MythBusters Follow-Up: The Success of the Scientific Method

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

How many of you watched last night’s much anticipated MythBusters episode? I’ll admit, I’m disappointed that 500 mirrors couldn’t set a ship on fire. That would have been really cool.

Three times now, the MythBusters team have tried to answer the question: can you set a ship on fire using mirrors to focus the energy of the sun? And three times the answer has been: no. Some people might look at the outcome of the combined attempts as a failure; I look at it as a success. Not a success when it comes to the field of igniting boats, perhaps, but a success of the scientific method.

The Scientific Method is fundamental to science: it’s the process we use to investigate everything. You might be surprised how much you already use it. Are you curious? Do you ask questions? Do you look for answers? You’re already using the scientific method.

The Scientific Method

What I really like about MythBusters is how the show tackles the last part of the Scientific Method: going back and refining your question, hypothesis and experiment. The Scientific Method is only five steps, but most scientific research is composed of repeating those steps over and over: refining your approach, questioning your methods, and re-examining your results. Science often takes a lot of re-thinking and time.

Yesterday’s episode was the perfect example. The MythBusters first tested the question can mirrors focus the energy of the sun enough to set a ship on fire the way its described in the story of Archimedes’ Solar Ray? in 2004. In that episode they designed an experiment, gathered and analyzed data, refined their methods, did the experiment again, and came to the conclusion that mirrors could not set a ship on fire. However, so many people wrote to the show with different ideas of how to modify the experiment, the MythBusters tested the question again with different methods. The results? Still no flaming ship. So now the MythBusters have tested the question a third time, this time using 500 student volunteers in an attempt to match the man power described in the story of Archimedes’ method. Each time, with different variables and controls within the experiment, the outcome has been the same: a very not-on-fire ship. And that’s alright. Results that reject your hypothesis are just as important as results that support it, because it adds to the knowledge of a subject and prepares you for the next question, hypothesis and experiment.

One really cool outcome of the latest test of Archimedes’ Solar Ray? It turns out that 500 mirrors pointed at a ship will do a good job at blinding you, even if they don’t set you on fire. Perhaps Archimedes’ success in that particular battle wasn’t that he set an enemy ship on fire, but rather that the reflection of the sun off the soldiers’ shields temporarily blinded the enemy.* Look at that, a new idea just waiting for a hypothesis and experiment.

*Read here to learn how police are using lasers as defensive weapons in a way that might make Archimedes proud.

66 Responses to “MythBusters Follow-Up: The Success of the Scientific Method”

  1. 1 Mikalee Byerman December 10, 2010 at 8:59 am

    Awesome. Mind-boggling. So frickin cool!

    Thank you for posting — got me thinking! πŸ˜‰

  2. 2 dearexgirlfriend December 10, 2010 at 9:02 am

    well if one good thing came out of this post, i might watch mythbusters now! haha. congrats on FP!

  3. 3 runtobefit December 10, 2010 at 9:12 am

    Dang it…I would love to have seen that. Those guys are great!! Reminds me of being in Science class when I was a kid…well…much more fun of course and on steroids!!

  4. 5 LindaCO December 10, 2010 at 9:54 am

    Let’s hear it for the Scientific Method!! Why is it that so many conclusions about important stuff are NOT drawn this way?

    OK that’s a hypothetical question, I think I know the answer.

  5. 6 Nikhil Kardale December 10, 2010 at 10:24 am

    Good post. I too agree with that perspective.

    Congratulations on being featured on Freshly Pressed πŸ™‚

  6. 7 Lakia Gordon December 10, 2010 at 10:26 am

    Myth Busters has to be one of the greatest shows.

  7. 8 Translation Digest December 10, 2010 at 10:49 am

    I totally aggree! Mythbusters are mixing highly scientific stuff and fun. I think it is a great way to engage young people in science today! Personally Mythbusters is the favourite show of mine:)

    Looking forward to more posts!


  8. 9 wealthartisan December 10, 2010 at 11:06 am

    Hi Katie,

    I have to say that I really enjoy Mythbusters. We have all of the available seasons on our Netflix instant queue. While they definitely appear to have fun with what they do, I’m constantly astonished at the scientific approach that they take to each myth. No matter how silly it is, they always take it at least mildly seriously.

    Great job on relating a scientific subject to pop culture. I think that will help catch the attention of the average person. I think you can verify that first hand with your FP. Congrats on the FP and great article!


  9. 10 Evie Garone December 10, 2010 at 11:21 am

    I hope they repeat this…which I would think they will, I’m sure my boys will LOVE it. Thanks for the info. Have to DVR it and we can watch over Christmas break together, should get the conversations flowing! Congrats on Freshly Pressed!

  10. 11 Andrea December 10, 2010 at 11:41 am

    I’d even venture to say that a negative result is more important that a positive one. After all it only takes one negative result to disprove a theory but it takes an infinite number of positive results to prove it.

    Great entry! πŸ™‚

  11. 12 acleansurface December 10, 2010 at 11:48 am

    My husband and I had the pleasure of seeing Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage in a live talk/Q&A a few years back and it only made me appreciate the show more.
    Hurray for the scientific method!

  12. 13 auntbethany December 10, 2010 at 11:59 am

    Love watching Myth Busters…this was a great post! Congrats on FP!

  13. 14 cubicspace December 10, 2010 at 1:04 pm

    yes. SCIENCE has a great SYSTEM.. too bad we traded it for TECHNOLOGIE’S about 30 years ago….?;)

    iPhones and Apps are not science..:)

    Cyborgs are not what they used to be….

    Its good to see the Mythbusters follow in Sagans “POP” and Science driven TV shoes. We need them on the internetz badly..


  14. 15 programmingpoetically December 10, 2010 at 1:27 pm

    Great show! Haven’t seen that episode… might have to download it. But who doesn’t love the Scientific Method? Compile, Run, Fail, New Code, Re-Compile, Re-Run, Re-Fail… can do it for hours. πŸ˜›

    Great post!

  15. 16 YouGetWellSoon December 10, 2010 at 1:32 pm

    Ah Myth Busters. A show that actually tries to demonstrate the validity (or lack thereof) of the fantastical. They conduct their experiments in very controlled ways which is great except that sometimes not all variables can be controlled so I don’t always accept their “busted” conclusions.
    Regardless, thanks for the post – it’s nice to see that there are still some scientists out who want to write and share with everyone.

  16. 17 Bob Couttie December 10, 2010 at 3:46 pm

    Remember, too, that, unlike diamonds, a scientific conclusion is not necessarily forever. New data means reviewing what we know and updating it. Its a rolling roadshow of discovery.

  17. 18 Morgan (messagesfromouterspace) December 10, 2010 at 4:57 pm

    This is the best post I have ever seen that explains the scientific method so clearly.

  18. 20 bradenbost December 10, 2010 at 6:18 pm

    My TV was given up for a year and the thing I miss the most from it is Mythbusters. What a brilliant show.

  19. 21 Angga "Tweenbee" Agia December 10, 2010 at 7:00 pm

    honestly I like your style of thinking…

    I agree some of the people see that as a failure(because they say busted?). but some, like you see that as a success based on scientific method.

    i don’t know how many people see the ads in bottom of the screen :
    mythbusters : science,simplified

    great show mythbusters πŸ˜€


  20. 22 Ephrata, PA December 10, 2010 at 8:11 pm

    You got to love anything to do with the Mythbusters. It is one of the few shows I will even watch reruns of. The best part is that is it doesn’t work, they will always blow it up for fun!

  21. 23 i want a robot December 10, 2010 at 8:39 pm

    I think that the revisit episodes are among the most interesting on MythBusters. I’ve only seen the first Archimedes mirrors episode, but I’m delighted to hear about the revisits.

    Even without the explosions MythBusters would probably be one of my favourite shows. And with them? Oh-me-oh-my.

  22. 24 TheEverydayMuser December 11, 2010 at 12:01 am

    Blinding the enemy would have been a good tactic, especially since then the enemy wouldn’t be able to see the opposing ship.
    Archimedes would have been proud of many of the achievements we’ve made today.
    MythBusters has always been one of my favorite shows. I talk about it every time it airs with my friends, and they either get bored or walk away, or become genuinely interested.

  23. 25 michaeleriksson December 11, 2010 at 12:09 am

    I am not familiar with the details of the experiments; however, this actually sounds like a highly sub-optimal illustration of scientific method:

    The fact that the ship(s) did not catch fire proves only that certain particular configurations of mirrors with a certain amount of sun-light is not sufficient. Based on such experiments, however, it is impossible to rule out that yet another experiment would be successful—possibly on a day with stronger sun-light.

    In contrast, if the ship had caught fire, then we would have known that the method (at least when done well enough under sufficiently good circumstances) worked.

    In other words:

    The hypothesis “It is impossible to set a ship on fire using x.” cannot be experimentally proved—even if true.

    The hypothesis “It is possible to set a ship on fire using x.”, OTOH, is provable—unless untrue.

  24. 26 TackiestOnes December 11, 2010 at 1:10 am

    Yeah! Perhaps the people on the ship were temporarily blinded and dropped something that was on fire?? That would set a ship on fire for REALS. I like Mythbusters a lot for asking these questions.

  25. 27 Yusra December 11, 2010 at 5:25 am

    MythBusters make science cool. They make the scientific method even cooler. πŸ™‚

  26. 28 GORDON HAROLD DOWTON December 11, 2010 at 6:37 am

    I like very much your off-label hypothesis. What others have pointed out in regards to MYTHBUSTERS particular approach, science with a sense of humour, does make of Science in general, fun. But, on a little more of the serious side, I would question the ability of extrapolating from particular periods in history, in order to reproduce or duplicate a described event or action. To be thorough, absolute in the replication, one would have to exist at that particular moment in time. There are an extraordinary number of variables that exist, did not exist, even to the most discrete of angles regarding shield and sun, the atmospheric conditions, movement of water, the direction the boats were facing, all the same, staggered, composition of every material thing…One cannot isolate a fragment of time and bring it forward two thousand years, examine the totality of this fragment’s composition and reproduce it. We cannot(nor should it have ever happened)reproduce an Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Reproduce, in the sense of the EXACTNESS of conditions and results. At most, we could reproduce devestating destruction. It would prove the hypothesis, but could never duplicate the actual experience. It is fun to watch. But, I did watch an episode in which the hypothesis tested was the WW11 notion of soldiers with propulsion backpacks on skiis. Yet, the reproduction was attempted with skates on ice. The proposal was on skiis, a more inherently stable platform than skates. Why skates were used, I never understood. Of course it failed. I never watched again. But, I appreciate the entertainment value and as pointed out, the possibility of ‘bringing forward’ perhaps another interpretation. Were the ships themselves burned, or, were the eyes of the soldiers destroyed? Very interesting.

  27. 29 Katie December 11, 2010 at 10:23 am

    You raise a good point. The conclusion reached by the show was not that it’s impossible to set a ship on fire using mirrors, but that the three versions they had attempted to do so did not work. Three well thought out, yet unsuccessful, attempts may lessen the likelihood of success, but they don’t eliminate it. A big part of any scientific experiment is narrowing down your variables. But that, still, is part of the scientific method. What the Mythbusters did was follow the scientific process. Perhaps a more accurate ending to their shows would be “Myth: Busted, under the parameters with which we designed our experiment,” but television does like to be brief.

  28. 30 Damian Handzy December 11, 2010 at 10:33 am

    Nice explanation. As a scientist, skeptic (, and promoter of rational thinking, I love this post.

    My favorite quote is from Carl Sagan: “Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.”

  29. 31 workingtechmom December 11, 2010 at 12:35 pm

    Great post – and our whole family sits and enjoys the show together. We also love how they test, prove the hypotheses wrong, and refine the test.

    I read that people will still believe their original thought even when shown evidence to the contrary (can’t remember the %, but it was high) because it is hard for the brain to believe they were mistaken. Must mean scientists are able to overcome that more easily.

  30. 32 sauerkraut December 11, 2010 at 3:43 pm

    Great show which keeps the kidlet interested and focused. When he read your post, he understood every word of it – even if he did not agree with the conclusion re the mirrors. He’s trying to set a tree out back on fire now. He’s sure to learn something.

  31. 33 Sanag December 11, 2010 at 3:57 pm

    “On October 22nd… We were able to cause charring and smoldering in a 1-2 foot wide swath along much of the boat’s length. After three passes over the boat, the hull was penetrated and a small open flame was achieved.”

    The working materials topside for a REAL Greek antiquity vessel which actually saided for a living and fought in wars, and was not a ‘block of wood sitting on water’ were:

    Pitch, tar, shredded linen, woven faked line, oakum, wood fleece, cleaning spirits and cloths, essential wood oils, wax, flammable combat oils, and fibren. On a real sailing vessel with these topside working elements, you do not even want to set a jar on the gunwhales in the sun for fear of fire. A real sailor’s primary risk is fire. It is a real and present dangere for which we prepare daily.

    But we are smart. Forgot I had to bow down to how smart we are.

  32. 34 Frederika December 11, 2010 at 7:12 pm

    I would argue (very mildly, mind you) that the show does not so much represent classic scientific method as it does the more realistic and functional practice of science process skills, including primary skills like observation, classification, communication, measurement, prediction, experimentation, analysis, and inference. Scientific method is perceived by many as too linear–it may be a way that one can explore an experimental investigation of a topic, but, it is considered a bit archaic in the world of science education, as well as science literacy. Not all science is done according to SCIENTIFIC METHOD. Much of it is messy thinking and going from observation to question to observation to measurement to observation to prediction to observation, to, well you get the picture.

  33. 35 Katie December 11, 2010 at 7:30 pm

    I think that observation, classification, communication, measurement, prediction, experimentation, analysis and inference are the very tools we talk about when we discuss the scientific method. The graphic I used in this post is a good foundation, but if I had designed it there would have been many more arrows linking parts of the process to one another. You’re correct that science can be messy and the process is not always linear, but that process is still the scientific method.

  34. 36 Sister Earth Organics December 11, 2010 at 8:57 pm

    I love when they use that stuff that simulates the human body–it looks like a big block of jello–and they shoot bullets into it (or whatever else is the “bullet of the day”). One episode tested the theory that a bullet’s ricochet killed someone.
    I wish science was this much fun when I was in school!

  35. 37 MJae December 12, 2010 at 1:57 am

    I so love that show. I just hope they don’t run out of interesting myths that they can bust.

  36. 38 portableking December 12, 2010 at 2:00 am

    yah i learn this lesson in my school class.

  37. 39 Dr. Skeptic December 12, 2010 at 2:44 am

    Great. I had always been sceptical of the story! Now there’s experiential proof that I’d been right! πŸ™‚ Maybe the sailors got blinded and somehow misplaced something flammable that made the ship go up in flames? Pity one can’t really prove that kinda thing! πŸ˜› Congratulations for being on the WordPress trends! Cool blog. Subscribing to it now!

  38. 40 muslimmarriage December 12, 2010 at 5:05 am

    Good Post And I love Mythbosts

  39. 41 evilcyber December 12, 2010 at 9:16 am

    And yet, despite the “scientific method” being as crystal-clear and valid as it can be, it is amazing how much it generally is disregarded when people try to come to conclusions.


  40. 42 blisteringbakedbeans December 12, 2010 at 10:59 am

    Nice summary of the scientific method! Now researchers all over the world can easily answer the dreaded question that inevitably pops up over the holidays: “so what exactly is it that you do”?!

  41. 43 blaggblog December 12, 2010 at 12:11 pm

    Nice post. Good to see the scientific method pop up every now and then. It’s that darn hypothesis part that always gets me… πŸ™‚

  42. 44 sayitwithmusic December 12, 2010 at 4:01 pm

    Very interesting read! I missed that episode, and would’ve been especially bummed if they HAD been able to set that ship on fire…lol. Congrats on Freshly Pressed!

  43. 45 mmontinieri December 12, 2010 at 4:21 pm

    Aw man, you need to write SPOILER ALERT! at the beginning! I’m watching the episode online tonight! Oh well, I’ll still enjoy it even knowing the outcome. Mythbusters is one of my favorite shows! Great post, congrats on freshly pressed!

  44. 46 markjl December 12, 2010 at 4:26 pm

    Well Hi. I can’t see Mythbusters, I think as I live in Europe (or can I somehow?) Anyhow, I’m a big fan of the scientific method although can always apply the discipline that logic requires!

  45. 47 Travis December 12, 2010 at 7:45 pm

    Whatever happened to the “Publishing Results” step of the scientific method? Isn’t that important? How are people supposed to know about your findings so that they aren’t wasting energy on finding out things which have already been found out?

    Also, as an aside, what good is the scientific method for proving history? We don’t even know if this event actually happened, or if people made it up. Even if we proved the thing possible, we still may never know if this event actually occurred. By that logic, why does anyone believe history? By what standard are historical documents judged? Why do we trust them?

    It is true that repeatability and mathematical logic plays a key role in our confidence in the body of scientific knowledge. Often times, I fear, folks are making conclusions which are based on half-hearted, poorly designed experiments with spotty data and then their work is cited by the academic community, which apparently grades on effort. Anyone getting their MS or PHD knows what I’m talking about, those badly written papers that don’t make much sense and a large portion of the other papers in the field will cite their jury rigged findings.

    Here’s another great question: Of what benefit is scientific knowledge? What defines “benefit” in that question? What are we striving after? Defining everything? If all things could be defined and known, would we then attain some sort of relative perfection? What motives drive scientists?

  46. 48 inidna December 12, 2010 at 11:31 pm

    The Mythbusters are awesome! They do so many fascinating experiments and they do so in such a way that really grabs the audience’s attention so that even if you’re not really into the ‘science’ thing, you’d still be into the show! Keen to catch that episode although I’m not sure whether they’ll be following the same schedule over here (Asia) as they do over there! Ah well, I’ll search for it! Great post and congrats on being Pressed!

  47. 49 markjl December 13, 2010 at 1:02 am

    Hi Travis: On histroy, based on evidence, I guess many theories are in fact hypotheses, but the best model to date. Take the big bang for instance. There may be a lot of ‘fact’ there but the theory remains hypothesis until proven. The question is how much doubt is reasonable in ‘beyond reasonable doubt’?

    Good question about the uses or benefit of scientific knowledge. In my humble opinition, knowledge leads to understanding. The important thing may be to understand that understanding can change as the facts are revealed. But this understanding can only be deepened by research leading to better hypotheses and theories.

    Take mechanics versus quantum physics. We are told when we start to study quantum physics that the laws of everyday physics no longer apply. That the ‘laws’ are approximations. So the whole thing is just a model, but one that allows us to predict how things will fly or crash, so they are useful there.

  48. 50 (Prime Time)' Are you in the prime of your life? If not, why not? December 13, 2010 at 1:14 am

    Well done! This is my favourite explanation of the scientific method…

  49. 51 kmking22 December 13, 2010 at 2:16 am

    They just need to revise the experiment a bit. of course if you point the beam at the broadside of a thick wooden hull it’s not going to do anything, but perhaps the solar beam ignited something on the ship first. Maybe something on the deck, maybe the sails?

  50. 52 rautakyy December 13, 2010 at 3:34 am

    I would not trust the mythbusters to manage set fire on a wooden sailing ship even with a blowtorch. They had to bring in a minigun to cut down a tree, just to answer the question wether or not it is possible to fall a tree with a machinegun. I have done that by an accident in matter of minutes with a common 7.62 machinegun. (The tree was behind my target.)

    The show represents a good idea to bring simple sientific questions to us normal people. The problem is that it is run by two idiots. The audience may feel some connection to their “down to earth” way of representing themselves, but there is nothing cientific about it.

    The program should be run by people who could have the knowledge and good judgement to choose actual specialists for each question. That is of course the problem with all these type of programs. They are entertainment, wich is sold to us the consumers, as “science”. In my opinion, for each question there should be a scientist supervising the tests and a practical professional to build the needed props. This is not the case with mythbusters. There are so many “gurus” and “specialists” on TV today, who do not know nothing of their supposed speciality. Of course the actual specialists do not come cheap…

  51. 53 Lance Ponder December 13, 2010 at 4:37 am

    Sometimes it isn’t the experiment and its results that matter as much as the question. Questions spawn from within the confines of predisposition. Sometimes it is helpful to step back and allow intellectual honesty and liberty to work together to see where the paradigms are too limiting and allow for more meaningful questions thus more useful tests.

  52. 54 Sophie Grand December 13, 2010 at 7:42 am

    Wow, i love mythbusters.

  53. 55 My Camera, My Friend December 13, 2010 at 8:58 am

    Sounds like a fun and informative show.

  54. 56 JohnnyWho December 13, 2010 at 9:13 am

    I wholeheartedly concur with the observation that MYTHBUSTERS is a joy to behold, and as Bill Cosby said in the intro to Fat Albert: “You better watch out or you just might learn something.”
    Aside from throwing my support to Katie Bowell and her enjoyable blog, I would like to tag on an underline to the query LindaCO made: “Why is it that so many conclusions about important stuff are NOT drawn this way?” That is an IMPORTANT Question! Common sense tells us we should consider drawing more conclusions this way, ESPECIALLY important ones, like-Going to war- national and global policy – law enforcement- etc.etc. We would profit if a question like “How do we deal with high oil costs, our effects on global weather and energy shortages?” benefited from the ‘Scientific Method’. But it turns out that a lot of it is actually derived from religion and superstition or at least supernatural beliefs. Now before anyone feels their foundation is being attacked let me clarify that I myself have walked this path and I believe it derives from ‘a well meaning spirit'(for the most part), and that I believe there are a lot of “good” reasons why ended up this way. But I believe it’s time we started using what we’ve learned to better effect, and though we are resistant I believe we can let loose of our ancient (and now provably) poorly derived superstitions. This brings us full circle to the recent post by TRAVIS who sounds cynical but rightfully wants proof of the functionality of all this. (I agree functionality is limited if only a few are aware of the results; So, conversely the more who know, the better informed we all are). Then TRAVIS concludes with “Of what benefit is scientific knowledge? What defines β€œbenefit” in that question? What are we striving after?”
    Let me say, there is an answer,and part of the answer is that we define the worthiness of the concept by precisely this standard…”Does the result provide a general benefit to its adherents?” but please, I urge you don’t waste your energy challenging “What are benefits? How can any ONE actually KNOW that it’s a benefit and not a hidden detriment?” These questions sound logical, but . . . We know the difference. In a practical way (which we practice daily, each one of us) we know the difference and we CAN make decisions, using the best available information (scientific method) and comes to conclusions that are DEMONSTRABLY beneficial! I recommend reading “The Moral Landscape” by Sam Harris. His writing isn’t perfect (but whose is) and, I think it suffers bouts of tangential decline (so be patient), but I believe he is right. Science can help us make moral decisions. But part of the price is that well intentioned as it may be, we have to stop pandering to the notions of “Who can ever REALLY say what’s right or wrong?” and the like. Yes, we recognize the subjectivity of what one individual understands at a given moment. But to pursue this viewpoint as an alternative to implementing the ‘method’ is a counterproductive argument in semantics.
    Take a good look at the question. Wouldn’t you like to reap the benefits offered? You already feel unsatisfied, right? Try using the scientific model as a means to make judgement calls. Try the Observe/Hypothesize/Experiment/Revise method. Every scrap of evidence illustrates the virtue of it. Even MYTHBUSTERS! (I think their enjoyment is contagious).

  55. 57 4myskin December 13, 2010 at 10:45 am

    MythBusters is soooo awesome!

  56. 58 eBook Reader December 13, 2010 at 6:44 pm

    Love the Mythbusters but this Archimedes story was boring the first time they did it, and they keep doing it over and over. Arg.

  57. 59 em409 December 16, 2010 at 4:26 pm

    Thanks for a great post! I’ve written my own blog post about it; Thanks again for getting me reading.

  58. 60 Dunmore September 6, 2011 at 12:08 pm

    Wonderful post, please do post more posts.

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