Synopsis of myths discussed herein to be consulted by the reader for clarification.
The long-running Discovery Channel science television show MythBusters has proven itself to be far more than just a source of weekly entertainment. The popular cable program employs an array of sophisticated pedagogical techniques to communicate scientific concepts to its audience. These techniques include: achieving active learning, accommodating different learning styles, avoiding jargon, employing repetition to ensure comprehension, anthropomorphizing physical phenomena, using captivating demonstrations, cultivating an enthusiastic disposition, and increasing intrinsic motivation to learn. In this content analysis, episodes from the show’s 10-year history were methodically examined for these instructional techniques. MythBusters represents an untapped source of pedagogical techniques educators at all levels may consider availing themselves of in their tireless effort to better reach their students. Science educators in particular may look to MythBusters for inspiration and guidance in how to incorporate these pedagogical techniques into their own teaching and help their students in the learning process.
- science education
- science entertainment
- educational programming
- popular science
- active learning
- learning styles
- intrinsic motivation
The premise of
Complete seasons of
3. Achieving active learning
Conventional wisdom holds that a television show is unable to encourage active learning among viewers: “The flood of uncontrollable images onto the TV screen … tends to generate a passivity … that suffocates the questioning and examination necessary for education” . Traditional thought also holds that watching a television show is as passive an experience as attending a lecture: “When used as a platform for delivering content, visual-based instruction has not yet been shown to be significantly better than lecturing – perhaps because simply viewing a 50-minute film … does not actively involve students any more than listening to a 50-minute lecture” .
First, the MythBusters break the fourth wall, speaking directly to the audience. They routinely anticipate questions and objections that those watching at home may have: “I know what you’re saying. You’re saying, ‘Adam, your see-through manhole cover doesn’t weigh near as much as a cast-iron manhole cover. How can this be an accurate test?’ And you’re right, except that we’ve already thought of it” [“Indy Car Special” – Original Air Date (OAD): 5/22/2013].
The MythBusters routinely solicit suggestions for myths to test from the viewers. Nearly every episode concludes with the hosts inviting fans to visit the Discovery Channel website and contribute their suggestions: “[P]lease keep your good ideas flowing toward us and we’ll take the best ones, we’ll test them out, and we’ll put them on the air” [“Viewer Special 2” – OAD: 2/13/2008]. When introducing the “Gorn Cannon” myth [“Mini Myth Mayhem” – OAD: 12/28/09], Grant notes the overwhelming online response it elicited: “Fans have been requesting it for years and when I announced that we were doing this on the internet, the reaction was massive.” The outpouring of ideas and suggestions from fans has been so great in fact, that the MythBusters have produced nearly a dozen episodes devoted exclusively to viewer-suggested myths [“Viewer Special 1” – OAD: 8/15/2007, “Viewer Special 2” – OAD: 2/13/2008, “Viewer’s Special Threequel” – OAD: 11/19/2008, “Mini Myth Mayhem” – OAD: 12/28/09, “Mini Myth Madness” – OAD: 11/10/2010, “Wheel of Mythfortune” – OAD: 11/23/2011, “Mailbag Special” – OAD: 5/20/2012, “Mini Myth Medley” – OAD: 11/4/2012]. The response from fans was so astounding in fact, that it prompted Adam to remark, “I am so overwhelmed. We have so many responses to our request for ideas from viewers” [Viewer Special 2: OAD: 2/13/08].
In addition, fans routinely take issue with the results of an experiment or critique the methodology employed in testing a myth. They vociferously voice their objections by inundating the hosts with their observations, complaints, and suggestions, as Adam observes, “Every time we air a new episode of
|1. Salami Rocket||More Myths Revisited||10/25/2006||A hybrid rocket motor can use salami deli meat as the fuel source||Re-Confirmed|
|2. Archimedes Death Ray Burn-Off||Mailbag Special||1/25/2006||The famed Greek inventor Archimedes set fire to invading Roman ships using reflected sunlight||Re-Busted|
|3. Archimedes Solar Ray 3.0||President’s Challenge||12/8/2010||The famed Greek inventor Archimedes set fire to invading Roman ships using reflected sunlight||Re-Busted|
|4. 22,000 Foot Fall||22,000 Foot Fall||12/13/2006||A pilot jumps out of his plane, has his parachute malfunction, but survives by having his fall cushioned by an explosion on the ground||Busted|
|5. Underwater Blow Dart||Ninjas 2||8/29/2008||A medieval Japanese warrior could launch a blow dart from underwater with the blow gun doubling as a breathing tube||Plausible|
|6. Does Alcohol Warm You Up||Viewer’s Special Threequel||11/19/2008||Hypothermia can be staved off by imbibing alcohol||Busted|
|7. Toothbrush Surprise||Breakstep Bridge||1/25/2004||Bacteria can be deposited onto a toothbrush if placed in proximity to a toilet||Confirmed|
|8. Down with the Titanic||Goldfish Memory||1/25/2004||A sinking ship generates a vortex powerful enough to suck people in the surrounding water down with it||Busted|
|9. Which is Better for You: Breakfast Cereal or the Box?||Steam Cannon||7/19/2006||A cereal box can be as nutritious as the cereal itself||Busted|
|10. Gas Room Boom||Inverted Underwater Car||11/24/2010||In a room filled with flammable gas, firing a gun through a milk carton will prevent the muzzle flash from igniting the gas||Busted|
|11. Cell Phone Destroys Gas Station||Cell Phone Destroys Gas Station||10/3/2003||An electrical discharge from a cell phone can ignite gasoline vapor present in the air around a gas pump||Busted|
|12. Lead Plunge||Mini Myth Mayhem||12/28/2009||A person can briefly dip his hand into molten lead without injury if his hand is wet||Confirmed|
|13. Motorcycle Flip||Motorcycle Flip||10/29/2008||Thrusting a stick into the spokes of a motorcycle's front wheel will cause it to launch into the air end over end||Busted|
|14. Phonebook Friction||Phonebook Friction||9/10/2008||It is impossible to separate two phonebooks that have their pages interleaved||Partly-Busted|
|15. Underwater Car Escape||Underwater Car||1/24/2007||If a car becomes submerged in water, the door cannot be opened until the interior is flooded||Confirmed|
|16. The Squeeze||Dumpster Diving||11/25/2009||If the line to the surface air compressor breaks, a diver in an old-style suit can be crushed into his helmet||Confirmed|
|17. 7 Paper Fold||Underwater Car||1/24/2007||It is impossible to fold a piece of paper in half more than seven times||Partly-Busted|
|18. Rat Pee Soda||Hidden Nasties||12/28/2009||Drinking from soda cans contaminated with rat urine can be fatal||Busted|
|19. Bottle Bash||Bottle Bash||4/14/2010||An empty beer bottle will cause more damage than a full one when used as a weapon||Busted|
|20. Swinging Pirates||Swinging Pirates||4/15/2012||When trapped in a freely suspended cage, a group of people can swing themselves over to the cliff wall||Busted|
Moreover, the MythBusters have actually invited fans onto the show to engage in testing myths firsthand. Most notably, in the first revisit of Archimedes’ fabled weapon [“Archimedes’ Death Ray” – OAD: 1/25/2006], several fans were invited to participate in a series of competitions that pitted their contraptions against one another (Table 1 Entry 2). In the second revisit of Archimedes’ death ray [“President’s Challenge” – OAD: 12/8/2010], the Discovery Channel sponsored a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) academy in which 500 local middle and high school students were involved in retesting the myth, helping to aim mirrors and focus the sun’s rays on a target (Table 1 Entry 3). When testing various everyday household items for bacteria, Adam and Jamie employed microbiology students at UC Berkeley to help collect samples [“Hidden Nasties” – OAD: 12/28/2009]. Fans of the show have been recruited as volunteers to help test everything from gender stereotypes [“Battle of the Sexes” – OAD: 4/22/2012, “Battle of the Sexes: Round 2” – OAD: 5/29/2013, “Laws of Attraction” – OAD: 8/7/2014] to the most efficient airplane boarding strategies [“Plane Boarding” – OAD: 8/21/2014] to zombie survival techniques [“Zombie Special” – OAD: 10/17/2013]. Educators seeking to promote active learning in their classrooms should note that, “No teaching approach has greater potential for student involvement and engagement than student-directed investigation” .
The hosts routinely encourage fans to visit the
Until recently, the Discovery Channel website featured a
4. Accommodating different learning styles
In the “22,000 Foot Fall” myth [“22,000 Foot Fall” – OAD: 12/13/2006], the consideration of different learning styles is well demonstrated. The myth involves a pilot who jumps out of his plane at an altitude of 22,000 feet, has his parachute malfunction, but amazingly survives by having his fall cushioned by a fortuitous explosion on the ground (Table 1 Entry 4). Testing of the myth hinges upon the pilot’s terminal velocity. Following Adam’s mention of terminal velocity, the narrator gives a precise definition: “The key to this myth is terminal velocity: the maximum speed at which an object can fall. It’s reached when gravity is matched by the force of wind resistance.” Synchronized with the narrator’s explanation, an animation of a falling person depicts the opposing forces of gravity and wind resistance as vectors. These vectors become equal in magnitude but are directed in opposite directions, resulting in zero net force and hence zero acceleration. For those who are auditory learners, the narrator’s description might suffice but for those who are visual learners, the animation solidifies their understanding of terminal velocity: “[D]ifferent people receive and create information using different physical modalities” .
In the “Archimedes Death Ray” myth, [“Archimedes’ Death Ray”– OAD: 1/25/2006], the MythBusters attempt to determine whether the famed Greek inventor Archimedes could have set fire to invading Roman ships using reflected sunlight. In the myth, a polished parabolic surface concentrates sunlight to such intensity that the ignition temperature of wood is reached. “A parabola is hottest only where all the light meets – the fixed focal point. If the target moves slightly in front or just behind this, the death ray is rendered useless,” explains the narrator. Accompanying this verbal description is an animation depicting a thermometer sliding back and forth along the focal axis of the mirror, from in front of the focal point (where the mercury drops) to the focal point (where the mercury rises), to behind the focal point (where the mercury drops again). Synchronizing the animation with explanatory dialogue serves to appeal to both visual and aural learners.
In the “Underwater Blow Dart” myth [“Ninjas 2” – OAD: 8/29/2008], different learning styles are again accommodated. The myth centers on whether medieval Japanese warriors were able to shoot blow darts from underwater (Table 1 Entry 5). The build team members quickly realize that they will have to account for refraction, the bending of light as it passes between media of different densities. As the narrator explains, “Light travels at different speeds through water and air, getting bent out of shape as it passes from one to the other,” an animation provides a visual understanding of refraction by showing how the apparent position of an object changes when viewed from underwater.
In the “Does Alcohol Warm You Up?” myth [“Viewer’s Special Threequel” – OAD: 11/19/2008], the MythBusters test whether hypothermia can be staved off by imbibing alcohol (Table 1 Entry 6). This myth was particularly good at accommodating different learning styles. As Adam intones, “The superficial blood vessels constrict, preventing heat loss through the skin and directing blood to critical internal organs,” an animation is shown depicting the response of the vascular system to cold. This animation shows an internal view of the human body. The extremities – legs and arms – are shown blue to indicate lack of blood flow and resulting drop in peripheral body temperature, while the chest cavity is shown bright red to indicate blood surging to the organs and core body temperature being maintained. This animation is synchronized with the dialogue perfectly: “Link visual objects with classroom narrative” . Later, the narrator concludes, “In summary, alcohol dilates your vascular system, which sends blood to your extremities, where it loses its warmth and as a result your core body temperature quickly cools.” This dialogue is synchronized with appropriate footage from the thermal imaging camera.
5. Avoiding jargon
In addition to getting viewers learning in an active manner and accommodating different learning modalities, the MythBusters are also careful to only use words that the audience will understand; that is, they avoid using obfuscating jargon. When they do incorporate unfamiliar technical terms, they define them immediately.
In the “Toothbrush Surprise” myth [“Breakstep Bridge” – OAD: 1/25/2004], the MythBusters test whether bacteria can be deposited on a toothbrush placed in proximity to a toilet (Table 1 Entry 7). The following excerpt of dialogue demonstrates the way in which a new term is typically introduced:
Jamie: “We should do a simple test to see whether the toilet actually produces an aerosol.”
Adam: “You mean like when it's flushing it actually makes little droplets and vapor that go everywhere.”
In the “Down with the Titanic” myth [“Goldfish Memory” – OAD: 1/25/2004], the MythBusters test whether a sinking ship generates a vortex powerful enough to suck people in the surrounding water down with it (Table 1 Entry 8). Before launching into a full-scale test by scuttling a boat, they carry out a small-scale test using a hydrometer in a swimming pool. For those unfamiliar with the term, the narrator enlightens: “They've made a hydrometer: a simple floatation device that measures the specific gravity, or density, of a liquid.”
In the myth “Which is Better for You: Breakfast Cereal or the Box?” [“Steam Cannon” – OAD: 7/19/2006], Adam employs a calorimeter to determine the energy content of cereal and of the box it comes in (Table 1 Entry 9). He explains the operation of the device to the audience: “I burn it underneath a pot full of water. If I know exactly how much water I have and what temperature it was when I began burning the food, by the time it’s all done burning, I measure the temperature and that tells me with an equation, what the caloric content of that food was.”
When testing the myth that the muzzle flash from a gun can lead to an explosion in a methane-filled room in “Gas Room Boom” [“Inverted Underwater Car” – OAD: 11/24/2010], the MythBusters first try to find the ideal ratio of air to natural gas (Table 1 Entry 10). As the narrator explains, “The numerical balance of different substances to cause a reaction is called stoichiometry.”
Using unfamiliar terms will make meaningful communication impossible: “[U]se vocabulary that students understand. That is, don’t talk over your students’ heads” .
6. Employing repetition to ensure comprehension
This repetition is again demonstrated in the “Lead Plunge” myth [“Mini Myth Mayhem” – OAD: 12/28/09] (Table 1 Entry 12). After heating a steel ball until it is red hot, Jamie plunges it into a tank of water and explains: “What you’re seeing in this demonstration is known as the Leidenfrost Effect. It’s interesting because the steam that’s created when you expose a hot surface to water is actually insulating that surface and it makes sense because steam – being a gas – conducts heat less rapidly than the water itself does.” Immediately after Jamie’s description, the narrator gives a more detailed technical description of the phenomenon: “When cool water is exposed to an extremely hot surface, a layer of water vapor – which is a relatively poor heat conductor – provides a thin protective barrier.” This repetition promotes viewer comprehension.
7. Anthropomorphizing physical phenomena
The MythBusters routinely utilize the instructional technique of anthropomorphizing physical phenomena. This technique is routinely employed in chemistry: atoms are spoken of as
In physics, this anthropomorphized terminology is commonly used when the topic of inertia is encountered. In the “Motorcycle Flip” myth [“Motorcycle Flip” – OAD: 10/29/2008], the MythBusters test the physics of a stunt from the movie
8. Using captivating demonstrations
Good educators know not to underestimate the lasting impression of a spectacular demonstration . The MythBusters utilize visually compelling demonstrations to communicate scientific concepts. In the “Phonebook Friction” myth [“Phonebook Friction” – OAD: 9/10/2008], the MythBusters test whether it is impossible to pull apart two phonebooks that have their pages interlaced (Table 1 Entry 14). They attempt to separate two interleaved phonebooks first using teams of shop assistants in a tug of war competition, before moving onto using two sedans pulling in opposite directions, and finally onto using two tanks pulling in opposite directions. Of course, they could have just employed some drab industrial machine bolted to the floor, but this would not have been nearly as dramatic.
This demonstration bears a striking similarity to one particularly compelling demonstration of atmospheric pressure from the annals of history: “[I]n 1650, the German physicist Otto von Guericke invented a mechanical device that little by little sucked air out of a container. This enabled him to form a vacuum at will and to demonstrate the effects of an unbalanced air pressure. Such air pressure would hold two metal hemispheres together against the determined efforts of two eight-horse teams of horses (whipped into straining in opposite directions) to pull them apart. When the air was allowed to enter the hemispheres once more, they fell apart of their own weight” .
Several of the most arresting demonstrations from the show have also involved the awesome power of differential pressure. In the “Underwater Car Escape” [“Underwater Car” – OAD: 1/24/2007], Adam simulates the pressure differential that exists when a car is submerged under just two feet of water by stacking weights atop a car door window (Table 1 Entry 15). Standing before a car door with a massive 350 pound stack of weights atop the window, Adam speaks directly to the camera: “I do not know of a more visual way to make clear how much pressure you’re dealing with when you put things underwater.”
In “The Squeeze” [“Dumpster Diving” – OAD: 11/25/2009], the MythBusters test a diving myth that holds that if the air line connecting an older style dive suit to the surface air compressor were severed, the diver would to be squeezed into the helmet owing to the extreme pressure differential (Table 1 Entry 16). In one of the most vivid demonstrations from the show’s ten year history, the MythBusters place an analog for a human body – “meat man” – in a dive suit and submerge it 300 feet before cutting the line to the surface. Instantly, “meat man” is crushed into his dive helmet, gruesomely demonstrating the power of differential pressure.
In the myth of the “7 Paper Fold” [“Underwater Car” – OAD: 1/24/2007], the MythBusters give a compelling demonstration of exponential growth. In testing the myth that it is impossible to fold a piece of paper in half more than 7 times, they join together several rolls of paper inside a hanger at NASA Ames Research Center, creating a sheet so enormous that it takes the combined effort of 10 people and a steamroller to help fold it (Table 1 Entry 17). With each fold, the number of layers doubles, and the stack becomes twice as thick.
The experimental setups from the show are quite singular and create indelible memories for viewers. When testing whether it’s possible for aluminum soda cans to become contaminated with rat urine and infect unsuspecting consumers with various pathogens [“Hidden Nasties” – OAD: 12/28/2009], the MythBusters devise a very memorable setup (Table 1 Entry 18). As Jamie quips, “This is one of those sounds that you’ll only hear on
Sometimes an experiment that returns qualitative results is far more memorable than one that returns quantitative values. When measuring the bodily harm that results from smashing a bottle over a person's head in the “Bottle Bash” myth [“Bottle Bash” – OAD: 4/14/2010], Adam and Jamie opt for a rig consisting of a gelatin brain mold (with red dye added for realism) placed within a transparent jar (Table 1 Entry 19). They could have instead gone with an accelerometer, but the demonstration was made much more compelling and visceral through being able to see the concussion-generating lateral movement of a gelatin brain as it sloshed from side-to-side.
Not only do exciting demonstrations help motivate students, but they promote long-term retention of the underlying concepts: “Students can remember many of their science class demonstrations for countless years … This is a good testimony to the emotional impact of demonstrations” .
9. Cultivating an enthusiastic disposition
The hosts of
At the conclusion of a myth, cast members are often filmed walking into the sunset excitedly discussing possible extensions to the myth they just tested. In this way, viewers take away the impression that the cast members have a genuine passion for what they are doing, treating it as much more than just a job.
The cast members also maintain their enthusiastic dispositions in the face of adversity or unexpected results. Indeed, one of the defining hallmarks of the show is how it conveys the notion that it is alright to be wrong and that unexpected results need not be feared or dreaded. A running line on the show is that, “Failure is always an option.” Such an accepting attitude helps students regard unexpected or counterintuitive results as having the potential to usher in scientific discoveries and breakthroughs. When testing a scene from
10. Increasing intrinsic motivation to learn
In addition to the multitude of ways they have of conveying science to the audience, perhaps no pedagogical technique is more valuable than the way in which the MythBusters increase viewers’ intrinsic motivation to learn. Motivation is classified as either intrinsic or extrinsic. Whereas extrinsic motivation relies on external inducements such as grades, rewards, and penalties, “Intrinsic motivation refers to motivation to engage in an activity because of the satisfaction derived from the activity itself. Students who are intrinsically motivated … genuinely want to understand the content” . Of the two, intrinsic motivation is much more esteemed among educators: “Intrinsic motivation … leads to a deep approach and conceptual understanding and produces learning outcomes that are flexible and transferable” .
The MythBusters test myths from sources that are likely to excite the viewers, especially younger viewers. Over the years, the MythBusters have tested myths from a dizzying number of Hollywood movies including:
Taking myths from pop culture provides the much needed hook to draw viewers in long enough that they learn the underlying science [35, 36, 37, 38, 39]. Viewers are more likely to be interested in the science if it relates to some stunt or gadget from their favorite movie or television show than if introduced without any context: “The use of film clips to explore science is one of the more effective pedagogical tools to build interest in science, awareness of real science, and students' understanding of scientific principles through the identification of illustrations and violations of scientific principles depicted in film clips” .
In recent years, there has been a profusion of books examining popular movies and television shows for their scientific content: Lawrence Krauss’
Motivating students is not an optional luxury to be indulged if time permits . By relating to what students find personally meaningful, instructors are more likely to gain and hold their attention .
MythBusters has proven itself to be far more than a source of weekly entertainment. Its lasting success is in no small part due to the use of an array of pedagogical techniques to adeptly communicate scientific concepts to its viewers. These strategies include achieving active learning and accommodating different learning styles. In addition, the MythBusters avoid using jargon, employ repetition to ensure comprehension, anthropomorphize physical phenomena, incorporate provocative demonstrations, and cultivate enthusiastic dispositions. Lastly, the MythBusters increase intrinsic motivation to learn by choosing topics that appeal to their viewers. Educators are encouraged to familiarize themselves with the show, starting with the episodes mentioned herein. These episodes can be purchased on DVD from the Discovery Channel website. They can also be downloaded individually or by season from Apple’s iTunes Store for immediate streaming. Science educators in particular may look to
After a run of 14 seasons and 282 episodes, the