next was Jamie’s turn using a semi-automatic pistol. He managed to kill only seven. Adam was still ahead by one dead.

That wasn’t looking very good for the fan complaint, because neither was an improvement over the past episode. It also only tested for a horde surrounding Adam and Jamie. Films usually show zombies moving through obstacles, like farm yards with buildings and implements and industrial areas with fences. To ramp up the test, the MYTHBUSTERS crew created a fence with a doorway.

Once again Adam wielded his ax, and this time his results improved. Adam’s number of kills increased dramatically to 67. Jamie’s increased dramatically, too, to 57 kills. However, the gun was still not a better tool for killing zombies than the ax.

I must add a personal observation: Adam was taking it easy on the volunteers. I suggest if you were truly faced with an advancing horde of zombies, you wouldn’t be zonking zombies at 7.8 meters per second on the forehead, you’d be swinging with all your might. Adam got tired after a while just bonking heads. Swinging that ax would tire you out a lot more quickly.

And as is usual for MYTHBUSTERS, Adam and Jamie didn’t settle for testing a myth in its pure form. They had to ramp it up one more time. Adam wanted to test it for the mother of all zombie killing tools: the chainsaw. Mocking up a rip snorting chainsaw with fake chain and fake blood, Adam also added a timer to ensure he was applying the “ripping chain” long enough to buzz into a zombie for the kill.

Bringing on the horde one last time, Adam sawed through zombies like a man on a mission, killing every one of them. And in his book, ranking a 100% on any test is a win.

  • Conclusion: Confirmed

Clean Up on Aisle 5

The question in this test was whether it’s really more efficient to look for the shortest checkout line at the grocery store or to get in one line and wait your turn for the next available cashier — the pick-your-own line versus the serpentine line. To conduct the test, Adam and Jamie set up their own very accurate grocery store, including 800 feet of shelves lined with more than 5,000 food items, all marked with prices, shopping carts and baskets, and five cashier stands complete with flashing numbered lights and pricing scanners.

The MYTHBUSTERS crew conducted a control run first to test that their setup would work, bringing in all 120 volunteers. It didn’t take long to clog the aisles and lines. So they reduced the number of shoppers by 25 percent and the queues became more realistic. Then it was time to begin a real test.

The rules were simple. First, a volunteer got a shopping list and a time card. They shopped and when they were finished and in a waiting line the time card was stamped a first time. When they reached the cashier stand the time card was stamped a second time, marking how long they waited in line. To make the checkout wait more realistic, they added two “bogies”: a price check and someone paying by check, requiring authentication.

First up was the pick-your-own-line test. With 138 shoppers going through the experience, the average wait time was 5 minutes and 38 seconds, with the fastest being 2 minutes and 16 seconds while the slowest was 9 minutes and 21 seconds. The customer satisfaction averaged 3.48 out of 5.

They followed that with the so called serpentine line test, where you get into the back of a winding line and wait for your turn to go to the next available cashier. Using this method, the average wait time was 6 minutes and 56 seconds – 27 seconds longer than the other method – but satisfaction was higher: averaging 4.33 out of 5.

The reason for the longer time was that waiting in the serpentine line, it took longer to get from the end of the line to the open cashier stand, but satisfaction was higher because it was perceived as being fairer.

  • Conclusion: Busted (but better)

If you missed tonight’s “Volunteer Special” of MYTHBUSTERS, don’t fret. It repeats Wednesday on the Science Channel at 9:00 p.m. ET (6:00 p.m. PT) and midnight ET (9:00 p.m. PT). Watch it live or volunteer to set your DVR.

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