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Venkatesh Gopal


MythBusters: The Explosive Exhibit, Part 3

No sacred cows.

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Myths, which the dictionary on my computer describes as "widely held but false belief[s] or idea[s]," are everywhere. Let me describe my most recent encounter with one. I had just finished my 9:00 AM lecture on Electromagnetism, an upper-level physics course that I teach every other year. I was erasing the board and chatting with one of the students in the class when the students for the next lecture started to enter the classroom. Two of these students were carrying on a loud discussion that I could not help overhearing. One of them was discussing the death of a friend of a friend, and said this: "You know that our heart stops for a second when we sneeze, right? Well, when [the person who died] sneezed, her heart did not start up again." Besides being false—I have allergies and sometimes sneeze once every two to five seconds for a minute or two without having my heart stop—the conversation was all the more worthy of some eye-rolling as the students having the conversation were settling down for a biology lecture! This is exactly the sort of myth that Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman—the MythBusters—have made it their business to "bust."

On MythBusters, an immensely popular television show, Adam and Jamie take aim at common myths, and via delightful experiments (many involving spectacular explosions) decide whether the myth is "busted," "plausible," or "confirmed." The show is now also an interactive museum exhibit. Recently, along with my three-and-a-half-year-old son, I visited the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago to see the MythBusters l exhibit. A part of me was delighted by what I saw, but sadly, a part of me was also quite disappointed.

At its heart, MythBusters embodies the deepest motivation in science, a personal, pressing, and inexplicable need to understand—to answer questions to one's satisfaction and to know if your ideas about the way nature works are true or not. Jamie and Adam do this with élan. They pick an interesting question, they devise a beautiful and flamboyant experiment to test it, they do the experiment, and come up with a conclusive answer while often blowing up a few things on the way. What would the MythBusters do if they heard the question "Does your heart stop when you sneeze?" I think they'd say "Well, let's not take anyone's word for it, let's test it!" These days, when it is not uncommon to sneer at and dismiss scholarship and analytical thinking as "elitist," and when science is "debunked" by those without any scientific training whatsoever, I say hurrah for the MythBusters. Let's all learn to think like them. If only all my students could approach thinking about physics with the same intellectual precision as the MythBusters.

So why was I also sad after I left the museum? Because the exhibit, whose main aim is (I think) to show us the power of clear thinking, succumbed to the need to entertain, and subordinated to this need the deeper need to inform and to demonstrate how one constructs a logical argument. The exhibit focused more on the whiz-bang nature of the demonstrations and did not provide clear explanations of the "why." I was left with the impression that for many viewers, the explanation for why a myth was deemed to be "busted" was simply "because the MythBusters found it to be so."

In science, there are no sacred cows. Every theory, no matter how great the scientist who stated it, is true only as long as it survives the test of experiment. I think that this is the central idea underlying MythBusters. May I respectfully submit that perhaps the two greatest myths of our time—nationalism, the unfounded belief that people from specific geographic regions of the world are superior; and religion, untestable hypotheses for The Way Things Are—are long overdue for some myth-busting of their own? And, in the spirit of the show, wouldn't this provide us with some truly spectacular fireworks?

Venkatesh Gopal is assistant professor of physics at Elmhurst College.


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