MythBusters isn’t merely one of the best TV shows currently on the air; by my reckoning, it is also the most purely nerdy program on television. The very concept of the show is steeped in nerd tradition, as who among us hasn’t whiled away a few entertaining hours discussing the feasibility of a questionable movie stunt, or an urban legend, or a dubious historical “fact” with some fellow geeks? These geeks just happen to be special effects wizards: The upbeat, frenetic Adam Savage; the stoic, yet eccentric Jamie Hyneman; Human crash-test dummy Tori Belleci; ginger-haired Mistress of Destruction Kari Byron; and the man most likely to be spared when the Robot Apocalypse comes, Grant Imahara. Together, they do what we just talk about — put popular claims ranging from the semi-reasonable to the totally audacious under the microscope, and test them in the real world. Also, they film themselves doing it.
While these Busters have examined all sorts of scientific phenomena, internet rumors, and other assorted “myths” — some of which we still can’t believe are true — some of their subjects are nerdier than others. Here are our picks for the 10 nerdiest myths MythBusters has taken on so far.
10) Archimedes’ Death Ray
This historical myth was so controversial the first time the MythBusters crew attempted it, it attracted the interest of America’s “Nerd-in-Chief” himself, President Barack Obama. The story goes that ancient Greek inventor Archimedes invented a death ray by focusing reflected sunlight from polished bronze shields into an intense beam so intense that he used it to set fire to attacking Roman vessels. The first time the show tried it, the experiment failed, but Obama reasoned it could work if more shields were used. So, operating under “Executive Mandate,” Jamie and Adam enlisted the services of an entire high school science class to redo the experiment. The beam proved hotter and more intense than their first attempt (which used only eight or so “soldiers”), but it still failed to set anything aflame.
In the end, it was posited that the technique may have been used to blind Roman sailors, thus making their assault more difficult, but as a means of turning attacking ships into smoldering cinders, no way.
9) Duct Tape Survival
What exactly is nerdy about duct tape? Well, it’s tough to put it in words, but there’s something inexplicable about this miraculous substance’s appeal to our kind of folk. I believe it takes the fevered mind of a certified nerd to look at a simple roll of grey tape, and wonder if one could make working black powder cannon, or a sailboat, or lift a car, or build a bridge… or even make a honest-to-God airplane (all these things have been achieved, by the way). A new duct tape specific episode is made whenever the MythBusters think of more new and wonderful possible uses. This recent season kicked things up a notch by stranding Jamie and Adam on a “desert island” with nothing but a pallet of the magic tape for survival (building shelter, finding food and water, signaling for help, maintaining mental focus, etc). They survived, obviously. Duct Tape is just that powerful.
8) Tesla’s Earthquake Machine
Nicola Tesla has been a certified nerd icon for generations: Beyond the brilliance of his theories and inventions, his well-publicized feud with Edison branded him as the brainy outsider who fought against the dominance of a flashy competitor. He’s like the smart kid whose science project was too complicated for the judges to understand, and thus lost out to the popular kid who built the biggest baking soda and vinegar volcano.
Unfortunately, Tesla’s brilliance began to fade into madness in his later years, and though some of his proposed inventions would later provide great material for science fiction, few of them were ever tested empirically. Enter… the Earthquake Machine. Using the principle of resonant frequencies, Tesla believed this device could destroy any solid object, and possibly even the Earth itself. It took hours of thankless work for Adam and Jamie to properly replicate Tesla’s device, which they then tested on an abandoned bridge. While the structure was not reduced to rubble as predicted by its inventor, the vibrations it caused resonated much further than the MythBusters expected. Could this machine have caused the devastation Tesla claimed had he been alive to rebuild it? Probably not… but we’ll never know for sure.
7) The Car Punch from Hellboy
Remember the scene in the first Hellboy movie where Hellboy stops an oncoming car by bringing his badass stone hand down on its hood, causing it to flip through the air? Sure ya do! Could it happen? Not as far as MythBusters could find out. It doesn’t matter how much force you use in punching it down on its hood, a car of the type used in that scene simply won’t pivot enough to flip over. They even tried to compensate for this by adding an extension to the hood, thus pushing the fulcrum back. Still didn’t work. In the end, it’s nothing more than an example of comic book physics in action — scientifically absurd, but awesome to see.
6) Super Powers
This entry is something of a cheat, as it’s not really an examination of a myth, and wasn’t a part of an aired episode, but instead appeared on the Mythbusters website. Regardless, it’s simply too nerdy to pass up. See, there was an episode which dealt with things from superhero comics and movies that could conceivably be tested and reproduced in the real world, so the matter of super powers wasn’t really explored. To make up for this oversight, the gang moved the discussion to the web where Jamie and Adam focused on the feasibility of becoming a superhero by receiving the abilities of a spider, while Tori and Grant mulled over the pros and cons of gamma radiation exposure. Guess which there are more of?
5) The Moon Landing
This was one of my overall favorite episodes, probably because I’m a big proponent of the space program, and have always found moon landing conspiracy theorists incredibly annoying. Each of the most popular arguments for the falsification of the lunar landing is satisfyingly debunked (footprints can conceivably be made in moon dust, that wasn’t wind making the flag move, etc). But MythBusters effectively closed the case when they showed the reflectors. See, anyone with a powerful enough telescope and the right coordinates can see the reflectors left on the lunar surface by the astronauts. And that’s rather difficult to explain away, I’d say.
4) The Coffin Punch from Kill Bill
So, you’ve been buried alive and left to rot like the Bride. Can your awesome kung fu skills allow you to punch your way through the wood of the casket lid? (You do have awesome kung fu skills, right? ‘Cause that’s kinda important.) And even if you can accomplish this, could you then dig your way out of the tons of earth that will start rushing in immediately before you’re crushed and asphyxiated? MythBusters‘ short answer: No to the first part… and no again to the second, even assuming the first was possible. The crew tried with only a fraction of the actual amount of dirt a real prospective grave-escaper would be dealing with, and there’s just no way to get out of the casket and work your way to the surface before the dirt incapacitates you. It’s too fast and too heavy. Bummer.
3) The Ninja Arrow Catch
Ninjas hold a place of honor in the halls of nerd badassery, and MythBusters devoted not one, but two episodes to their mythical prowess. This was another disputed and revisited myth, appearing in both ninja-themed specials. Originally, Adam and Jamie declared this myth busted when their arrow-catching robot could not achieve this feat, but the fans insisted they try again with a real ninja before closing the case. So they found one!
Granted, their ninja had them firing arrows on his own terms: He decided how far away Jamie would stand, and would only let him draw back three-quarters of the way on his bow. But he did catch an arrow in mid-flight! Okay, not exactly consistently, but he proved it’s possible, and forced the MythBusters to revise their conclusion from “Busted” to “Plausible.” Furthermore, he demonstrated that ninjas don’t really need to catch arrows, because deflecting it and then dispatching the archer before he could get off another shot is much more practical, and well within a ninja’s capabilities.
2) The Motorcycle Flip from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
This actually isn’t the first Indiana Jones-based myth featured on the show; Adam is an Indy fanatic (viewers are familiar with his regular donning of the trademark leather jacket and fedora), and previously the crew had covered two myths from Temple of Doom (“Falling Through Awnings”, and “Life Raft Parachute”). This stunt from Last Crusade was the most surprising, though, because it seems so reasonable: Flagpole is stuck in motorcycle spokes, motorcycle goes ass over teakettle.
When you abruptly stop something like a motorcycle engine, all that kinetic energy has to go somewhere, right? Wrong. Turns out it’s practically impossible to get a pole between a running motorcycle’s spokes — they had to use special wheels simply to test the effect of this act — and even if you get one jammed in there, all it’ll do is stop the bike dead. Still, here’s hoping the guys get around to testing the nuked refrigerator from Crystal Skull.
1) The Gorn Cannon from Star Trek
Quick run-down of the classic Star Trek episode “Arena” for those who may not have seen it: Kirk and the captain of a Gorn vessel are transported to an uninhabited planet by some of the Trek universe’s ubiquitous godlike aliens. There’s nothing on the planet but various mineral deposits, which the beings claim will serve as weapons if the captains can figure out how to use them. Kirk figures out how to make gunpowder, builds a bamboo cannon, and uses it to blow thr hell out of the Gorn by firing diamonds at him.
Alas, Kirk’s legendary Gorn Cannon got itself busted. Seems that while Kirk got the gunpowder recipe right, as in all cooking it’s not enough to know what the ingredients are, you have to know how much to use. If you don’t know the precise quantities of each mineral to add to make gunpowder, you won’t get squat. Of course, this is a moot point, because even with professional grade gunpowder, a length of bamboo like the one from the show would make a pretty piss poor cannon — even if you could get it to fire, it’d be all but unaimable. Sad, really.