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.
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.