Wednesday, November 26, 2008

MacGyver versus MythBusters: Victory for Science?

Sooner or later, it would be bound to happen. As one of the Discovery Channel’s most entertaining educational programs attempts to demystify their “childhood hero”. Will this be a victory for science?

By: Vanessa Uy

When long-time Hollywood movie special-effect gurus attempt to demystify their “childhood hero” Angus MacGyver on a special episode of MythBusters, their staff are probably wondering if this is an attempt of “political suicide”? After all, it’s a no-brainer that an overwhelming majority of MythBusters’ fans – if not all of them – also idolized the on-screen science-centered adventure exploits of the human Swiss Army Knife named MacGyver. But first, here’s a brief primer on MacGyver.

The TV series MacGyver – which started to air in the mid-1980’s – can be considered extremely pioneering, even under our contemporary 21st Century context because it involves around a hero’s exploits using “scientific principles” often with the materials at hand to get him out of tight situations. Even though the actor who played MacGyver on TV – Richard Dean Anderson – already has lend his acting skills on several prior works. His somewhat “nondescript” white guy image really did lend MacGyver an air of authenticity as a Cold War-era American spy.

Some skeptics consider the series as the Reagan Administration’s ill-conceived attempt to make “couch potatoes” interested in science because the US Department of Education at the time had a hard time of doing so - i.e. promoting science education. But in time, the TV series’ success did outlive the Reagan Administration. And MacGyver’s first name “Angus” was only revealed several seasons after the series aired in mid 1980’s. Mack’s first name was finally revealed in an episode that served as an homage to Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”. Inspite of the fact that the name “Angus” is somewhat “unhip” – i.e. unpopular - in 1980’s Reaganism-era America. Maybe this was the series franchise bowing down to MacGyver’s fans demanding to know his first name.

Even though the MythBusters MacGyver episode special did attempt to demystify several MacGyver exploits that might work – scientifically in theory – but falls way short when confronted with the pragmatic exigencies of cold-hard reality. Like using sodium, and related alkali metals – as a substitute for high explosives. Or the episode where MacGyver used what’s at hand – bamboo frames and duct tape – to create an ultralight aircraft, then very popular hobby in the 1980’s, as a means of escape. Both scenarios – which for some reason worked adequately on TV – fails miserably when tested in the real world under the MythBusters team’s strict scientific methodology.

Though in this particular MythBuster series, the team did prove that using only what’s at hand, most – probably over 90% - of MacGyver’s science-based exploits to get out of “tight situations” through resourcefulness and improvisation of the materials at hand do work in the real world. In my opinion, this probably made the MacGyver TV series a sort of “college-level Sesame Street” to their cadre of loyal viewers. Even after all those years.

No comments: