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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

This show has science in it?

Left, Bettman/Corbis; Heidi Schumann for The New York Times

The TV show “Mythbusters” made models of the
Hindenburg to see what role its skin had in the
disaster, left. Jamie Hyneman, a host, said he and
the team “don’t have any pretense of teaching science.”

The Best Science Show on Television?

Published: November 21, 2006

ALAMEDA, Calif. — “This is where we blow stuff up.”

Jamie Hyneman — who, to be honest, did not actually use the word “stuff” — stood in front of a two-story, blast-resistant ruin of a building at the back of the former Alameda Point Naval Air Station.

Mr. Hyneman and his colleague, Adam Savage, are the hosts of “Mythbusters” on the Discovery Channel. It may be the best science program on television, in no small part because it does not purport to be a science program at all. What “Mythbusters” is best known for, to paraphrase Mr. Hyneman, is blowing stuff up. And banging stuff together. And setting stuff on fire. The two men do it for fun and ratings, of course. But in a subtle and goofily educational way, they commit mayhem for science’s sake.

As the name implies, the program tests what the creators call myths, hypotheses taken from folklore, history, movies, the Internet and urban legends. Can a skunk’s smell can be neutralized with tomato juice? Did the Confederacy come up with a two-stage rocket that could strike Washington from Richmond, Va.? Can a sunken ship be raised with Ping-Pong balls? Could a car stereo be so loud that it would blow out the windows?

Mr. Hyneman and Mr. Savage, who produce Hollywood special effects and gadgets for a living, come up with ways to challenge each thesis and build experiments with a small crew. If fire and explosions or, say, rotting pig carcasses happen to be involved, well, that’s entertainment.

What they came here to do on a clear and crisp October morning, with San Francisco posing magnificently across the bay, was set the Hindenburg on fire. Three Hindenburgs, actually, to address a debate over what actually doomed the hydrogen-filled zeppelin on May 6, 1937, in Lakehurst, N.J. Hydrogen, of course, is highly flammable and was the obvious culprit in the disaster.

But a counterargument had arisen that the doping paint used to toughen the craft’s skin of fabric contained aluminum powder and other materials that combined to resemble an explosive called thermite. That, the theory goes, made the fabric as combustible as rocket fuel.

To test the theory, the “Mythbusters” crew built three 1/50-scale models over three days. Two had re-creations of the skin on the original craft, and a third — well, we’ll get to that one.

The three members of the “build team,” Tory Belleci, Kari Byron and Grant Imahara, were not on the set the day of the shoot, but a small video team was. Cameras captured the action from several angles. Mr. Savage had also placed one camera on the ground, facing up toward the mini-blimp, with tiny models of people placed nearby to mimic the newsreel scenes.

It was time to make a disaster happen. Mr. Hyneman stood by an open door of the building to manipulate a long pole with a gas torch that he used to ignite the mini-zeppelin, which was more than 10 feet long, hanging inside. Mr. Savage pinballed between peeking through the door and sitting under a canopy outside watching video monitors.

The first blimp, not filled with hydrogen, burned slowly at its tail end for a minute and a half and then foomph! Fire raced along its length in just a few seconds. Mr. Savage shouted, “Oh, my God, look how fast it’s going!”

“Say it again,” the sound man said, moving in closer.

“Oh, my God, look how fast it’s going through the top!” Mr. Savage exclaimed again. And then, as if forgetting that the camera was still rolling, added softly, “It’s so beautiful.”

Mythbusters is one of my favorite TV shows. Mostly because it's clever. And they blow things up and shoot them.

Seriously, cable allows for more diverse shows which don't follow the NOVA model of hour long documentaries.

There are other clever shows, like How Things Are Made, Intervention and Dirty Jobs Work.

The shift to more creative programs on cable started with a UK series on ancient battles which used the Total War computer program to depict the battles. Military Channel, part of Discovery, has a new series, 20th Century Battles, which uses massive, but simple, computer animation.

What these shows do is make the difficulr easier to understand. You may not get the physics of ballistics, but when a bullet breaks up on hitting water, you get that.

posted by Steve @ 1:21:00 AM

1:21:00 AM

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