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Further Reading for issue 23:
A Conversation with Kari Byron

When researching for Junior Skeptic #23: “Pyramid Power”, I conducted a fact-finding interview with MythBuster Kari Byron. Kari shared the inside scoop on the MythBusters experiments testing pyramid power. She also spoke about her background, and her experiences as part of the cast. (Her comments were quoted for a special cameo appearance within Junior Skeptic #23.)

I’m happy to share this previously unpublished interview now, with thanks to Kari for her kind assistance. I also wish to thank MythBusters publicists Katherine Nelson and Amy Hagovsky at Discovery Channel for arranging the interview, and to volunteer Christine Weldrick for transcribing it.

— Daniel Loxton


Interview with Kari Byron
conducted January 2006

Parental Advisory: this informal conversation contains mild language and some mature content.

Skeptic:
Thank you for sitting down to tell us about the MythBusters pyramid power experiments.1
Byron:
My pleasure. That episode was quite awhile ago so I had to wrack my brain … I’m like, “Oh God! Okay wait a minute!” [Laughs]
Skeptic:
I was trying to figure out how long ago that would’ve been for you…
Byron:
Well, for us, that was a long time ago. Well over a year.

It was such an odd one, and it lasted a really long time because we were having a hard time getting concrete results that you could show to these people and be like, “Look! It doesn’t work!”

Skeptic:
I guess the first question is, why bother with all that hassle? Why test it?
Byron:
For our show, we work with urban legends and myths, and, strangely, people really still believe in this pyramid power stuff. I don’t know if it’s because they can’t explain how the pyramids got there, how they were built? There’s always some sort of fascination with this mysticism of pyramids.

But, as long as people believe these things we have to test them.

Going in we knew it was “oogie boogie,”2 we knew we were going into something really nuts. But, y’know, people believe it, so we’re going to test it.

Skeptic:
Of course, that’s Skeptic’s whole reason to exist.
Byron:
Exactly!
Skeptic:
So, it’s an oogie-boogie topic. Were you able to go into it with an open mind? That would be a challenge for a lot of people.
Byron:
It was really, really hard to go in with an open mind, because I instinctively don’t believe these sorts of things. But, my science teacher said that if I’m going to try to be a good scientist I have to walk in without prejudgments and just let the results do the speaking for me.
Skeptic:
Just like on CSI.
Byron:
Just like CSI!
Skeptic:
So, how did you go about it? How did you test pyramid power?
Byron:
We did a lot of internet research, we read a lot of books, and we took the designs that were most commonly believed to be something that worked — the measurement of the tomb, where the king sat in the pyramid — and we used those exact measurements. The pyramids have to be in a certain axis. We did everything to the letter as far as our pyramid design.

And then, in the back of a lot of magazines, you can actually order little pyramid kits. So we ordered a kit, and used their design, because they claimed that it could keep your razor sharp forever if you bought this kit. And it was just a bunch of copper tubing and some little corners, like a Tinker Toy set.

Skeptic:
What do you suppose the mark up is on those kits?
Byron:
The ones which probably had, like, five dollars of copper tubing — somewhere between thirty-eighty and fifty dollars, I believe, is what we spent on them.
Skeptic:
Capitalism at work!
Byron:
It was great. It was really fun actually seeing the instructions and seeing the box it came in. It was so ghetto!

Come on, “Keeps your razors sharp forever”?

Then we looked at what people commonly tried to test these things on. We picked milk, we picked an apple, we picked a flower, because we didn’t want to use raw meat. A lot of people use raw meat. We work in the shop every day. We didn’t want to smell raw meat! We thought maybe a raw apple we could begin with. Even that was just disgusting.

Skeptic:
I remember the milk maggots. Ugh.
Byron:
I know! That gave me the creepy crawlies for the longest time. I was so glad when it was over.
Skeptic:
What were the limits of your experiments? Do they allow us to say anything with confidence about pyramid power?
Skeptic:
We were super limited on time and our sample size. Making the show, we can’t spend a really long time on these questions or truly give them the proper, thorough, diligent scientific experiments we want to. But we do what we can.

So we ended up doing this one for months and months. It ended up just staying in the back of the shop. We kept going back to it.

But our sample size was also very small. We would have liked to do a much bigger sample size, but we just didn’t have the room. So did what we could and decided to try to take some conclusions from that.

Skeptic:
With those limits, do you think we can generalize from your results?
Byron:
I felt comfortable generalizing because the results seemed really obvious to me: the apple wasn’t drying out, it was rotting; the milk was rotting; the flower was rotting…

And I took half of the razor an electron microscope and we looked at it up close and it didn’t look like it had gotten any sharper or stayed sharp in the least. Even the ones we used on Tory, they tore his face to pieces! They were obviously not staying sharp. I wouldn’t say definitively we proved it, but generally, I believe we proved it.

Skeptic:
You’re replicating a long history of larger experiments going back to the seventies; to the very dawn of the idea. Your findings are consistent.

So the question: is pyramid power bogus?

Byron:
If you’re asking me personally, I believe pyramid power is bogus. I don’t think it’s true whatsoever. I’ve had a chance to even be inside those pyramids, I’ve walked through them. I didn’t feel any immense power.
Skeptic:
Did your consciousness expand? Or your sexual potency increase?3
Byron:
Not that I have seen so far. I think I walked out the same girl I walked in. Except, y’know, the hallways are really, really short — so, I might have walked out an inch shorter. [Laughs]
Skeptic:
I spoke with Max Toth, the pyramid author to whose book you guys referred for the episode. He told me he still has “no doubts,” all these years later. To him, pyramid power is real.

Why do you think people believe this stuff?

Byron:
Well, the world is a really hard place to explain, and there are so many things that we can’t explain just yet. I think it’s easier to have faith or put the idea of magic on something because you don’t have to prove it if it’s magic. I think it’s just a lot easier on the noggin to assume rather than to come up with some empirical evidence and discover the answers for yourself.
Skeptic:
Do you have any advice for, y’know, science fair kids attempting to replicate these experiments?
Byron:
I would say to be as diligent as possible with the details. There are a lot of specific details that — it could drive you insane! — if you don’t want to get criticized, you need to go and look for the details and try to follow them to the letter.

For example, we had a guy come in to sing for the “Breaking the Glass” episode, and he walked past our pyramids and said, “Oh, you know what? I believe in these and your pyramids are too close together! Their energies are crossing over!”

If you want to satisfy people, follow as many of the esoteric rules as possible.

And: sample sizes as big as you can possibly handle in your space!

Skeptic:
Do you think that you can ever satisfy the critics?
Byron:
No, I honestly don’t think you can. I think people are very, very stubborn — I know I am — and when you believe something, you will find the results to support what you believe.
Skeptic:
“Confirmation bias,” they call that.
Byron:
Yeah, exactly.
Skeptic:
Can you remember some more of the criticisms that came in? I know you’re thinking back a year…
Byron:
There are so many different sorts of designs and ideas on what is the proper way to do this…
Skeptic:
I noticed you guys were using disposable stainless steel blades, while some people will say the effect will only work with blue steel Gillette blades from back in the day.
Byron:
Exactly! What we heard is that the atoms were supposed to, like, realign … I don’t understand why it would be one blade over another.

We did get some criticism on the materials we used to make the pyramids. Some people believed wood, some people believed copper, you know? It’s like most [paranormal claims] … There’s so much information. People who really believe in it are going to find something wrong with what you do no matter what.

Skeptic:
Okay, say you’re a science fair kid. You do an experiment — something like the MythBusters one — and you find that, for example, the half apple you placed under a pyramid rots slower than the half you left in the open. What do you conclude from that?

What’s your advice to the kid who comes across an anomalous finding like the one you guys had on the show?4

Byron:
Don’t settle for the obvious. Never stop asking the questions! You need to check your controls, you need to check the environment, you need to make sure the apple you’re using was cut with something sterile (as Tory found out!5). You’re going to have to try more than one apple! You definitely need to ask all of the questions: what makes the placement of this apple different from another apple? Is this one getting more sunlight? Is this one near something that makes it more likely that bacteria will attack it? You have to ask more questions.

Unfortunately, with science, usually when you start finding an answer to a question, it’s actually just going to be a bunch more questions.

Skeptic:
Turning to general background: How did you get hooked up with MythBusters?
Byron:
A lot of dumb luck. I’m a sculptor, and Jamie had a man working in his space that was doing special effects. My friend’s like, “You will love this place! It’s like a wet dream! You need to come check out this warehouse.” So he took me in there and I was drop-jawed! It was like, “Ah! Look at all this stuff!”
Skeptic:
That’s about the coolest studio in the world.
Byron:
Amazing! At the time, I had so many weird jobs. I was, like, delivering roses, I was a secret martini taster, I was a receptionist, I was just lost, trying to find myself. And all of a sudden I was like, “Wait, you can do this for a living?” And so I just started showing up at Jamie’s shop until he forgot I didn’t work there.

I worked for free for a really long, long time as an “intern.” I’m way too old to be an intern. I was out of school, and it just happened to be that MythBusters started filming at the same time that I started working with Jamie. Jamie and Adam and I all hit it off, and Peter,6 we all really hit it off.

I would help out behind the scenes with their experiments just for heck of it. Help hold the weather balloons when Lawnchair Larry was going up and — that sort of thing. Then all of a sudden they needed a Byron backside for the “Airplane Toilet” episode…7

Skeptic:
Ah! [Laughs]
Byron:
Jamie took me in his office and he’s like, “Well, you know, I … this is a strange thing to ask, and I don’t want you to think anything weird…”

I wanted Jamie to hire me so bad, I was like, “Yes! Yes! Whatever it is — yes! I will!”

I sucked up the humiliation. I’m a little bit shy! So they did a 3-D scan of my … my rear end, and … um…

I was learning a sculptural computer tool you can make 3-D models with. It’s called the Free Form Machine. Jamie let me take the 3-D scan of my butt, and I expanded the derriere and I put in some dimples and the whole bit, and we lowered it onto the toilet. It was such a fun thing and I was just kind of in the background.

Then, the opportunity came up: because MythBusters is so involved, they needed more help. They just said, “Hey! You wanna start being in front of the camera?” And I said, “Hell, yeah!”

Skeptic:
When I was spoke to Jamie last February,8 he told me how over capacity the shop is, between the special effects work and the show.
Byron:
Oh, definitely. Each one of these episodes takes so much work. It’s not like a reality show where you’re just filming a day and then that’s the episode. We could take up to three weeks on one of these. Viewers get to see the “Best Of” moments, but there’s a lot of boring footage of us just doing trials and experiments!

I tested Buster’s bones for three days to establish the proper breaking strength. I mean, three days! By the third day my eyes were falling out of my head. It was just crazy. But, it looks like we just found it right away.

Skeptic:
[Laughs] Well that’s because you guys are all such intrepid builders! You go straight for the right solution every time!
Byron:
Oh, of course! We never screw up!
Skeptic:
When I interviewed Adam,9 he emphasized the instructiveness of screw-ups for the audience — that one theme of the show is that science is extremely messy. The answers are always murky, and the questions are always trickier than you thought.
Byron:
Always! Anything that seems simple is usually going to be the one that kills ya! That’s the one that’s gonna take the longest, and it’s gonna be the hardest! I mean, “Toast Drop”? Are you kidding me?
Skeptic:
That’s one Adam mentioned in particular.
Byron:
That seems like such an easy one! How long did that take?
Skeptic:
It seems extremely straightforward! But those were awfully complicated toast-dropping machines.

Due to that whole long process of getting mixed up with MythBusters, you’re now a celebrity and a role model for young women in science. How’s that for you?

Byron:
At first it made me nervous. But I started thinking about it and now I really enjoy the idea for the fact that I was never a straight-A science student — at all. I was very intimidated and really shy about it, and guess a lot of girls are.

It’s nice to show them that you don’t have to be a Brainiac. You don’t have to be a straight-A student, you don’t have to have a thousand degrees to play with science: you just have to ask questions.

I like the idea that it might make girls try to be interested, or take the big dark cloud off of it that you have to be a genius to be involved in science.

Skeptic:
Now, celebrity has a flipside. I’ve noticed that you have this kinda huge cult following on the Internet. Is that all bad? Or partly good? Or … how’s that?
Byron:
Um … it’s definitely amusing. It’s kind of weird. Especially because my mom loves the Internet… Sometimes it’s a little embarrassing, because I know she’s reading some of these things.

I generally try not to … I try not to read any of that. It’s all so bizarre! And … I mean as long as … I don’t care about any of that. As long as they’re not saying anything scary, I’m fine with it.

Skeptic:
Fair enough. Do you have more sympathy for the Britney Spears’ of the world now?
Byron:
Um … I’d like to say yes … but, not really. With the kind of money those people make? Forget about it!

I really haven’t had … I don’t have the kind of celebrity that I think those people do. Most people don’t approach me. I occasionally get somebody walking up to me, in hardware stores mostly, but they just usually say, “I love the show” and it’s more of a compliment. It’s always been really nice. I haven’t had anything, so far — knock on wood — anything weird or stalkery.

Skeptic:
That’s a relief to hear.

Now, how about your fine art practice?10 How has that been affected by the celebrity that comes from the show?

Byron:
In such a cool city11, everybody says they don’t have a television. I know they’re lying, ’cause they all know the plotline of Lost. But, they don’t want to admit they watch TV.

So, I haven’t really gotten more people buying sculptures or anything like that. It’s still the same old people that come to my art shows.

One thing that MythBusters has affected is my time. It is a really grueling schedule! We’re up early. We stay late. Or sometimes weekends. And it’s really hard to come home after a day of building things and go in and start doing sculpture which is almost the same thing I was doing all day!

I find myself really forcing myself to go in sometimes and just initiate starting a project. It’s definitely slowed down. I used to spend all day doing that kind of thing, and now it’s become more of a weekend thing. Or, sometimes at night for stress relief.

Skeptic:
I can see that you might max out your inspiration by the end of the day. It’s like that.
Byron:
Sometimes I come home and I just want to just lay around and do nothing!
Skeptic:
Well, yeah, you and me both. That’s how I learn all the plotlines of Lost.
Byron:
Yeah, exactly!
Skeptic:
Alright, let me ask you about skepticism. How interested are you in skepticism, or the skeptical literature?
Byron:
Adam and Peter, they leave Skeptic magazine in the bathroom. I enjoy reading them during filming breaks because I’ve always been someone who loves hearing conspiracy theories…

I love the attitude of skepticism. It’s a lot of fun to read! It’s sort of that, like, fighting attitude — it’s just the American way!

Skeptic:
Well, thank you very much for providing some background for Junior Skeptic. I should probably let you get back to your grueling schedule. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us.
Byron:
Thanks, Daniel! It was great talking with you. Let me know if you need anything else!
Endnotes
  1. “Jet Pack”. MythBusters. Discovery Channel. 9 June, 2005.

  2. “Oogie-boogie” the term the MythBusters crew uses to refer to supernatural or paranormal myths, which are inherently more difficult to test than the engineering legends that are the typical fare for the show.

  3. One rather goofy facet of the pyramid power trend, right from the beginning, is that many claims were sexual in nature. For example, Joan Ann De Mattia’s chapter in Max Toth’s 1970s hit Pyramid Power describes her experiences after placing a pyramid beneath the bench she sat upon: “I noticed some strange feelings which I tried to ignore. After all, it was only 3 o’clock in the afternoon, and these feelings didn't usually occur till evening, and then not at all if I were alone. Thirty minutes later, it was becoming more difficult to ignore the pleasant tingling sensations that were spreading here, there, and everywhere throughout my body.” She goes on from there. (Many other pyramid promoters have made similar claims. Exposure to pyramid power is supposed to make you feel healthier and more energetic, so this type of claim could be viewed as a natural variation on that theme.)

    De Mattia, Joan Ann. “Enjoying the Fruits of Pyramid Energy.” Pyramid Power, edited by Max Toth and Greg Nielson. (New York: Warner Destiny, 1976). 198.

  4. The team took samples of several test items (an apple, a sample of milk, and so on), and divided each item in two. One half of each item was left under a pyramid, and the matching “control” half left nearby in the open. The results were identical in every case — except for the apple. Both apple halves rotted, but it was visibly the case that the half under the pyramid decayed far more slowly than the control half.

    This anomaly was thought to have resulted from a simple mistake: it’s likely one half of the apple was simply contaminated by the dirty saw blade used to cut it, creating a false but paranormal-looking mystery.

  5. See note 4, above.

  6. Peter Rees, the creator and original Producer of MythBusters for Beyond Productions.

  7. “Pilot 2”. MythBusters. Discovery Channel. 23 January, 2003.

  8. Loxton, Daniel. “MythBusters Exposed!” Skeptic 12.1 (2005): 34–42.

  9. Loxton, Daniel. “MythBusters Exposed!” Skeptic 12.1 (2005): 34–42.

  10. Visit the site for Kari Byron’s sculpture practice.

  11. The MythBusters production is based in San Francisco.

cite this web page
Loxton, Daniel. “A Conversation with Kari Byron.” Skeptic.com. http://www.skeptic.com/junior_skeptic/issue23/interview_Byron/ (accessed April 16, 2014)
Junior Skeptic cover

Junior Skeptic #23
Pyramid Power

Many people believe pyramids can harness strange supernatural energies. Some say pyramids can magically preserve fruit, or even sharpen steel razor blades. Who are the people who make these claims — and why? (Featuring MythBuster Kari Byron.)
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