in Bombs and rockets, Films and movies, Geek stuff, Science

For the unfamiliar, Mythbusters is a television show in which a group of geeks test the validity of ‘myths’ about how the world works. Examples include whether poppy seeds can make a person fail a drug test, whether cell phones interfere with aircraft instruments, whether falling bullets can be lethal, etc.

While many of these questions can probably be answered with a reference text and as calculator, what distinguishes the show is how they set out to physically test the myths in question. Rather than just calculating how much helium it would take to lift one of them, they build a gigantic rig of 50 huge helium-filled tubes in a gigantic hanger.

In the past, I have been a bit bothered when they have done something physically that could have been very easily disproven with a bit of math. A little moment in an episode I saw yesterday changed my thinking a bit though. It was the demeanour of Adam Savage – one of the show’s two main hosts – when they were trying to make him buoyant in air by filling a small inflatable boat with helium. In the little clip, it is obvious that both he and Jamie Hyneman know perfectly well that the boat won’t have sufficient buoyancy. They do the physical test not because it is necessary, but because it illustrates their methodology.

As an XKCD comic points out, the lack of scientific rigour in some Mythbusters experiments is only a very minor basis for criticizing the show. It’s obvious that they put more thought into their trials than they have time to discuss on the show. For instance, testing the myth that Benjamin Franklin flew a kite in a thunderstorm with a key on the string, they mention in passing the use of an ‘authentic’ key. Furthermore, it seems clear that their major message is about the importance of empirical testing and verification, which is ultimately the best mechanism we have for making sure what we believe about the world is remotely accurate.

The show is a lot of fun, and I think it transmits some really important ideas about science. Their fondness for explosives certainly makes for enjoyable television. Furthermore, Kari Byron’s participation certainly doesn’t hurt the show’s entertainment value; she has to be one of the most attractive women in the entertainment industry, particularly when welding.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Matt December 6, 2010 at 7:25 pm

I don’t overly mind the two actual mythbusters, but the helper segments are annoying, overly scripted and drawn out.

I can’t say I share your opinion of Kari’s attractiveness, either. She’s not unattractive, but I don’t find her remarkable.

robin December 6, 2010 at 10:30 pm

Welding is hot.

Mica Prazak December 9, 2010 at 3:50 pm

Haha. Oh Milan, you would so like Kari. But yeah, she clearly does nothing in the show, and is just there as eye candy. Kind of the female-Tory equivalent. The asian guy is the only one that doesnt anything in that bit.

The hosts are interesting, and they play off each other well. The scripted dialogue really annoys me though, it is like Discovery Channel Pimp-My-Ride.

The best one I have seen so far has been the “5 second rule” one.

. December 11, 2010 at 6:55 pm

Wednesday night, four years after first flirting with the Monday Night Football audience, 25 months after his triumph over fellow Army Wives enthusiast John McCain in the general election, six weeks after his turn on The Daily Show, Obama will pop up on Mythbusters, an educational-ish show airing on the Discovery Channel. His appearance is brief, warm, and not unpresidential. He does a fine job of improvising a protocol for interfacing with a show that poses such physics problems as “Can a motorcycle pull a tablecloth out from under a setting for a banquet?” and “Can fireworks really launch a person over a lake?” The small trick is that his cordiality is very slightly self-consciously stilted. Welcoming into the White House a show that makes “science” “fun” (“see if a BBQ propane tank can heat up enough in a fire to launch through a garage roof”), he puts his formality in quotation marks. He and the Mythbusters team are enacting a storytime theatrical for the benefit of our nation’s youth.

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