Can you beat a lie detector test? How much destruction would a bull cause in a china shop? How long can you survive after being buried alive?
If anyone can answer these questions, it's MythBusters Adam Savage, Jamie Hyneman and their team. Each week on their Discovery Channel show, the MythBusters put urban legends, rumors and special effects to the test, either proving them or putting them to rest.
President Obama has a personal request — to once again test the myth of Archimedes' solar death ray. As legend has it, using only mirrors and the power of the sun, Greek scientist Archimedes is said to have set fire to Roman ships during the siege of Syracuse.
President Obama told Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage that he is a "big fan" of Mythbusters, and so are his daughters, Sasha and Malia. The Mythbusters have busted the myth before, but could hardly refuse Obama's challenge. This time, instead of using stationary mirror tiles focused at wood, they took a different tack. "The big question was: could you have shields from soldiers polished to a mirror finish, and get them to set something on fire," Hyneman explains to NPR's Neal Conan. "That's a whole different thing."
Five hundred students from the school where Hyneman's wife teaches science stood in for soldiers, and they conducted the experiment on "the perfect shoreline" in Alameda, Calif., says Savage. They won't say whether the legend held up or not — but you can find out for yourself on Wednesday night, when the episode airs on the Discovery Channel.
"One of my favorite things that we do on the show," says Savage, "is go back and re-test things once we've got new data or new resources." The scientific process is "messy and it's confusing," and new data can lead to new conclusions. "In essence," Savage says, illuminating that "messy" process "is the most scientific thing that we do."
Both Hyneman and Savage have backgrounds in special effects, and neither has formal science training. But for their work on Mythbusters, they've both been named honorary lifetime members of the California Science Teachers Association.
Listen to the story on NPR's "Talk of the Nation."