MythBusters: “President’s Challenge”
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MythBusters: “President’s Challenge”

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MythBusters

“President’s Challenge”

Season 8, Episode 21

As a MythBusters fan, I’d been half-dreading the approach of President Obama’s guest appearance on the program, because it meant we’d have to hear from another wave of chuckleheads declaring that the experiments on MythBusters simply do not meet proper standards of rigor or education value. “The audience does not necessarily learn anything about optics or the scientific method,” sniffed Slate critic Troy Patterson in his review of this episode, a representative sample of the nose-holding “not science-y enough!!!!” crowd.

Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage are not scientists, but they are practitioners of science. That distinction is what makes them a perfect choice for a president seeking to proselytize science to American kids. The entire premise of MythBusters is that science is not a craft to be practiced solely among some unapproachable class of elites. Yes, they begin each episode with the disclaimer, “Don’t try this at home; we’re what you call ‘experts,’” or some variation thereof. Their core principle, though, is an accessible one: State a question, develop a test, observe the results, and adjust your outlook accordingly. And if you’re not satisfied, return to Step One. If that’s not the scientific method, I’ll eat my Erlenmeyer flask.

Pop culture tends to put forth a vision of science as a process that produces absolute truths—call it the C.S.I. model. The results on MythBusters fly in the face of that conceit. They’re fallible rough drafts, a reality that the show embraces, always inviting viewers to question their methods and suggest refinements. What bemuses me about the “not science-y enough” criticism is that the MythBusters version of science is far more accurate than the C.S.I. version. Science is an ongoing dialogue, not humanity’s one-stop-shop for easy answers. It reveals truths about the physical world, sure, but only by chasing the ever-moving target of the unknown. It’s a messy process, and Adam and Jamie honor that.

In tonight’s episode, to drive home the idea that MythBusters experiments always end with something left to be learned, President Obama asks the MythBusters to revisit a myth that they have already tested twice: the Archimedes Death Ray (or the “Archimedes Solar Ray” as Obama more delicately puts it). The legend goes that in the third century B.C., Archimedes outfitted troops in Syracuse with an array of mirrors that they used to concentrate sunlight on invading ships; the heat of the focused light supposedly ignited the enemy craft.

This was already the most thoroughly examined myth in the show’s history—the second test took up an entire episode, which is rare. Both experiments revealed a number of holes in the story. Among them: Ancient mirrors were crude, it’s hard to focus light on a moving target when the sun is also moving, and it’s easier to light a boat on fire simply by shooting some flaming arrows at it. The myth is almost certainly false, so the only question that remains is whether such a device is even plausible.

The president says that what the MythBusters were missing in their previous tests was “manpower,” i.e., the can-do spirit of our nation’s children. Right. It’s a little hard to believe that a lack of school kids was really the fly in the ointment last time, but Barack Obama is a man with nuclear codes that could destroy civilization, and Adam Savage is a man who wears a T-shirt of himself wearing a T-shirt. So Adam nods and does what the president wants.

Since the mirrors will once again be aimed by humans in this third experiment—the second try used a stationary array of mirrors designed by MIT engineering students—Adam has to solve the problem of erratic aiming. After all, when there’s a few hundred squares of light pointing at the same target, it’s tough to figure out which reflection is yours. Adam’s solution is to set up a long fence of wire mesh that acts as a giant reticle—essentially, a set of intermediate aiming points that the mirror-wielders can use to line their reflections up with the boat. Jamie briefly toys with a mechanism that’s more akin to a gun sight, but it doesn’t work because the moving sun would force constant recalibration.

Meanwhile, the Build Team—Kari, Grant, and Tory—work on something completely different. It may seem odd that the show would have its second unit pursue an unrelated myth on the very special presidential episode, but it’s a good call. Handing another entire episode over to the Archimedes Death Ray Myth That Needs To Just Die Already would be too much for regular viewers to bear.

The B-Team’s myth concerns a scene from Hellboy where the title character pounds his fist into the front bumper of an oncoming SUV, launching the vehicle into a mid-air forward flip. The question is whether a rapid application of downward force would really convert the truck’s horizontal momentum into a flip like that. The answer is obviously “no.” Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Hellboy, but the effect looks pretty unnatural in the film.

So really the myth is about understanding why that stunt wouldn’t work in real life. After totaling four Jeep Cherokees and whaling on one poor little model truck, the team concludes that the front bumper is too close to the body of the car to provide enough leverage for a flip. And if you ramp up the downward force to compensate, you just end up breaking the car.

Myth busted, but as always, the next step is an attempt to recreate the myth. So they modify one last Cherokee with a platform that extends off the front of the roof, and slam a 5,000-pound weight into that extension for maximum leverage. It kind of works, generating a somewhat satisfying half-flip. High-fives all around, and everyone goes home.

The main myth, after some scale testing on the roof of Jamie’s workshop, graduates to a local harbor where 500 middle- and high-school students stand ready with large mirrors. They position themselves along the giant reticle, and on Adam’s signal, aim their Reflective Surfaces Of Death at the faux-trireme sitting in the water. Wearing a fire suit, Jamie is stationed in the boat. He looks back at the line of shimmering rectangles reflecting their range at his craft. It’s quite a spectacle.

Unfortunately, that’s about as spectacular as it gets, because the rest is an anticlimax. That’s what this myth does. It sputters. The students switch from historically appropriate bronzed mirrors to modern glass mirrors, and the temperature of the target on the sail climbs, but to nowhere near ignition. Still, everyone involved seems to be having fun. When megaphone-equipped Adam can maintain the kids’ enthusiasm no longer, Jamie calls it. Busted, yet again. For the last time, please.

This fizzling finish won’t end up on the MythBusters greatest-moments clip reel, but the producers of the show knew that going in. There’s an obvious concession to kid-friendliness in the choice of myths here—it’s not like you can ask a bunch of middle-schoolers to help out on a JATO Rocket Car re-test.

The episode still works because the core appeal of MythBusters is process, not just results. It’s entertaining to watch Adam and Jamie readjust this old myth under Obama’s new parameters. By the same token, when Adam Savage finishes an episode by launching himself off an enormous water-slide and hitting a target in the middle of the lake, it’s not just cool because hey, success! Regardless of the outcome, I’m invested in a MythBusters result because I’ve watched two relatable guys craft the most inventive, resourceful solution they can muster in the interest of learning something they didn’t know before. If you’re looking to get people excited about science, the best place to start is by stoking a passion for this process of creative discovery at the heart of the discipline. MythBusters accomplishes that more reliably than anything else on TV.

Stray Observations:

  • No discussion of MythBusters’ scientific merit is complete without an obligatory link to the xkcd comic in which Zombie Richard Feynman offers this defense of the show: “‘Ideas are tested by experiment.’ That is the core of science. Everything else is bookkeeping.”
  • One thing that does bother me about the methodology on Mythbusters is that they mostly use imperial units instead of the metric system.
  • I would have expected the opposite, but I found the stiff, heavily scripted exchanges with Obama to have a bit more humanity than the usual stiff, heavily scripted exchanges that the show uses to set up myths. Perhaps it was Adam’s obvious awe at speaking to the leader of the free world. (Jamie seemed unfazed. I'd trust him with the nuclear codes, too.)
  • I didn’t entirely understand Jamie’s gun-sight gizmo or his explanation of why it wouldn’t work.
  • What would they have done with all those kids if it were a cloudy day?
  • Since we don’t cover this show regularly, I’ll take this opportunity to ask: What was your favorite episode of 2010? I think it was a strong year.