Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Mythbusting: bringing science into the arena

My elder daughter is a big fan of the Discovery Channel show Mythbusters, who have spent eleven years testing myths (and not a few Hollywood set pieces) via science, technology, engineering and frequent resort to high explosives. Therefore, as a birthday treat I recently took her to the live Behind the Myths tour, fronted by Mythbusters hosts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman. Considering how macho the series frequently is - it's only female presenter, now left, is a vegetarian who was made to eat live bugs - it was interesting to see what and how the science was presented live.

In some respects it lived up to its reputation, with the hosts apologising for the lack of on-stage explosions but claiming their intentions were to 'blow the mind' instead of say, a pick-up truck or hot water cylinder. That's not to say that there weren't some fiery moments, including several montages of explosions and the infamous paintball machine gun aimed at someone wearing a suit of replica armour. Considering a large percentage of the audience consisted of pre-teens with their parents, the big bang elements were very much appreciated. But since the presenters have a special effects rather than science background, was there anything worthwhile beyond the showmanship?

Apart from a brief introduction to Newton's Second Law of Motion (force equals mass times acceleration, in case you weren't sure) there wasn't much of the classroom about the show. Except that for two hours Hyneman and Savage managed to painlessly convey a lot of scientific ideas. Examples included:
  • Archimedes' quote about using a lever to move the world was demonstrated via a fairground high striker and different sized mallets;
  • Perception, thanks to a point of view camera and some comedic cheating;
  • Tessellation and human mechanics, with four interlocked reclining men able to support their own weight when their chairs were taken away;
  • Friction via a circus-like stunt, in which Savage was lifted high above the stage thanks to the strength of interwoven telephone directories.
Although it might be quite easy to lose sight of the science behind all the razzmatazz, perhaps that was the point. These demonstrations reminded me of the Royal Institution's Christmas lectures, aimed primarily at 'young people' and barely a decade shy of being two hundred years' old. Unlike the television series, which has sometimes revisited experiments - occasionally reversing the original results in the process - the Behind the Myths tour was more a solid grounding in basic physics, with a little chemistry and biology thrown in. If anything, the most obvious outcomes would be to promote curiosity by recognising that science is deeply embedded in everyday life, and that exploring reality can be enormous fun.

The first section of the show had Adam Savage demonstrate juggling whilst explaining how he taught himself the techniques. Since his recollection discussed patience, perseverance and learning from your mistakes, you could say he was presenting in microcosm key elements of the scientific enterprise,' eureka' moments excepted.

I'm uncertain how many in the audience would cotton on to the science-by-the-backdoor aspect of the show. If anything, the children present may be more likely to want a career in movie special effects than in science, but the sense of wonder it generated may have also rubbed off on the adults present. Hyneman and Savage have become well-known enough in their support of STEM subjects and dislike of woolly thinking (take note, Discovery Channel , home of Finding Bigfoot) to have spoken at the 2006 annual convention of the US National Science Teachers Association, as well as presenting a demonstration to President Obama. That's no mean feat for a couple of special effects technicians with no formal science training. Let's hope that the some of the audience sees beyond the whizz bangs into the wonderful world that scientific exploration offers!