Lessons from Mythbusters

We spent yesterday on the go all day, traveling to Chicago for the opening day of Mythbusters: The Explosive Exhibition at The Museum of Science and Industry. (To be precise, we spent all day on the go except for a three-hour wait at the train station. Our train home was delayed due to technical difficulties – the restroom in one car wouldn’t work and apparently it is simply not allowed to set out with a non-functioning restroom.)

We decided that next time we’ll simply have to spend the money to stay overnight, because there is just too much to see in the museum to do it in a day trip. (I had already decided we would want to go back, and purchased us a family membership rather than just admission for yesterday.) But at least we did get to thoroughly explore the Mythbusters exhibit.

It was fairly impressive to see so many of the props/experiments that we had seen used on the show. There was a statue with its head sliced off, one of the test dummies with a gouge through its cheek and clothes that had definitely seen better days. Jon recognized the champagne bottle machine gun; I must have missed seeing that episode.

But what I really enjoyed was the chance to actually try some experiments ourselves. This page lists what was available, and we tried about half of them. Some are purely simulations – dodging a bullet (I’m pretty slow – it took me nearly 0.8 seconds to move once I saw the light flash in front of me) and driving blind (I would have liked to try this but there was always a crowd of people around these computers).

But I did get to try pulling a tablecloth out from under a set of (unbreakable) dishes. There were two kinds of tablecloths available; I chose the one that someone said was supposed to be easier. Most of the dishes moved a few inches but stayed on the table, however the ones closest to me fell onto the floor. Personally I think I could have done better if I had stood a little further away – standing on the X marked on the floor, I didn’t have room to pull my arms back as far as I wanted to.

One very popular part of the exhibit was comparing how wet you get walking in the rain vs running through it. I remember seeing the episode where they tested the idea that you get less wet by running, and I was very surprised when their evidence showed that you actually got more wet by running. So I was more than willing to get a little wet to try the experiment for myself.

Al chose to take the walking path; I did the running. Then we stood in front of mirrors where black light made the water on us show up as white spots. (The link above explains how the water had been treated with a special dye to produce this effect.) Al definitely seemed to have more water on him. (I have just read that Mythbusters revisited this issue in a later episode and did find support for running to stay drier.)

I didn’t bother trying to change into a superhero outfit in a phone booth (yes, they really had some phone booths there). But I tried a few times to flick a card with enough speed to hit the target (“killer card toss”). I didn’t care if I sliced into it – I just wanted to reach it. But I never came close.

I’m not sure why the Mythbusters bothered to tackle whether the Big Bad Wolf could really blow down a house made of straw or sticks, unless it was just to give a fun demonstration of wind tunnel testing. I don’t know what they did on their show, but in the exhibit, we were provided with blocks to build a model house, then test it in a machine that blew a blast of air at it.

There were lightweight blocks that represented straw, medium weight blocks that represented wood, and heavy blocks that represented bricks. What we didn’t get was anything to hold the blocks together, so even if the materials accurately represented the weight and strength of straw, sticks, and bricks, no house we made had a very good chance of holding together. I think any little pig smart enough to build a house would know enough to include twine, ropes, or mortar as essential building materials.

But I tried it anyway, using bricks for the four walls, then adding an extra wall of “straw” on the outside of the wall facing the wind. This buffer worked pretty well, as the only bricks that fell when I turned the wind on were a few on the top layer. Al tried a house made only of bricks, and the wall facing the wind collapsed inward.

Another popular exhibit, especially with the younger children, was the “butter side up” test. The slice of “toast” was made of some kind of foam about the same size and shape as a slice of toast. The butter was a yellow piece that could attach by velcro to either side of the toast. And there were several different ways to flip, toss, drop, or push the toast onto the floor.

Again, I assume the idea was more to show how to go about methodically testing an idea than to learn anything about the behavior of toast. Does it make a difference what height it falls from? They had a platform with a crank to adjust the height. Can you repeat your results? There was a rotating set of metal “hands” so you could keep having them push toast onto the floor again and again. (They all landed butter side up with this device.)

One part of the experiment even asked if it made a difference whether there were butter on the toast or not. I couldn’t quite figure out the point of this, as once you took off the “butter” the two sides appeared indistinguishable. How would you know whether the toast flipped on its way to the floor or not?

But of course the point wasn’t so much the actual results, as the process that goes into getting them – getting an idea to test, developing a hypothesis, choosing appropriate materials and testing methodologies, and carrying out the experiments multiple times. And above all, having fun doing it.

So what did I learn? That it does make sense to run in the rain. (And that many young teens don’t show much regard for other people waiting to have a turn at something, and that being around a lot of people who are all talking at once makes me feel very tired.)

That there are some things you can “try at home.” I even thought of one to try with Al on Sunday after he gets home from his Boy Scout campout. And that, as the leader of a Mythbusters demonstration (on dodging paintballs) kept reminding us (quoting Adam), “Failure is ALWAYS an option.”

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