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On Elegance and Mythbusters

December 18, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

Anybody who has ever tried to understand the concept, let alone the math, of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle can agree that, at times, science can be a horrible, unyielding demon whence there is no escape. Imagine an entomologist trying to classify a new spieces of insect. She must first compare it against the million species already classified; it must be horrible, maddening work, but also thrilling. Imagine working on the LHC. Its circumference is 27 km. Each piece of it is most likely unique. It broke down last year during a test run and it wasn’t up and able to test again until last month. The maintenence and upkeep on such a machine must be infuriatingly complicated. The Hubble space telescope was considered a failure when it was first launched. The whole project was started in the 70s. It was supposed to launch in 1983 but was delayed for 7 years. When it finally was launched they found that the mirror was misaligned and wasn’t taking clear images. It took 3 years before they were able to fix the problem.

Science can really, really suck.

It can also, at times, be very elegant and beautiful in its simplicity. DNA is made up of only 2 base pairs. The order of those base pairs determine everything about us. Similarly, computers work using long strings of 1s and 0s. Even the basic formulas of physics are easy to comprehend, and (given the proper measurements) figure out.

The Mythbusters episode last week gave us a shining example of just that. In the episode, Jamie and Adam were busting the western movie staple that it’s possible to shoot a gun out a man’s hand without harming him. The myth was broken down into two parts, whehter or not hitting a gun with a bullet would cause the holder any damage, and whether the holder would be able to hold onto the gun once it was hit. The first part of the myth was soundly busted. Hitting a gun with a bullet created quite a significant amount of shrapnel. While it was debateable whether or not this would be lethal, it certainly would cause an injury or injuries requiring some sort of medical attention. To determine this, they had a gun being “held” by a metallic hand and some velcro.  While this supplied a good analog for a human hand, it wasn’t nearly flexible or pliable enough to give an accurate result for whether or not a human would be able hold onto the gun or not. They would need an actual human holding the gun to get the results they wanted.

How could they do this? They had just shown that shown that shooting a gun would cause damage to the holder. On par with usual Mythbusteriness, I was expecting some sort of overly complex solution to the problem, probably involving robots. However, the solution was so simple, so elegant, that it’s no wonder I didn’t think of it. It involves Newton’s third law of motion, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. A gun being hit by a bullet will experience the same force exerted on it as the gun that fired the bullet. All they had to do is fire the gun. This created a different problem for Jamie and Adam, since they wanted to test the myth from three different positions: gun pointing down, gun pointing to the side, and pointing straight ahead. The first tried to solve this problem by  rigging the gun with a second barrel perpendicular to the first attached to a fuse and basically “lighting off” the bullet. When this didn’t work, because modern bullets are meant to only be fired when struck with the firing pin, they had to come up with a new solution. This, again, was so simple and elegant. They simply attached a second handle to the gun.

I usually watch the Mythbusters to see things that I couldn’t do on my own, and solutions that I could never come up with. This became one of my favorite episodes for exactly the opposite reason.

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Categories: Science Tags: , , , , , ,
  1. December 18, 2009 at 6:06 pm

    That’s great!

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