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Discovery

The Craziest Myths the MythBusters Have Tackled, According to the MythBusters

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Discovery

Today, Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage announced that the next season of MythBusters will be its last. In 2012, mental_floss interviewed the pair—along with co-hosts Kari Byron, Grant Imahara, and Tory Bellici, who departed the show in 2014—about the craziest myths they'd tackled after nearly a decade of busting. Here's what they said. 

Jamie Hyneman

CRAZIEST BOOM: Cement Truck Explosion, Season 3

Everybody seems to remember the cement truck as a favorite episode. We used 800 pounds of ANFO, which is a fertilizer/diesel fuel mix. The cement truck was there, and then it wasn’t there. It was just gone, and that was cool.

BIGGEST SPECTACLE: Rocket Car, Season 1

We have yet to top what we did with the very first rocket car. Attaching rockets to a car, getting into a helicopter, and watching it take off and disappear—it doesn’t get any better than that.

CRAZIEST MYTH FROM THE 2012 SEASON: Riding A Motorcycle on Water

In terms of something that is like, “Can you actually do that?” one of my favorites this season is trying to ride a motorcycle across water. Having to push a motorcycle that’s almost out-of-control fast to its very limits, and knowing that you’re going to hit the water—who knows what’s going to happen at that speed? It’s thrilling, but your life is right there in front of you. We take all the safety precautions that we possibly can, but you play with fire, you can get burned. There was a problem with insurance on this story. They didn’t want to let me do the test because of the potential of crashing on the far side of the water if I came out, so I figured out an ingenious way of solving that problem so that I could do the test.

Adam Savage

Discovery Channel

MOST DANGEROUS MYTH: Escaping a Sinking Car, Season 8

A couple years after we did the first underwater car myth, we went and did it again—because most cars turn turtle when they hit the water, and it makes it much more confusing for the person who’s in the car. The whole time we were leading up to it, Jamie and I were kind of spooked. It’s not often we do something that’s so dangerous. We thought through everything that could go wrong, and really addressed it. As I was sitting in the car on the barge in the middle of a quarry lake—Jamie was on the shore, about to give the signal to drag my car off the barge and pull it upside down—I thought, what the hell do we think we’re doing? There’s no permutation in which this is not totally insane. At this point I no longer think about it being crazy, but … it’s funny. You feel a little spooked about something, so you address what you’re spooked about, but you never quite get rid of that feeling that you probably shouldn’t be doing this. When we finally did the stunt, it worked beautifully, but we did need every safety procedure we had added. And my mom is still, to this day, not allowed to watch that episode.

CRAZY-FUN MYTH: Spy Car 2, Season 9

Jamie and I were testing myths about having spikes on your tire rims that tear up other cars. We built several different kinds—some from The Green Hornet, from Bond, and from Grease. You work out what you’re going to do—you put spikes on the car, you make sure safety procedures are in place—and then you realize that this story requires Jamie and me to drive cars in the same direction at 40mph and start smacking them into each other. It’s one of the most fun things we’ve ever done, because when else do you get a chance to do something like that?

CRAZIEST MYTH FROM THE 2012 SEASON: Airplane Boarding

We wanted to do a myth about boarding airplanes, but we couldn’t find someone who would lend us a 747 to use for a day—so we built one. We rented enough seats and overhead bins for a full plane, we built a framework and a structure to hold them all in orientation, and the entire construction of that framework took—well, we only had two days to do it. We find ourselves in those parameters all the time, but that’s the kind of challenge we really like.

BONUS! THE MYTH SO CRAZY, THEY WON'T DO IT

There is a story that I don’t want to do—it’s just too freaking dangerous. It revolves around a truck full of liquid oxygen that has an accident and spills liquid oxygen all over the road. In order to make something burn, you need fuel and oxygen. A roadbed is a really nice bit of fuel because it’s all petroleum-based, but it doesn’t burn very well because it’s very dense and all those molecules are tied up in the gummy asphalt. But liquid oxygen makes things like there’s no tomorrow. In fact, it can take things like oily rags and turn them into—not even exaggerating—high explosives. Liquid oxygen is some of the scariest stuff on earth. And when we started investigating LOX, which is what they call it, we discovered from very preliminary small-scale testing in the shop that is both super, super dangerous and completely unpredictable. Sometimes we would get results that vastly exceeded what our research said we should get, and other times we would get nothing at all. And it was like, we’re going to set up a roadbed full of thousands of pounds of liquid oxygen? What happens if nothing happens? Who wants to go over there? Plus then we’ve spent, like, $30,000 just to get absolutely nothing happening—that’s totally unacceptable. And what if what happens vastly exceeds what we thought would happen? How far away should we have been? If you have what turns out to be thousands of pounds of high explosives, is a quarter of a mile enough? You could certainly do it in small scale, but I think we’ll just leave it as a good story.

Grant Imahara

Discovery Channel

GROSSEST MYTH: Making a Earwax Candle, Season 7

We were doing a myth from Shrek, where Shrek makes an earwax candle. A local ear/nose/throat doctor got us enough earwax—this is from hundreds of patients—to make a candle. It came in a little specimen jar, just a rainbow of colors. I didn’t know that earwax came in so many colors! We decided that we would make a candle out of these bits of earwax by heating them up and melting them down. And that’s when things went horribly wrong. We found out later on that the reason that the doctor had removed all the earwax from people’s ears was because it was infected. And the smell that emanates from infected human earwax being heated caused instant dry heaves. I just could not deal, so I had to walk away from it. Everybody else formed it into a candle and then we tried to light it, but it didn’t really work. That one was busted, and it was probably the grossest thing I’ve ever done in my life.

MOST INTENSE BUILD: Bifurcated Boat, Season 5

We had a myth in which a speedboat hit a pylon sticking out of the water and was supposedly almost cut in half. In the insurance claim, the guy said that he’d only been going 25mph. So we decided to test this one out—but we couldn’t do it on water because of all the environmental restrictions. If it works, and the boat sinks, there’s a whole salvage issue. So we ended up towing the boat on land, and we then had to anchor this giant pylon in the middle of the runway at Alameda. And to make matters worse, it started raining. So we’re out there arc welding in torrential rain, occasionally getting shocked by the welding equipment. It was successful in that we got the boat to hit the pylon, but we did not get a full bifurcation. It was probably one of the worst days I’ve ever had building something on location.

CRAZIEST MYTH FROM THE 2012 SEASON: Hotel Room Parachute

We attempt to build a parachute made only out of materials you can find in a hotel room. Kari, Tory and I each came up with and built our own design, but it was too dangerous for us to try out our own parachutes. We discussed doing it out over water, but in the end, we thought it was best to put Buster up to the task. Then we did small-scale tests with a bunch of materials that you could find in the rooms—sheets, duvet covers, shower curtains—and found the best material. Then we calculated, based on that data, what size parachute we had to make. And then we made a mega parachute.

Kari Byron

Discovery Channel

CRAZY-GROSS MYTH: Son of a Gun, Season 3

Son of a Gun was a myth that during the Civil War, a musket ball went through a guy’s testicles and into a gal’s womb and impregnated her. It was when we were more unregulated, and probably didn’t have as many children watching, so to test it, we had to come up with a large sample of … genetic legacy, if you will. This was before we could collect it from doctors, so everybody in the shop donated some of theirs and brought it in. [Laughs] When we were interviewed for this job, one of the things they asked us was would we be willing to donate bodily fluids. I’ve personally given vomit, blood, urine, flatulence. I’ve not had to donate any fecal matter—but I have given my dogs’, if that counts. Yeah. It’s a pretty weird job.

CRAZIEST EXPLOSION: Creamer Cannon, Season 7

We’ve done a lot of big explosions, but for me, the craziest explosion was Creamer Cannon. It’s from a YouTube video where guys put coffee creamer over a lighter, and it makes this big poof of flame. We super-sized it: Giant air cannons and 500 pounds of coffee creamer with flares on top. And poof!—it made this big cloud, and we didn’t think it was going to light, but then all of a sudden the flare lights it and it turns into this growling monster of sugary coffee creamer on fire in the sky. It looked like Apocalypse Now. I swear it growled. And then the wind changed, and it started coming at us. We’re used to working with things like C4 and propane, explosives that are known to be excitable, but we were a little too close to the range of the coffee creamer. I had so much fear in my heart, I just started running. It was like, napalm of sugar balls falling from the sky. The cleanup was disgusting.

CRAZIEST MYTH FROM THE 2012 SEASON: Halloween Special

For our Halloween special, we tested the smell of fear. To do that, we had to scare the crap out of each other. We picked out some different creepy crawlies that would be covering us as we were lying in a locked glass coffin until we were shaking and produced fear sweat, which is supposed to smell different than exercise sweat. At one point I had a scorpion on my face. It was terrifying.

Tory Belleci

Discovery Channel

MOST LOGISTICALLY CHALLENGING (according to Kari and Grant, too!): Luxury Car Drop

The craziest myth we’ve ever done was when we dropped a car from a helicopter and had another car racing across the desert to see if the car on the ground was faster than the car falling from the sky. It was from a luxury car commercial. And the logistics—there was this 30,000 foot safety zone that we couldn’t be in, because this car was dropping from 3000 feet in the air. Being able to coordinate having the helicopter dropping a car, and having a remote control car racing to meet it, was one of the craziest things we’ve ever pulled off.

CRAZIEST BUILD: Compact Compact, Season 3

The myth was that two semi trucks got in a head-on collision and were so mangled that they had to be pulled apart by workers at a junkyard, who discovered a compact car with a family in it between the trucks. We had three days to do it, and to pull that off was an engineering feat. Obviously nobody could drive trucks, and we couldn’t pull the trucks on tow cables like we would normally, because the two trucks were coming in opposite directions. So we had to put a pulley system in the center of the runway, and put the compact car on top of that, and the cables went off in 90 degree angles from the pulley—so imagine a T-shape, and on either end of the T was a semi-truck, and driving perpendicular were the two tow vehicles that were actually pulling the trucks together using cables. That was pretty insane. And to see two semi trucks in a head-on collision that close, it was just—all this energy, all this power, and as soon as they hit, they just exploded and all that energy tore the trucks apart. It was incredible—like The Matrix Reloaded, you know that scene? Except they did it with CG, and we did it in real life.

CRAZIEST MYTH FROM THE 2012 SEASON: Rocket Surfer

The story is that a surfer from California moves to the Midwest, and he misses surfing, so he straps a rocket to a surfboard and surfs across a lake. We did all these tests with Buster on the surfboard. One rocket didn’t last long enough, so we got multiple rockets to space out the ignition so we could get a longer thrust. I built a bank of 200 model rockets that went off every 3 seconds, so that we could get a consistent ride. And at the last minute, the insurers said I could ride it. People were like “What if it explodes, or catches on fire and you die?” But I was more worried that I wasn’t going to be able to hang on. It was one of the coolest things I've ever done on the show.

This story originally appeared in 2012.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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