My eight-year-old grandson Vincent is a fan of the Mythbusters television show. He stays overnight with us every Saturday and introduced me to it. At first I watched just to see what so interested him but the show got me in and I began to record three or four episodes from Foxtel through the week to have them for us to watch and discuss.
A team of special-effects experts who are capable carpenters, machinists and practical scientists test such urban and pop-culture myths as: can a box of tissues sitting on the back shelf in a car be thrown forward so violently by a sudden high-speed stop that it would kill the driver? Can the spinning wheels of a motorcycle travelling at high speed skip the bike across a stretch of water? Can a sniper shooting at another sniper put his bullet through the other’s scope with a fatal effect?
Many of the tests involve rigging up complex machinery – remote-control devices, specially engineered household items, huge cranes – and often use a crash dummy affectionately known as Buster. The effects of gases and liquids on materials, the application of stresses and weights, demand knowledge of physics, chemistry and mathematics from the presenters.
All these things interest Vincent, who is also charmed by the humour. Buster is the occasion of many jokes and the team’s penchant for blowing up toilets and sewers to test the effects of methane and for seeing how many helium balloons it takes to lift a small child from the ground are very appealing. The double-entendres, ‘Did the earth move?’, references to erections and premature emissions pass him by but amuse me.
A coup for the show, which has been running for ten years, was the appearance of Barack Obama, who wanted to test the story that Archimedes created a battle-saving fire by the use of mirrors. I wasn’t particularly interested and don’t remember how the experiment worked out, but to have the details discussed in the Oval Office must have given the show a big ratings boost.
One of its best features is that conclusions are reached – the stories tested are judged to be confirmed, plausible or busted!
I have two favourite tests: (1) Can a bullet fired directly up into the air from a rifle kill when it comes down? Like many of the tests this was conducted in the Mojave desert where there is empty space enough to do almost anything. The answer is no. The bullet fired straight up would reach a height of 10 000 feet, lose all velocity, turn sideways and fall as a relatively harmless small piece of lead. It’s a different story if the bullet is fired at a sufficient angle. It can then retain velocity through its flight and wound or kill. (2) Can a boat be constructed using only duct tape? In this hilarious episode thousands of metres of duct tape were used to make a boat that floated and could be propelled by paddles and sails also made of duct tape. The two boat-builders escaped from the supposed desert island on which the task was completed only to be carried back to shore on the other side of the island by currents. Confirmed, but still castaway.
Mythbusters is educational and spares no expense to be both serious and amusing. The shows often provoke Vincent to ask me subsidiary questions, many of which I can’t answer. But we can then Google.
The presenters take risks like being buried alive and offering to be sucked under by a sinking ship. They are good actors, personable and quirky: this one comical, that one sober; this one sceptical, that one enthusiastic. I find the high-pitched chirpiness and exaggerated mannerisms of the female member of the team irritating, but Vincent won’t hear a word against any of them, which is how it should be for a good-hearted kid.