TONIGHT: President Obama on MythBusters

Tonight at 9pm ET/PT: The MythBusters tackle, once and for all, the "Archimedes Solar Ray" myth! Set your DVRs for the Discovery Channel.

Way back in 2004, the MythBusters first tried out the "Archimedes Solar Ray" myth. The myth essentially was (quoting an excellent writeup at The Annotated MythBusters):

Myth: At the seige of Syracuse in 212 BC (during the Second Punic Wars), Archimedes built his 'burning mirrors,' which was an arrangement of mirrors that was capable of focusing a ray of sunshine on approaching ships and setting them aflame.

In 2004, they failed to replicate this effect and called the myth busted. Viewers cried foul, and a group from MIT claimed they had in fact created an array of mirrors that set a boat on fire. So the next year, the MythBusters encouraged various viewers to come on the show and do it themselves -- including the MIT class. Well, as The Annotated MythBusters says, this second series of attempts also failed. (I urge you to read the writeup of this second attempt, as it really is an in-depth essay on the topic.)

But still, the myth would not die. People really, really wanted to see a boat set on fire using mirrors. After all, those MIT folks claimed to have done it! So now, President Obama himself has set the MythBusters on a mission to investigate the myth one last time. Here's a sneak peak:

Obama's involvement is part of his administration's STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) awareness initiative. The idea, in brief, is to get STEM careers noticed by students, so they'll consider them when choosing career paths. As someone who actually has a STEM career (when I'm not writing, I'm a software engineer), I think this is awesome. And who better to show off practical applications of science, technology, engineering, and math than Adam and Jamie?

The big question, though, is whether this myth is busted or not! I have seen the episode, but I am sworn to secrecy about it. I can tell you this, though: the MythBusters rallied a huge number of students in order to make the ultimate solar ray, vastly ramping up all previous efforts. Watching Jamie in his solar-proof suit on the trireme, being blasted by mirror reflections, is pretty intense. Watching all those kids directly engaged in a large-scale science experiment is also totally awesome.

After the jump, some more promo shots from the episode. Jamie plays the attacking General Marcellus and Adam plays the Syracusian general urging his defending army to keep the mirrors focused.

MythBusters with students
Part of the Syracusian defending army.

Adam and Jamie with the Trireme
Adam and Jamie with the trireme.

Mirrors aiming at the trireme
The army's assault begins....

Tune in tonight to learn how it all turns out.

Stradivarius Violins Get Their Distinctive Sound By Mimicking the Human Voice

Italian violinist Francesco Geminiani once wrote that a violin's tone should "rival the most perfect human voice." Nearly three centuries later, scientists have confirmed that some of the world's oldest violins do in fact mimic aspects of the human singing voice, a finding which scientists believe proves "the characteristic brilliance of Stradivari violins."

Using speech analysis software, scientists in Taiwan compared the sound produced by 15 antique instruments with recordings of 16 male and female vocalists singing English vowel sounds, The Guardian reports. They discovered that violins made by Andrea Amati and Antonio Stradivari, the pioneers of the instrument, produce similar "formant features" as the singers. The resonance frequencies were similar between Amati violins and bass and baritone singers, while the higher-frequency tones produced by Stradivari instruments were comparable to tenors and contraltos.

Andrea Amati, born in 1505, was the first known violin maker. His design was improved over 100 years later by Antonio Stradivari, whose instruments now sell for several million dollars. "Some Stradivari violins clearly possess female singing qualities, which may contribute to their perceived sweetness and brilliance," Hwan-Ching Tai, an author of the study, told The Guardian.

Their findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. A 2013 study by Dr. Joseph Nagyvary, a professor emeritus at Texas A&M University, also pointed to a link between the sounds produced by 250-year-old violins and those of a female soprano singer.

According to Vox, a blind test revealed that professional violinists couldn't reliably tell the difference between old violins like "Strads" and modern ones, with most even expressing a preference for the newer instruments. However, the value of these antique instruments can be chalked up to their rarity and history, and many violinists still swear by their exceptional quality.

[h/t The Guardian]

Phil Walter, Getty Images
How Michael Jackson's Dancing Defied the Laws of Biomechanics
Phil Walter, Getty Images
Phil Walter, Getty Images

From the time he debuted the moonwalk on broadcast television in 1983, Michael Jackson transcended the label of "dancer." His moves seemed to defy gravity as well as the normal limits of human flexibility and endurance.

Now we have some scientific evidence for that. Three neurosurgeons from the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research in Chandigarh, India, recently published a short paper in the Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine that examines just how remarkable one of Jackson's signature moves really was.

In the 1988 video for "Smooth Criminal" and subsequent live performances, Jackson is seen taking a break from his constant motion to stand in place and lean 45 degrees forward. Both he and his dancers keep their backs straight. Biomechanically, it's not really possible for a human to do. And even though he had a little help, the neurosurgeons found it to be a pretty impressive feat.

An illustration of Michael Jackson's 'Smooth Criminal' dance move.
Courtesy of 'Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine.' Copyright Manjul Tripathi, MCh.

Study co-author Manjul Tripathi told CNN that humans can't lean forward much more than 25 or 30 degrees before they risk landing on their faces. (He knows, because he tried it.) Normally, bending involves using the hip as a fulcrum, and erector spinae muscles to support our trunk. When Jackson leaned over, he transferred the fulcrum to the ankle, with the calf and Achilles tendon under strain. Since that part of the body is not equipped to support leaning that far forward without bending, the "Smooth Criminal" move was really a biomechanical illusion. The act was made possible by Jackson's patented shoe, which had a "catch" built under the heel that allowed him to grasp a protruding support on the stage. Secured to the floor, he was able to achieve a 45-degree lean without falling over.

But the neurosurgeons are quick to point out that the shoes are only part of the equation. To achieve the full 45-degree lean, Jackson would have had to have significant core strength as well as a strong Achilles tendon. An average person equipped with the shoe would be unable to do the move.

How does this apply to spinal biomechanics research? The authors point out that many dancers inspired by Jackson are continuing to push the limits of what's possible, leading to injury. In one 2010 paper, researchers surveyed 312 hip-hop dancers and found that 232 of them—almost 75 percent of the cohort—reported a total of 738 injuries over a six-month period. That prevalence could mean neurosurgeons are facing increasingly complex or unique spinal issues. The surgeons hope that awareness of potential risks could help mitigate problems down the road.

[h/t CNN]


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