When the show started, the image of science and engineering in mainstream culture was at a low ebb. NASA’s Apollo glory days were long past, and the Columbia space shuttle disintegrated on re-entry just days after the show’s premiere episode. There was no leading scientist able to connect with the general public the way the astronomer Carl Sagan had before his death in 1996. Even Bill Nye, “the Science Guy,” had been dropped from the airwaves. And popular sci-fi movies of the era — “The Matrix,” “Minority Report” — depicted science and technology leading us to bleak, dystopian futures.
Academic interest in science was in similar decline: Barely 20 percent of college freshmen were signing up for majors in science, technology, engineering and math, known as STEM fields — continuing a long downward trend.
“MythBusters” helped reverse that trend not by gussying science up, but by taking it seriously. “You can’t underestimate the power of TV to give young people a lens to see science through,” says the materials scientist and STEM evangelist Anissa Ramirez. “ ‘MythBusters’ helped viewers feel empowered to participate.”