Science Channel
Science Channel

The Science Behind the Nearly Escape-Proof Rooms in 'Race to Escape'

Science Channel
Science Channel

Inspiration can strike at the oddest times. For producer and psychologist Riaz Patel, that time was during the blackout in New York City in 2003. “It was this bizarre situation where you were with people you didn’t know trying to accomplish certain things and figure out solutions to everyday problems,” he tells mental_floss. “That’s where I thought, ‘There’s something about working with people you don’t know, in situations you’ve never been in, that could be a really interesting basis of some sort of a show.’” A couple of years of rumination later, and the idea developed into his latest series, Race to Escape. The game show, which premieres tomorrow on the Science Channel and is hosted by Jimmy Pardo, pits two teams of strangers against each other—and a clock—in an attempt to escape a room by working together to find clues and solve puzzles. Each week, there are two new teams, locked in two new rooms, with five bolts separating them from a grand prize of $25,000. The game, Patel says, had to be challenging, but winnable—“because if it hadn’t been winnable, then the audience would feel it and they would just turn the channel.”

The designs of the rooms run the gauntlet from a study to an auto mechanic’s shop. Picking the environments happened during a “very long brainstorming day,” Patel says, and each one had to fit very specific criteria. They couldn’t be places that were “so foreign that someone wouldn’t know where to start,” Patel says. “Putting them in sort of a weird crypt that’s set in Mesopotamia would be very, very hard, because they’d go on like, ‘We don’t even know where we are.’” So they stuck with places that would be familiar to people, among them a barber shop, a neighborhood bar, a study, and a Chinese restaurant. The rooms also had to be tactile and big enough to fit multiple people and give them space to move around. (One idea that didn’t make the cut for this very reason? An elevator.)

Next up: creating the challenges. Like the environments, the challenges had to meet certain guidelines. First, Patel and the show’s team wanted them to be in line with the theme of the room. “They’re all very, very organically connected to the environment,” he says. “A challenge that you find in the neighborhood bar would be different than a challenge you would find in the auto garage.” The challenges needed to be big enough so the audience could see what was happening, and doable in the amount of time allotted. They also needed to be equal parts brainy and physical. “We’d call them MacGyver challenges,” Patel says. “They’d have to physically do things as opposed to just sitting and figuring things out just in their head. That’s not good TV.”

The hardest part of designing the challenges, Patel says, was “keeping the contestants on a course so they couldn’t jump from clue one to clue four.” A tough thing when some clues were hidden in plain sight: “We would be so nervous: What if they happened to look under this rug? Then they’d see something that they’re not supposed to see yet. So it really has to be very well designed—they’re only given as much information as they need to solve that challenge.”

When the challenges were done, the art department created another layer that producers called the “red herring path”: Things that made sense for the environment but weren’t necessarily connected to the puzzles. “That’s something that we really went back and forth on,” Patel says. “How to streamline those rooms so that they feel like real environments, but still don’t have too much that it would be distracting and hard to move forward—that was a balance we had to find.” 

Once the teams are locked inside, there’s no communication between the producers and the contestants, so each room, and the puzzles it contained, didn’t just have to be carefully designed—they also had to be thoroughly tested. Individual challenges were tested eight to 10 times, then assigned to certain rooms, at which point, the room “was tested five times from start to finish just to make sure that we didn’t have any issues,” Patel says. “We’d have a target, and then we would see if the testers would veer off course and make adjustments,” which included details as small as the size and type of font used for the clues. They never had to throw out a challenge, Patel says, just adjust the amount of information given: “We had to troubleshoot a million things before we could actually lock that door.” 

All told, Patel says, “hundreds and hundreds of hours went into every room.” Each room was built in four days, tested, and then filmed in for 60 minutes. That night, the crew would strip the room and start over. “I’ve never done a show where I had to throw everything out after an episode and start from scratch,” Patel says. “That was a challenge.” 

The show isn’t just a game: There’s a heavy dose of science, too. As the contestants are trying to solve the puzzles, Pardo is offering scientific explanations for their behavior. “I didn’t want people to look at it and just assume that human behavior is random,” Patel says. “There are certain stresses and factors that are going into their behavior—in certain rooms, the heat would even go up. In retrospect, we could certainly look at the influences on the contestants and explain to the audience this is what’s happening—this is what they’re feeling physiologically, this is what’s preventing them from seeing the solution to a problem.”

For Patel, whose first job was at a mental institution and who graduated with a triple major from the University of Pennsylvania (where he also won a medal from The National Psychology Honor Society), the most fascinating part of the game show was, perhaps, the behavior of the contestants once they were locked in the rooms. “You cannot predict human behavior. You cannot,” he says. “I think there’s a real difference between who you project you are and who you really are. You have no history with these people, and no history with this room. What comes out of you organically is a bit different than your normal day-to-day. People who say ‘I'm a diehard leader,’ they get into the room, and suddenly they are terrified and they are a follower. Or someone who says ‘I'm amazing at puzzles,’ and in that moment they cannot figure out the simplest things. I feel like this game really shows you authentically because you have no time to prep. All you can do is react—and I love that.”

Race to Escape premieres July 25 at 10/9c on the Science Channel.

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MARS Bioimaging
The World's First Full-Color 3D X-Rays Have Arrived
MARS Bioimaging
MARS Bioimaging

The days of drab black-and-white, 2D X-rays may finally be over. Now, if you want to see what your broken ankle looks like in all its full-color, 3D glory, you can do so thanks to new body-scanning technology. The machine, spotted by BGR, comes courtesy of New Zealand-based manufacturer MARS Bioimaging.

It’s called the MARS large bore spectral scanner, and it uses spectral molecular imaging (SMI) to produce images that are fully colorized and in 3D. While visually appealing, the technology isn’t just about aesthetics—it could help doctors identify issues more accurately and provide better care.

Its pixel detectors, called “Medipix” chips, allow the machine to identify colors and distinguish between materials that look the same on regular CT scans, like calcium, iodine, and gold, Buzzfeed reports. Bone, fat, and water are also differentiated by color, and it can detect details as small as a strand of hair.

“It gives you a lot more information, and that’s very useful for medical imaging. It enables you to do a lot of diagnosis you can’t do otherwise,” Phil Butler, the founder/CEO of MARS Bioimaging and a physicist at the University of Canterbury, says in a video. “When you [have] a black-and-white camera photographing a tree with its leaves, you can’t tell whether the leaves are healthy or not. But if you’ve got a color camera, you can see whether they’re healthy leaves or diseased.”

The images are even more impressive in motion. This rotating image of an ankle shows "lipid-like" materials (like cartilage and skin) in beige, and soft tissue and muscle in red.

The technology took roughly a decade to develop. However, MARS is still working on scaling up production, so it may be some time before the machine is available commercially.

[h/t BGR]

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ESA/Herschel/SPIRE; M. W. L. Smith et al 2017
Look Closely—Every Point of Light in This Image Is a Galaxy
ESA/Herschel/SPIRE; M. W. L. Smith et al 2017
ESA/Herschel/SPIRE; M. W. L. Smith et al 2017

Even if you stare closely at this seemingly grainy image, you might not be able to tell there’s anything to it besides visual noise. But it's not static—it's a sliver of the distant universe, and every little pinprick of light is a galaxy.

As Gizmodo reports, the image was produced by the European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory, a space-based infrared telescope that was launched into orbit in 2009 and was decommissioned in 2013. Created by Herschel’s Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver (SPIRE) and Photodetector Array Camera and Spectrometer (PACS), it looks out from our galaxy toward the North Galactic Pole, a point that lies perpendicular to the Milky Way's spiral near the constellation Coma Berenices.

A close-up of a view of distant galaxies taken by the Herschel Space Observatory
ESA/Herschel/SPIRE; M. W. L. Smith et al 2017

Each point of light comes from the heat of dust grains between different stars in a galaxy. These areas of dust gave off this radiation billions of years before reaching Herschel. Around 1000 of those pins of light belong to galaxies in the Coma Cluster (named for Coma Berenices), one of the densest clusters of galaxies in the known universe.

The longer you look at it, the smaller you’ll feel.

[h/t Gizmodo]

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