MythBusters In Utah

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Interactions - SPS Chapters in Action

MythBusters In Utah

SPSers Put Physics to the Test for the Public


Ben Pound

Audience member Payton Martin has a hair-raising experience with a Van de Graaff generator. Photo courtesy of Ben Pound.

This spring our SPS chapter tested whether a Ping-Pong ball can break the speed of sound. Our ball launcher was a nozzle that released air from a pressure chamber set to about 100 psi. After a few warm-up shots, one shot reached a velocity of 390 m/s, faster than the speed of sound. “The sound [our launcher] made was really loud, and it made me jump,” said Ryan Carlsen, SPS outreach chair at Utah State University (USU) in Logan. “I wasn’t the only one. Everyone in the audience was holding their ears, nervous and excited at the same time.”

It was a great start to our chapter’s second annual SPS MythBusters show, modeled after the popular television series but put on at our university for the public. To promote the event we advertised it on Facebook and wrote a press release ( that attracted a reporter from a local newspaper. “What it’s all about is just getting people excited about science,” said Darren McKinnon, our SPS chapter’s president. “Our goal is to use that to show people the real science behind things and how they work.” Things did get very exciting.

Bed of Nails, Block of Concrete

Our next event featured a combination of two tricks that originated in India. In one a man lies on a bed made of a grid of nails with their pointy ends facing up without hurting himself. In the other a large stone placed on a man’s chest is hit by a large hammer, and the man is unscathed—though the stone itself is broken. Phil Lundgreen, associate zone councilor for zone 15, lied down on the bed of nails. A breastplate of nail was placed on his chest with a cinder block on top. McKinnon took a sledgehammer to the block, totally demolishing it. “It was nerve-racking to see the hammer come toward my chest, but I had faith in the physics,” said Lundgreen. Jacob Dansie (left) uses “the Force” thanks to a Tesla coil, with Phil Lundgreen (middle) and Darren McKinnon (right) observing. Photo courtesy of Ben Pound.The physics protecting Lundgreen was simple. Put all of a person’s body weight on one nail, and that nail exerts enough pressure on the skin to penetrate it. Distribute the weight across hundreds of nails, and the pressure of each nail is too small to break the skin. The hammer part is easily explained, too; most of the energy from the hammer goes into breaking the block.

The Perfect Murder

Next, we explored whether the perfect murder can be carried out using an ice bullet. The main attraction was brought out: an ice bullet rifle. Fired at pressures of over 100 psi through a 10-foot-long barrel, our ice bullets routinely tore through whatever was put in their way: apples, cantaloupes, phone books, and even a 3-inch-thick, semifrozen roast. Just for fun, the same gun was then loaded with Tootsie Rolls. The results were even more dramatic, with candy shrapnel flying around the test chamber. The only material strong enough to resist the onslaught was, oddly enough, melted gummy worms. The Tootsie Rolls penetrated a mere half inch, and the ice bullet made only a small dent and bounced off. This is because gummy worms are made of gelatin, long molecules chained together that don’t separate easily. Kelby Petersen, vice president of the Sigma Pi Sigma chapter at USU, said, “Watching the audience, kids and adults alike, hold their breath in anticipation, then ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ when the ice bullets were shot, reminded me of the excitement that got me interested in physics to begin with.”

Using the Force

Can you shoot lightning out of your fingers like Darth Sidious from Star Wars? The answer is yes—if you have a Tesla coil. USU SPS Treasurer Jacob Dansie donned a Jedi robe after wrapping himself in aluminum foil and shot lightning out of his fingers at a dummy on the floor. He then made his own “lightsaber,” a fluorescent tube that glowed when he held it. “It was cool,” said Michael Noyles, an undergraduate at USU who watched Dansie’s performance. “I learned that you can have ‘the Force’ if you are wrapped in tin foil.”

Powerful Phone Books and More

The fun didn’t stop when the show ended. Booths outside explored other myths, including whether drinking milk really helps with eating spicy things (it does), whether two phone books with their pages interlaced can be pulled apart (20 kids and adults working together were not strong enough), and whether any of the audience members were “super-tasters,” with more taste buds than average and a greater sensitivity to flavors (only two were). //

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