The October 20th episode of Discovery Channel’s pop science reality show, Mythbusters, takes an entertaining look at two popular English language idiomatic metaphors to determine if there is any scientific truth to them. First, when faced with the prospect of some terrifying experience, some of us are said to become victims of cold feet. Enquiring minds want to know, is this scientifically verifiable? Do feet in fact get cold when someone is asked to face up to his fears? Secondly, when a calamity is about to occur that will cause a mess for everyone involved, we talk about what will happen when the *&%%#***@ hits the fan. Well, what does happen when *&%%#***@ hits that proverbial fan? Is there really a mess?
These may not be the kind of earth shaking questions scientists are asking, say, to evaluate the efficacy of laetrile as a cancer cure, or even try to discover if Minoxidil will actually grow hair. But, they certainly can provide fodder for a pleasurable hour in front of the TV screen. Especially, if you’ve got a personable crew of ‘almost’ scientists doing the evaluating.
If the Mythbusters crew of five is short on scientific credentials, they make up for it by their length in personality. Split into two teams, Jamie and Adam (the elder statesmen of the group) tackle the poop/fan question, while the younger, perhaps more adventurous investigators, Grant, Tory and Kari use their own appendages to test the foot-temperature issue.
Jamie and Adam begin by creating a less offensive substitute for the poop they will to use to “hit the fan.” The preparation, indeed the whole collection of segments devoted to this issue, is filled not only with faux poop, but also with a varied assortment of circumlocutions and “Oh God” scatological puns. The tests consist of tossing a variety of poop substitutes at a variety of fans, small and large, plastic and metal, with guards and without, and then examining the mess, if any. For those of you panting for their conclusions, there are no spoilers here; you’ll just have to tune in to find out what happens when the *&%%#***@ hits the fan.
The cold feet investigation begins when Grant, Tory and Kari get base measurements of the temperature of their feet and other vitals under normal circumstances. Then, based on their knowledge of each other’s fears and phobias, they giddily concoct a series of terrifying individual trials very much reminiscent of some of the stunts they used to use on the late lamented Fear Factor. Tory is afraid of heights, so he is asked to ride with a stunt pilot in a set of death-defying, stomach turning aerial acrobatics. Grant is afraid of creepy crawlies, so he is asked to stick his head into a box of spiders. Kari is queasy about food, so she is given a menu of revolting bugs and animal parts to snack on. Foot temperature is taken before and during the stunts, so that it can be determined if in fact they get cold feet. If nothing else, the stunts make for both some stomach turners and some nice action footage.
Mythbusters is a pleasant show. If the myths, busted or not busted, in this particular episode are not as momentous as some, they do at least illustrate the application of the experimental method to the solution of certain kinds of problems. Besides it is doubtful that the audience for this show is looking for anything more cerebral. This is the kind of show that appeals to the scientific dabbler in us all, even if we don’t have the expertise to approach the subject more seriously. This is a show that knows its audience and programs accordingly.