Obama on 'Mythbusters': What happened with his 'death ray'?

President Obama's Mythbusters challenge didn't go as hoped – the 'solar death ray' myth he had the show tackle was, in the show's terms, 'busted,' despite the help of hundreds of San Francisco students.

Courtesy of Mythbusters/Discovery
Mythbusters hosts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman pose in a promotional shot for their show. President Obama's challenge – reexamine an ancient myth about Archimedes using mirrors to set an advancing fleet on fire – met failure on the show last night.

President Obama’s “viewer challenge” was busted on “Mythbusters” last night. He’d charged hosts Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage with examining the ancient legend of Archimedes’ solar death ray – supposedly, the Greek scientist used giant mirrors to reflect sunlight towards attacking Roman ships around 212 BC, setting them aflame.

The Obama twist was to use hundreds of mirrors, held by hundreds of San Francisco-area students, to try and light a mock trireme on fire. Change we could believe in! Hope of conflagration! The 2012 campaign is starting early.

It didn’t work, though. The many, many mirrors, jiggling constantly as the teenagers squirmed while aiming, just couldn’t combine into one ray that was focused enough to truly heat up the fake ship’s sail. They got it up to 260º degrees Fahrenheit or so, which is pretty hot, but not nearly hot enough for ignition.

They even cheated a little bit, sailing the target so close to the California shore that you could have hit it with a copy of the federal budget. No fire.

The kids involved didn’t mind. They got free T-shirts and a chance to be on a popular TV show which examines myths and legends of the past, plus movie stunts. (For example, the other thing they looked at last night was whether you could flip an SUV by hitting it really, really, really hard on the hood with a superhero punch. That one didn’t work either. Maybe they should have used mirrors.)

Anyway, Adam and Jamie reported back to Obama in the White House library, and said his idea hadn’t worked. He took the failure calmly, thanking them for their time and shaking their hands – thus setting himself up for some pundit to complain that he’s not passionate enough about US policy toward ancient scientific experiments.

But at the end Jamie explained that failure in science isn’t bad. It’s just the beginning. You’ve ruled something out, and you never know what else you might discover. For instance, to somebody on the boat, the mirrors were very dazzling and distracting, to the point where suspicious attackers might just have sailed away.

So keep at those science projects, you middle school students with deadlines approaching! You know who you are.

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