All the President's MythBusters

It's the TV show that's encouraging people to think about physics, history and things that go boom. Plus, says Nick Harding, Barack Obama is a big fan
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The Independent Culture

There are many questions that occupy the mind of Barack Obama. Is there a lasting solution that will bring peace to the Middle East, will the US be able to enter into a new nuclear arms reduction deal with Russia, and is it possible to polish a turd?

Obviously the faecal matter might not be at the forefront of his mind right now but it's likely to be a question he has considered, because he is a fan of one of the most successful science programmes ever broadcast: MythBusters, and the "turd" idiom has been tested by the show in the past.

Last week, the President appeared in a special episode and challenged presenters Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage to create a death ray using mirrors and solar energy. Legend has it that the weapon was used in 212BC by Greek mathematician and inventor Archimedes during the siege of Syracuse in Sicily to ignite the sails of Roman ships.

Obama appeared on the show to highlight his administration's commitment to science in education and during his appearance he admitted he often watched the series with his daughters. The presidential seal of approval is testament to just how influential MythBusters has become. It has spawned a new genre of science-as-entertainment programmes and is credited with changing the way science is taught in some schools. Now in its eighth year, the show, which is broadcast in the UK on the Discovery Channel, rode on the crest of nerd-culture popularity and was one of the first science and entertainment cross-over shows. In Britain it has copycats such as Brainiac and Bang Goes the Theory. It has been vital to the popular science movement in America and has also been credited with attracting a generation of young people to scientific study, which it presents as dynamic, exciting and fun. The often complex theories the show investigates are peppered with explosions, stunts and special effects.

The theme of MythBusters is simple. The two presenters use scientific methods to test the validity of rumours, myths, movie scenes, adages, internet videos and news stories, and to conclude whether the supposition chosen to be tested is true or false. The subject matter is diverse and ranges from questions such as "Are elephants genuinely afraid of mice?" and "Can a human voice shatter a glass?" to "Is it possible to plunge your fingers in molten metal without being burnt?" and "Will the pressure 300 feet underwater really squeeze a deep-sea diver's body into his helmet?"

Although the show is unashamedly entertaining, it is underpinned by sound scientific theory. Adam and Jamie dipped their hands in molten lead to demonstrate graphically the Leidenfrost effect, whereby a layer of cold water creates a temporary protective shield around an item being immersed in a liquid of a specific heat. Executive producer Dan Tapster explains that scientific theory and method are intrinsic to the show. "The scientific integrity of what we do is vital," he says. "Every episode has a logical scientific progression. The myth is our hypothesis, our plan, is our method, and within that method we test data and interpret that data to get a conclusion about our hypothesis. That logical scientific storytelling is always the same in every show."

The show's popularity is evident from the viewer interaction it elicits. It has more than three million Facebook followers and the Discovery Channel's message boards are full of debate about each set of conclusions. Many of the myths tested are suggested by viewers and if fans disagree with results they can request that the subjects are retested and suggest method refinements. The Archimedes death ray myth, which President Obama challenged the show's makers to prove or disprove, has already been the subject of two previous shows.

As Tapster explains: "The President genuinely felt that we had messed up previous attempts. We first tested the myth in 2004 and used descriptions from history books to create a single huge mirror. It did not work. Viewers wrote in and suggested that we should have used hundreds of single mirrors, so we produced another show in collaboration with the engineering department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where we used lots of bronze mirrors placed on stands. Again it failed, but President Obama argued that the one thing ancient Greeks had in excess was manpower and that we should have used hundreds of people holding individual mirrors."

Each hypothesis presents the programme's makers with a unique set of challenges. In one of the most complex tests, the team set out to test the myth that, if an old-fashioned deep-sea diver's suit is accidentally decompressed at 300 feet, the resulting pressure will squeeze the diver's body with enough force to push it into the suit's metal helmet. Obviously a real diver could not be used, so the crew constructed an anatomically correct body using a model skeleton encased in pig meat. Pigs get a particularly raw deal on MythBusters as the composition of pig tissue most closely resembles a human's.

"Meat Man", as he was christened, was put in an antique diving suit, suspended in a shark cage rigged with underwater cameras, and lowered into the sea, where the test was conducted. The resulting pressure when the airline was cut did indeed squash Meat Man into the helmet.

Another challenging programme involved testing the veracity of a car advertisement in which a vehicle is suspended from a helicopter and dropped on to a spot from 4,000 feet while, simultaneously, a car drives towards the same spot from 4,000 feet away. In the commercial, the horizontal car passes the point of impact milliseconds before the falling car. As the test was too dangerous to use a human driver, the programme's makers had to rig a car with a complex remote-control system.

Because of the range of scientific theorems tested, MythBusters, which is made mainly in San Francisco and edited in Australia, calls on expertise from the scientific community that includes chemical scientists, electrical and mechanical engineers, biologists and medical experts. In the case of one show which tested the myth that an empty bottle causes more damage when smashed over a head than a full one, a neurologist was consulted.

The results and data gathered from the experiments conducted have, in some cases, been incorporated in scientific papers. Tapster continues: "We did a story asking why hunters went to all the effort of making stone arrowheads when they could have used sharp sticks instead. We conducted a lot of ballistic tests, firing stones and sticks into animal hides. Following the broadcast, a scientist asked to borrow our data and used it in a scientific paper he produced. We are also particularly at the forefront of explosives testing because we use them in so many different ways.

"We are trying to make science palatable for people and I now get letters from people who started watching the show in 2003, got interested in science as a result and are just finishing their PhDs."

It is this effect, of making science fun and interesting for young people, that is the show's greatest legacy and the reason why President Obama chose it as a vehicle to push his science agenda. The programme's makers claim that schoolteachers and college professors report that they have adopted a more enthusiastic approach to teaching science practically with challenges and tests, rather than theoretically through textbooks and equations, because of interest in the show.

In the UK, MythBusters is one of the Discovery Channel's best-performing programmes and the science-as-entertainment genre it launched has generated many similar shows. In The Big Experiment, Discovery used MythBusters-style experiments in an underperforming school to get pupils enthused about science. As Dan Korn, Discovery's head of programming, explains: "It is widely recognised now that in the UK, science needs to become more entertaining, and MythBusters is a good example of how that can be achieved."

And as for Obama's possible conundrum? Yes, you can polish a turd using the ancient Japanese tradition of dorodango, which involves working water into ground dirt and forming a ball with your hands. This sphere needs to dry and then the moulding/ polishing process has to be continually repeated until a sheen appears on the ball. The theory works only with certain types of faeces, however. Because of its carnivorous diet, lion dung works best. How to get hold of it in the first place, however, is an entirely different proposition.

'MythBusters' is on the Discovery Channel from 6pm every weekday