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Safety Education Via an Errant Cannonball

Tue, 03/13/2012 - 10:27am
KARL STEPHENS

By KARL STEPHENS

Karl StephanI forget when I first saw an episode of MythBusters, the TV show in which dubious claims, urban legends and other questionable contentions are placed under the searching glare of experimental investigation by a gang of enthusiastic, ironic performers, technicians and scientists.

The show has been around in some form or other since it was originated by an Australian production company in 2002, so it could have been any time in the last decade. I still regard watching it as somewhat of a guilty pleasure, partly because it is, first and last, entertainment, and why would someone with a Ph. D. in electrical engineering watch an actor (Adam Savage’s original career) and a guy whose only earned degree is in Russian linguistics (Jamie Hyneman) knock around a huge workshop and pretend to be scientists?

Because they’re fun to watch, and in the only sense that matters, they really are scientists. So when I saw a news report that one of their experiments — with a cannonball, it turns out — had gone seriously awry, I had to confess to mixed feelings.

First, the details that are presently known about the accident: For several years, the MythBusters team has used the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office bomb range for filming episodes involving explosives.

Apparently, this is an area in a natural valley supplemented by earth berms that would stop small flying shrapnel or bullets. But as the show’s personnel were testing a cannon that fired a 30-pound, 10-inch iron projectile, misaiming caused the ball to ricochet off the berm and fly about 700 yards into a nearby neighborhood, where it shot completely through a house and ended its career by smashing the windows of a minivan.

Photos of the entry and exit points showed animated cartoon-like round holes in the wallboard. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but use of the bomb range was suspended pending an investigation, and Savage and Hyneman have announced that any further such tests will be conducted farther away from civilization, in a more distant county. The test site where the accident occurred is about 40 miles east of San Francisco.

Until now, the show has maintained an almost unblemished safety record, except for one other less serious incident, also involving explosives. The producers always include one or two warnings during each episode on the order of “kids, don’t try this at home,” and when especially dangerous work comes up, they consult qualified experts for advice.

Considering the hair-raising things they do, this record is an admirable achievement, but because the show is so highly visible (Hyneman and Savage were recently awarded an honorary doctorate by a Dutch university for their promotion of science education), they have an extra obligation to do things safely.

If the show’s stars had gone through the usual science-education mill and gotten their Ph. D.s in the normal way, they might have made halfway-decent experimental physicists, perhaps. But the world would be lacking a good example of how the scientific method can be applied to everyday questions that people wonder about. Could Archimedes really have invented a way to set fire to a ship using the rays of the sun? Will putting aluminum foil on your car really keep cops from being able to use their radar guns on you? And so on.

Hyneman and Savage are really doing what used to be called “natural philosophy,” back when philosophy really meant the love of knowledge, and not some arcane specialty that you have to get a Ph. D. in to understand, which is mostly what it means today. Before about 1800, most science was done simply because people were curious, and wanted to know whether a thing was true or not.

There were no huge funding agencies, no boards of proposal review or journal referees — just a few curious guys (it was nearly all guys then) who got together in coffee shops and wrote each other letters about their experiments. And because there was almost no organized industry producing scientific instruments, they had to build almost all of their equipment and experiments themselves.

Hyneman ran a special-effects shop before getting involved with MythBusters, and so the very hands-on demands of that type of work (especially before digital technology took over movies to the degree it has) gave him a set of skills that fits very well into the kind of things required by the MythBusters shows. So his lack of formal scientific training isn’t really a disadvantage — instead, he goes about things the way the average guy with time on his hands might look into them.

And if you spend some time on YouTube, you will find a thriving subculture of amateur scientists who have happily filmed exploits with everything from multi-megavolt Tesla coils to using high-voltage electric-utility capacitors to explode watermelons. Hyneman and Savage are the heroes of such people, who probably make up a good percentage of their viewership.

Somewhat to my regret, I noted that the Wikipedia biographies of both stars list them as sympathetic with the skeptic or atheist turn of mind. While such a philosophy may be an advantage in their particular line of work, it is by no means a necessity.

Most of the natural philosophers of the past were believers of some kind or other, and that didn’t keep them from investigating the world they regarded as created by God. Many of them thought that learning about the natural world and its wonders was itself a kind of worship, because in doing so, they discovered more of the mind of God.

Atheists or no, the MythBusters people deserve credit for popularizing both science and how to do dangerous things safely. Their latest mishap, although attention-getting, could have been a lot worse, and I’m sure they will be more careful in the future while investigating questions from the past, such as whether a cannonball could really breach a stone wall.

And I’m glad they are continuing a long-established tradition of science for science’s sake — even if they are interrupted by messages from their sponsors.

Sources: I relied on reports of the cannonball incident from the San Jose Mercury-News at www.mercurynews.com/top-stories/ci_19490275, as well as the Wikipedia articles “MythBusters,” “Jamie Hyneman,” and “Adam Savage.”

Karl Stephens has worked in the industry as a consulting engineer. He currently teaches college-level engineering courses at Texas State University in San Marcos, TX.

What’s your take? Please feel free to comment below!

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