Monday 9 December 2013

Myth Busters and the Scientific Story

By Eric Hanna, S.J.

I'm an arts nerd, mostly. I enjoy Lord of the Rings and the genre of fantasy. But I also enjoy science fiction stories like those found in Star Trek. Both kinds of stories are similar in that they use the journey motif. People travel to strange lands and are confronted with things they could not imagine. In both kinds of stories people's basic moral instincts are tested against difficult circumstances.
The key difference between fantasy and science fiction is that in fantasy, the usual goal is to get home, while in science fiction, the goal is to leave home.

I had the pleasure of going to see the live show presented by the MythBusters, a group of special effects engineers who put urban legends and anecdotes to the test. On their TV show they have tested every kind of question, from “does playing classical music for plants actually help them grow?” to “what's the best thing to do if you are in a car that's falling from the sky?”

I entered the crowded theater which smelled faintly of ozone and stale chewing gum. I was greeted with the sight of dry ice being lit by floodlights as triumphant rock music introduced the stars of the show. But while everything was showy, the experiments were very simple and designed to provoke our wonder at the basic laws that make our world work.

The performance was geared around audience participation: science is not something you see done, it's something you do! My favourite experiment involved a volunteer: an eight-year-old boy. The hosts asked him, “do you think you can lift this two-hundred pound man one foot into the air?” He said that he could not, but the hosts were sure that he could. The audience cheered. And our guides explained how a lever can multiply force five times while a line and pulley can multiply force an addition eight times: “so it would be like there are forty of you lifting”. Everyone applauded when the young boy was able to lift the heavy man up into the air just by pulling a rope.

The message of the show was the essence of the genre of science storytelling: go out and explore and it will change the way you see your world. Things you thought could be impossible are possible. Go out and make a mess, play, try different things, and learn from your experiences. Rather than returning home to the familiar, we are encouraged to go outward to the unknown.

I enjoyed seeing the show. And rather than go out I went home. But as with fantasy stories ever since the Odyssey, home looked different because my experiences had changed how I view the world.  I'm an arts nerd, but the spirit of exploration will always be a part of who I am.

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