Nobody disagrees that Discovery Channel’s longest running science show MythBusters was a lot of fun. But some do argue that Adam, Jamie, Kari, Grant, and Tory were never performing what could be called “real science.” While the show, in my estimation, may have been the most successful communication of science since Carl Sagan’s COSMOS, it’s true that a lot of MythBusters wasn’t exactly lab coats and p-values.
If “doing real science” means something more than encouraging thousands of kids to become scientists, it might mean producing scientific papers. Well guess what? The MythBusters did that too.
During last weekend’s reunion special, Adam Savage casually mentioned that he and Jamie Hyneman were co-authors on a paper about gas flow during explosions (specifically in relation to their sewer methane explosion episode). I couldn’t track down that paper, but I did hunt down at least two other scientific papers that Adam and Jamie co-authored.
The first is titled “Making a Point: Wood- versus Stone-tipped Projectiles,” published in the journal Antiquity. It’s an investigation into the advantages of adding a stone tip to ancient arrows. Doing so seems like an obvious technological advancement, but that assumption hadn’t been tested experimentally. So Nicole Waguespack and her team, using a setup very similar to that of the MythBusters—wood and stone-tipped arrows fired at fur-covered ballistics gel—tested the penetration and accuracy of both arrow types. The scientists ended up finding the same thing as the episode did. With no real difference in penetration or accuracy, there was likely some other reason for making arrowheads than simple tactics.
The second paper, published in The Chemical Educator, is called “Investigation of the Mechanism of the Diet Soda Geyser Reaction.” All the way back in 2006, the MythBusters tried to figure out why Mentos turned sodas into bubble volcanoes. They tested each ingredient to see which one was the culprit, only to discover that it’s apparently a perfect combination of all the ingredients that produces the best geyser, via a process called nucleation. David Gardner and Bhargav Patel found something similar in their paper, but noted that nucleation couldn’t explain everything that was going on. Temperature, soda density, and carbonation of the soda were also factors. Ultimately, the exact reason for the Diet Coke and Mentos eruption is still unknown. But the MythBusters helped.
Even if MythBusters hadn’t produced scientific papers, the argument that the show didn’t do real science still falls flat. What is more valuable: showing how to properly pipette, or making science look as fun, accessible, and diverse as it should be? I’d argue that not only did MythBusters often portray real science and the way scientists think, they’ve created a generation of scientists that will go on to make more combined progress than those scientists who say the show didn’t do it right.
Images: Discover Communications
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