(Investigator 103, 2005 September)
- Do you avoid peeing on the railway line when you wait for a train because you might get an electric shock?
- Will the petrol station explode in fire if your mobile phone rings while you fill your tank?
- Will a hole in an airliner in flight suck everyone out?
- If the cable snaps and the lift plummets with you inside, can you save yourself by jumping up in the split second before impact?
- Will your car door stop bullets if you're in a gunfight?
- If you're blown off a building while carrying a sheet of plywood, could you maneuver the plywood to sail through the air and land you safely?
Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman are the "Myth Busters". They recreate the circumstances of urban legends on television and confirm or refute them.
Many replications use gasoline, black powder or powerful engines. Therefore professionals, such as paramedics and the FBI bomb squad, are often present.
The program features lots of explosions, a few jokes, and some anguished cries. Jamie tells viewers, "I always enjoy seeing Adam in pain." And in one show he says, "Embarrassment and pain and humiliation are a good thing for Adam to experience."
Can ordinary playing cards become weapons of death by throwing them edgewise? The world distance record is 200 feet; the speed record 90mph. The myth busters built an electric throwing machine, which flicked cards out at 150mph between two fast-spinning metal wheels. Jamie bared his hairy chest and stood in the firing line. The myth was busted — the card caused a scratch, which drew a drop of blood, but Jamie lived.
Can a sunken ship be raised by pumping it full of ping pong balls? Yes. Donald Duck and his duck nephews did this in a 1940s comic and the myth busters duplicated it. They sank a 3,500-pound fibre glass boat in 30 feet of water and pumped ping pong balls into it. After 27,000 balls it rose to the surface. However, the method only works in shallow water because pressure cracks the balls at 90-feet depth.
Do thawed chickens have more impact than frozen chickens when fired from an air cannon? Answering this one was difficult but a result came after firing at twelve sheets of ¼-inch-thick glass.
Answer — the thawed chickens broke two overlapping panes, frozen chickens broke through all twelve.
Some ideas tested are from the movies.
Would being painted in gold paint, like in the James Bond movie, kill you from overheating? Initially it seemed so. Jamie's blood pressure got so high medical supervisors stopped the experiment. However, Jamie has high blood pressure much of the time. A repeat of the experiment used Adam and got the opposite result — blood pressure stayed normal and his core temperature actually went down.
If you shoot a scuba tank in a shark's mouth with a rifle would it explode the shark's head like in Jaws? Answer — No.
Does killer quicksand that sucks people under, as happens to the bad guys in some movies, exist? High-school physics students know that objects float more easily on denser liquids — and water with suspended sand is denser than plain water. However, for the sake of certainty the myth busters put a ton of fine-grained sand into a tank, pumped in water from below to make it soft by "liquefaction", and Jamie climbed in. At first the sand was hard. Then as water bubble up Jamie sank, but only to chest depth. Yes, myth busted. Animals do die in muddy pools but from exposure after being stuck a long time, not by being sucked down.
Another movie favourite — would an electrical appliance thrown into the water when you're having a bath electrocute you? It's not the voltage that kills but the electrical current; six milliamps is the threshold where the heart is stopped. The myth busters found that appliances with heating elements produce the most current in the water: a toaster 12ma, an iron 32ma. If you have breakfast in the bath surrounded by electric appliances then don't!
If you buy your toddler balloons at a carnival, could the balloons fly him away? This was the theme in one of the Mr Bean TV shows. The myth busters filled thousands of balloons with helium and got a 44-pound little girl to volunteer. To lift her up required about 4,000 balloons — much more than any carnival vendor would give a child.
AN IMPORTANT ASSISTANT
Whenever investigations require being blown up, whacked, dropped or dumped, Buster is volunteered. Buster is a dummy. He gets volunteered for anything risky like sailing off a building attached to a sheet of plywood, or occupying a lift crashing down when the cables snap.
There are stories, going back over 60 years, of a builder at ground level wanting to lower a barrel of bricks from the top of a building with a rope and pulley. Because the barrel is heavier than him he goes up hitting the barrel on the way down and hits his head on the top of the building. The barrel hits the ground and spills the bricks. The builder then goes down hitting the barrel on the way up. He crashes onto the pile of bricks and lets go the rope. The barrel then crashes down onto his head.
For this experiment Buster was ideal. The verdict was the scenario is possible but the builder would have had to be stupid.
Fire-fighting helicopters that suck up water from lakes or rivers while in flight have been around since 1987. Could a scuba diver accidentally be sucked up and dumped onto a forest fire?
The myth busters simulated this with a 225hp pump fitted to a 10 inch diameter pipe able to suck 2,000 gallons in 45 seconds and again Buster was volunteered. The result? Buster was held fast while under water, but fell away when he surfaced due to insufficient suction. Myth busted.
Many myth-replications are of ordinary events, therefore directly relevant to viewers. For example, will aerosol cans and drink cans explode if left in your car on a hot day? No — the inside of the car reached 120oF but the tested cans did not burst or explode. At 320 oF inside a kiln, however, several cans did pop open but no explosion.
If you're a speedster are there legal ways to beat the police speed radar? The myth busters tried and busted the following suggestions
The last two suggestions, besides being busted, would make your car rather conspicuous. There are also paints that absorb radar but they're so expensive say the myth busters, that it's cheaper to pay speed fines.
- Jiggling keys.
- Shoot small pieces of aluminium foil with a chaff gun.
- Cover the hubcaps with tin foil.
- Shoot microwaves back at the radar.
- Attach a revolving mirror rig to the car's roof.
- Cover the entire car with tin foil.
Are Daddy Longleg spiders the world's most venomous spiders and only safe because their fangs are too short to penetrate human skin? No — the fangs are long enough. Adam got bitten but survived.
Would the lower air pressure inside an aeroplane in flight explode breast implants? Using a vacuum chamber to simulate high altitude gave a No.
What about inflatable bras with air pockets? Again no — not even if the air pressure is lowered to the equivalent of 70,000 feet altitude. The lady's bra would enlarge to an eye-popping extent but she wouldn't care because by then she'd be dead.
Would eating "pop rocks" and washing them down with fizzy drinks burst your stomach? The intrepid myth busters tried it and nothing burst.
Does fecal matter from a toilet bowl reach toothbrushes on the wall across the room? Answer — Yes.
Could your tattoos explode when you go for Magnetic Resonance Imaging? Tattoos done 20 years ago have traces of metal and MRI is a powerful magnet 30,000 times as strong as the Earth's magnetic field. The myth busters prepared a tattoo pigment with extra iron oxide (the metal which best reacted to magnetism), tattooed a lump of pork and submitted the pork for an MRI scan. Myth busted — no explosion.
Could "jaw breakers" — a large round candy with a solid centre — explode if eaten after lying in sunshine and ruin your face? The myth busters tried different heating regimes in a microwave and used artificial jaws with a force gauge to measure the pressure. They found that a green layer heats faster and can crack the jaw breaker. However, an explosion required traces of caustic soda in the candy. Such contamination, they speculated, can occur because caustic soda is used to clean the equipment.
Could cola substitute for water if your car radiator is dry? Yes, it worked for a while. What if the radiator has a hole — will egg poured in plug it? Yes, it worked.
Some urban legends have political or military implications. For example, could an assassin fire an ice bullet and kill without trace because the bullet melts in the victim's body? The myth-busters tried it at point blank range — but at a gel head not a live person. The ice bullets melted in the gun's barrel, which only emitted steam.
Do bridges have a fatal resonance so that marching troops have to break step or the bridge may vibrate to pieces? The myth busters built a 60-foot suspension bridge and a mechanical army of marching feet. Nothing broke.
A renewed attempt used a wooden bridge of ten long planks overlaid with wooden boards on which Adam jumped up and down and goosestepped. Only when the supporting planks were reduced to three did the "bridge" break. The myth busters concluded the break-step bridge legend is "plausible".
Would a wooden cannon — a tree trunk hollowed out — make a dangerous weapon in a battle? Yes, dangerous to both sides. When tested, pieces of cannon flew over the myth-busters' heads — and they were 30 metres away!
The myth busters also settle historical questions. For example, did Archimedes set fire to Roman triremes from the walls of Syracuse in 215BC by getting 300 hundred men to focus sunlight with bronze shields?
No. Using scale models of a trireme and various reflective materials not even eight people could coordinate their focussing effectively. When the mirrors were coordinated by fixing them to a rig, the light still did not converge enough to produce anything near ignition temperature.
MORE MYTHS TESTED
What gets rid of the stench if a skunk sprays you?
Will bullets fired into a car's petrol tank — or "gas tank" as the Americans say — explode it? No. The myth busters punctured a tank with bullets five times without any explosion.
- Commercial skunk smell remover? Yes
- Beer? No
- Female hygiene products? No
- Tomato ketchup? Plausible
- Baking soda and soap mixture? Yes
Can PVC pipes store static electricity when sand-blasted and discharge it into a nearby person, killing him? The myth busters insulated a pipe by placing it on glass and wood blocks and by drying the air with a desiccant. They improved charge storage by painting one end, inside and out, with metallic paint. They measured charge with a voltmetre and current with an ampmetre. They got a high voltage but too small a current — myth busted.
If you're mad at your neighbor and want to stall his car, will dropping a penny into the carburettor do it? No, the car ran fine. How about blocking the exhaust pipe with a banana or potato? No, the item shot out without effect on the engine.
OK, that failed. What about additives to the petrol tank?
- Sugar? The engine still started.
- Bleach? The engine stopped.
- Moth balls? The engine spluttered, then went faster.
- Drain detergent? No effect.
FAMILY SHOW, FAMILY MEN
Myth Busters is a family show and avoids lewd material. However, when testing an urban legend required an item sold in sex shops that's where the two heroes went. Both, however, are married and Adam has two sons.
Jamie plays the reserved, level headed, thoughtful person. Red-haired Adam plays a cute, flamboyant character and occasionally the buffoon.
In real life both are wizards with gadgets, robotics and electronics. Jamie is a machinist, former Caribbean boat captain and survival expert. Adam is a graphic designer, welder, carpenter, animator, etc. They run a huge warehouse where they fabricate movie props and special effects.
We've considered only some of the myths examined on the program. To learn more, and witness actual busting, switch on your TV.
What about that practical query we began with — is peeing on a railway line shocking?
No — the urine stream breaks up and cannot carry a current. Similarly, peeing at an electrified fence is also unlikely to shock. To get a shock Adam had to pee at a wire fence carrying 20,000 volts from a distance of three inches. The other answers to the first paragraph are all "No".