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Science in Focus: Heather M. Whitney

MythBusters: The Explosive Exhibition, Part 1

Now running at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

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My first higher ed position was at a small, regional, secular college where I taught conceptual and introductory physics. When a class would start covering a new topic, I would usually ask the students if they had any familiarity with it. Almost invariably, one influence kept coming up over and over again: the Discovery Channel's television show MythBusters. At times, it appeared that the students truly expected my class to actually be run like an episode of the show. Disappointment in our lab sessions was especially palpable if we weren't blowing things up, setting anything on fire, or throwing anything around.

If, like me up to just a few weeks ago, you have never seen the show, here is a brief description: a premise (called a "myth" on the show) is introduced, investigated, and tested. From these efforts, the myth is pronounced "confirmed," "plausible," or "busted." For example, in the episode I watched, a YouTube video was shown that had wrecking balls acting in a super-large Newton's cradle. The show's hosts wondered if this could actually work. They briefly alluded to conservation of energy at play and made successively larger models, culminating in a wrecking ball-sized Newton's cradle. They tested it and decided that the "myth" was, as they call it, "busted." The television series has now been adapted to MythBusters: The Explosive Exhibition, running at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago through September 3.

Visitors first enter an area that is an homage to the show. The hosts' outfits are there, along with "blueprints" of designs (sketches made by the hosts during brainstorming sessions), hardware, and props from apparently memorable moments on the show. Next, visitors encounter several experiment areas where you can try out different scenarios such as building block houses of different materials and exposing them to a burst of wind to see how they hold up, pulling a tablecloth out from under a set of dishes, or hanging from a "novice" wide ledge or an "expert" narrower one to see how long you can stay there. And there's a live demonstration in which human reaction time is joined with paintballs to see if a person will get out of the way more quickly with a sound or light cue.

On the day I visited, children around me were clearly having fun, in a "run around the carnival and try out all the games" kind of way. The entire place was loud. So loud, in fact, that I couldn't hear the video displays that were set up at each station to explain the premise of the myth. But they weren't being used by any of the children or parents anyway. Yes, kids were performing the actions called for by the experiments, but there was no reflection what was being done or what the "results" meant. It was playtime.

When I think back to my own personal journey to becoming a scientist, one real-life episode stands out most: senior year of high school, last day of physics class. My teacher, Mr. Nichols, a retired chemical engineer, asked each student to come to the front of the class and answer a question on a specific physical process which, up to that point, they had not learned about but which was related to elements of the course. My question was something along the lines of figuring out the role of step-up/step-down transformers in the transport of electrical energy. I remember the initial fear and confusion of not knowing how to begin to figure out the answer. But in a matter of moments that fear transformed into a quick succession of connecting thoughts through which I deduced the answer—and I felt a jolt of joy, something Richard Feynman called "the kick in the discovery." It was that moment that changed my plans to be a business or political science major in college. Several years later, that same process was repeated in my PhD defense, in which my committee members probed my knowledge until I ran into something I didn't immediately understand but could reason through in my mind, utilizing my base knowledge. After the committee deliberated privately on my defense presentation and performance during the question time, my advisor came out of the room, shook my hand, and welcomed me into the scientific community. My entrance into the field was decidedly related to my ability and opportunity to reflect and make connections, skills that I honed in the field of biomedical imaging but that are applicable to any work in science. To be honest, I don't remember much about elementary and middle school science at all.

So is an exhibit (and television show) such as MythBusters an effective way of encouraging young people to go into science? My sense is no. My first students were disappointed when science classes weren't entertainment; my best students now are the ones who are open to learning and reflecting on new things—students who are not discouraged by not immediately understanding but use that as motivation to learn, even when the topic is not all flashes and bangs. Science is hard work and is often anything but entertaining. But more than that, I believe that science is a way of being. It is a frame of mind that can be used to understand our world on a scale as large as the universe or as small as a quark, theoretically, computationally, or experimentally. And it is driven by "the kick in the discovery." We should direct our efforts to help children cultivate a life of reflection and pursuit of knowledge so that they will want to experience the pleasure of finding things out.

Heather M. Whitney is assistant professor of physics at Wheaton College.

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