MacGyver Science: Abduction + Memory + Time + Fireworks + Dispersal

I remember binge-watching the show Parks and Recreation with my youngest son. It was great. But then we got to the last episode and he said he didn’t want to watch it. If we watch it, then it will be over. That’s how I feel about this episode.

Note: don’t worry — I still have a bunch more MacGyver stuff. I’m working on my paper clip videos (building stuff using paper clips). You can see those here:

Now for the science in this episode.

The Drake Equation and the Fermi Paradox

It’s not really a MacGyver-moment, but it’s an excuse to talk about it. Bozer suggests that maybe Mac and Riley were abducted by aliens (extraterrestrial aliens). So, let’s get this straight. Is there intelligent life outside of Earth? So far, we don’t have any evidence that there IS or IS NOT extraterrestrial life. However, there seems to be a very good chance that there is life — just based on the numbers.

In fact, Dr. Frank Drake put together an equation to calculate the number of other civilizations that we should find in the Milky Way Galaxy (our galaxy). Here is the equation.

N is the number of planets with life. Most of these values are most likely small fractions (like the fraction of planets that have intelligent life evolve). We don’t even know the value of these fractions — but they are probably small. However, there is one value in there that we learn more and more about every year — f_p (the fraction of stars that have planets). In the past 20 years we have been able to detect many, many extra solar planets so that it seems they are more common than first imagined. This along with the number of stars in the galaxy (at least 100 billion stars) means there are most likely planets with intelligent life.

But if there is life out there, why don’t we see it? Just to be clear, we have zero evidence that aliens have been or are coming to Earth. The lack of contact with aliens is actually called the Fermi Paradox. I’m not going to try to explain this paradox since Kurzgesagt already did a smash up job.

Something is off with the blood color

MacGyver stole some of his own blood — but is that really stealing? Looking at the blood you can determine it’s oxygenation level. Blood becomes brighter red as oxygen binds to the hemoglobin vs. hemoglobin without oxygen.

But wait! The color can also change because of an interaction with carbon monoxide (CO). The problem with carbon monoxide is that it also binds with the hemoglobin. However, the CO doesn’t get release in the breathing cycle — so it essentially makes the hemoglobin unable to do it’s job of transporting oxygen.

What does carbon monoxide have to do with this situation? Well, there are indeed some drugs that uses carbon monoxide releasing molecules (CO-RMs). So, it’s possible that the sedative was a CO-RM and that’s how MacGyver came up with the idea that they were drugged.

Super Secret Escape Hatch

The escape hatch is just secret and not that awesome. But how do you make it a secret? That’s the cool part. So, at some point MacGyver built this door in is room. There’s no handle or latch for the door — you can’t just open it (even if you knew where it was). Instead, there is an electric motor that turns on to use some gears that release the latch.

Now you just need to turn on the electric motor. That’s where the hack comes in. There are these two metal latches in a closet. Those latches are connected to wires that are connected to wires that go to a battery and then the motor. But you need a complete circuit for the motor to turn on — and that’s where the paper clip comes in. He uses the metal (and electrically conducting) paper clip to complete the circuit.

Image: CBS/MacGyver

What about the sparks? I could almost write an entire blog post about sparks in circuits. Oh wait — I did that.

Making a Super Rocket

There are nanobots in the fireworks. OK, most fireworks aren’t exactly rockets. Most of them are fired from a mortar. You put an explosive firework in a tube. There is a “lift charge” at the bottom of the tube that explodes. When this explodes, the expanding gas pushes the firework up at an increasing speed. Once it leaves the mortar tube, it’s just a free falling (even though it’s moving up) object.

The ignition of the lift charge also starts a fuse for the main “starry” explosion that makes everyone go “oooooh” and “aaaaah”. If you make a bigger lift charge, there is a greater force pushing up on the firework and it will go higher.

But just how high? 10 miles is really, really far up. I mean, it’s not impossible to get them that high — so let’s just leave it at that. Oh, most firework mortar tubes don’t have breach loading (from the bottom). The problem would be that the forces on this breach door would be large and it might be blasted open.

What’s so magical about an altitude of 10 miles? Ozone, that’s what’s important. The ozone layer is at about 10 miles high. Ozone is O3 (three oxygen atoms) unlike normal oxygen which is just O2. In general, oxygen is pretty bad. Here are some examples.

  • Iron plus aluminum plus oxygen has a reaction that gets super hot — that’s the whole idea behind thermite.
  • When you burn most fossil fuels — it’s actually a reaction between carbon and oxygen that produces energy.
  • Rust is a reaction between iron and oxygen — really, just about all metals react with oxygen.

Maybe this one is the best. using oxygen to kill staph bacteria.

It could be bad for nanobots too.

Faraday Cage

OK, the original plan was to have a big bulky (and metal) hyperbaric chamber. A metal chamber would indeed be a Faraday cage. The idea is that the electrically conducting surface interacts with radio waves to produce more radio waves and these new waves cancel the original ones.

Here is a demo of this actually working with an actual radio.

One work around for a Faraday cage would be to use an intercom instead of a radio. This sends electrical signals between two devices with electrical wires. But you still need two wires. So, if you have one wire connected to the outer wall and one to the door (with an electrical insulator between them), this could work.

But apparently, new hyperbaric chambers are made from plexiglass or something clear. In that case, the radio would work well. But wait! Maybe they used transparent aluminum.

In fact, transparent and electrically conducting materials are indeed important. These are used in both touch screens for your phone and solar panels.

OK, that’s it for this episode. I will surely post some more stuff in the future. I mean, I still have 136 pages of notes from all five seasons of MacGyver. So, there’s that.

Physics faculty, science blogger of all things geek. Technical Consultant for CBS MacGyver and MythBusters. Former WIRED blogger.

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