The eternal question that begins, “I wonder what would happen if I …” is the foundation of modern science. Galileo was actually the first person of note decided it might be worthwhile to put the long-held scientific principles of Aristotle to the test by the simple experiment of taking objects of different weights and dropping them to see one actually fell faster than the other (note: they don’t). I’m taking a look here at two cable TV shows that take on What If questions and answer them by trying it and seeing what happens–although what usually happens is an explosion of some kind. But that’s a good thing.
Number 1: Brainiac: Science Abuse
I first discovered clips from Brainiac via Youtube and Google video, where some of the show’s more popular clips have been posted. I’ve since seen more of the Brainiacs, who are now running for their 5th season. They are broadcast in the US on G4TV.
The show’s “Science Abuse” motif is appropriate on a number of levels. Their idea of what might make a good experiment can run from the genuinely intriguing if somewhat silly idea of making a high school wind ensemble play their instruments after taking a breath of helium, to the rather obvious but still compelling question of what happens when you put various metal/flammable objects in a microwave oven. The Brainiacs seem to love nothing more than an explosion, so there is an entire series of microwave oven experiments that never end well for the microwave oven.
There is also a series of liquid oxygen experiments that tend to combust, and a personal favorite, the thermite series of experiments. Thermite is mixture of aluminum and iron oxide powder that can be ignited into what chemists call a “violently exothermic reaction.” It doesn’t actually explode, but you don’t want to be near it when it catches, and as a by-product, it creates a red-hot flow of liquid iron that will melt through the engine block of a French car. What’s not to love about that?
Number 2: Mythbusters
On the US side, anyone who has had Discovery Channel on their cable lineup has seen the Mythbusters–Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman–try to figure out which of our deeply held beliefs about things like airplanes suddenly losing pressure or cutting a samurai swords in half can actually happen. The show began its first season by examining urban myths–those friend of a friend stories we’ve all heard–not to figure out if they did happen, but by figuring out if they could have happened. Jamie Hyneman-he’s the guy with beret, the white shirt and the walrus mustache–and his partner, Adam Savage–have been building props for the movie business for years, so their approach is to re-create the condiitions of the myth as closely as they can to see if, for example, a penny dropped from the Empire State Building will go through your skull like a rifle bullet. Although they are not scientists, they take a scientific approach to solving their myths by clearly identifying their assumptions about the conditions, recreating them as close as possible, and in the end, determining if the myth was plausible, unlikely, or busted. The good news is that like the Brainiacs, the Mythbusters seem to operate on the principle that all experiments must end with an explosion of some kind. Which is good.
So which show wins the Geek Challenge?
Both shows, despite their different styles, have their appeal–plenty of explosions in both, with a smattering of scientific justification thrown in. There is, however, a crucial scientific difference between the two shows that tips one of these Geek Challengers to victory.
There is much in science that blows up or can be made to blow up or catch fire, or if need be, dropped from a crane and smashed, and a flimsy argument can be made that it is scientific to do so. What you CANNOT do, however, is try to make something blow up, fail, then drop a black powder charge in as an emergency explosion stunt double, and claim that your original experiment worked. This is exactly what Brainiac did in one of their first season’s most popular segments on alkali metals. These metals, which include lithium and phosphorus, combust on contact with water, and apparently the idea was to drop a AAA battery-sized slug of rubidium and cesium into a bathtub of water and film the mayhem. These two elements–referred to by present Richard Hammond as “the dog’s nuts of the periodic table”–were encased in a water soluble plastic sleeve and dropped in a bathtub while the crew ran for cover. The results were impressive–described respectively as a hand grenade, then a depth charge going off in a bathtub–but they were also faked.
It seems that while cesium will react quite impressively with water, the way the boys were trying it wasn’t working. The problem was that the cesium sank to bottom of the tub, where the reaction was effectively snuffed out by the volume of water. Rather than blow the expense of a days shooting, the producers decided to fake the explosions instead with standard special effects charges.
Other scenes have been reportedly faked as well, for the same reasons, although word has it that the producers, having been caught out by the Internet, have learned their lesson, and they don’t fake anymore. However, even without faking, there is decided lack of rigor in the way some experiments are conducted–for example, responding to a viewer email about how best to mitigate smelly feet, the Brainiacs simulated smelly feet by smearing test subject’s feet with stinky cheese. Seemed like they were going for the laugh here at the expense of a possibly meaningful result.
Mythbusters, on the other hand, present their efforts warts and all. Experiments that fail, fail on camera. Things that don’t go boom that were supposed to might eventually be coaxed into exploding, but it’s always clear that results are being deliberately pushed over the top. Even the Mythbusters themselves all appear under their own names, and their interactions are seldom scripted. Some of the Brainiacs appear under their own name, and some under psuedonyms–and there’s the rub. Brainiac can throw a white lab coat on someone and call them Doctor or Professor, but more than likely, he (or she) is just an actor.
Congratulation, Mythbusters! Mythbusters has their own website here, and you can buy episodes of the show on iTunes.
Brainiacs, please, keep it real. You can read more about them here.