MacGyver Science: Quarantine + N95 + Landline + Telescope + Social Distance

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Photo: MacGyver CBS. MacGyver’s DIY ventilator.

Season 5 Episode 6.

I normally just jump right into the science stuff for these episodes, but I need to add some additional comments. This episode takes place during the pandemic shut down — and it’s one of the best of all the MacGyver shows. It’s just so good. Here are some of the things that makes it awesome.

  • I think this really captures the feelings that we all experience during a lock down and in this pandemic. The toilet paper, cleaning the kitchen, disinfecting the groceries. Oh, and MacGyver’s ukulele song about Fauci.

Oh, and there’s some great science. Let’s get to it.

Hydraulic Trash Grabber

It’s not a huge Mac-thing. He just needs to open this trash claw on a garbage truck that’s holding Russ. So, he jumps over to the truck and pokes a hole in the hydraulic line. With the fluid leaking out, the claw slowly opens so that Russ can escape.

OK, so what’s the deal with hydraulics? It’s basically two movable pistons connected by a hose filled with a fluid. When one piston is pushed in, the other one moves out. But there is something super cool. If you have a small piston on one side and a big one on the other side, you can push with a tiny force, but get a bigger force out.

Here is a rough diagram to show how this works.

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The key is that the pressure in the fluid is the same in both pistons. Pressure is the force divided by area (of the pistons). So, a small force divided by a small area will equal a large force divided by a large area.

But don’t worry, you aren’t getting a large force “for free”. Since the small piston has a smaller area, you have to push a greater distance to get the large piston to move a small distance. It’s basically the same idea as a simple machine (like a lever).

Upside Down Constellations

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Photo: Rhett Allain. The constellation Orion AND the International Space Station

MacGyver: “I still remember my Grandpa teaching me that if you look at the stars from the Southern hemisphere, the constellations are upside down.”

This is true. Let me explain this using a diagram of the Earth, two people and a fake constellation (consisting of a blue and red star).

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Illustration: Rhett Allain

For the human in the Northern hemisphere, that person will see the red star above the blue. However, for the Southern hemisphere human, it’s the blue on top of the red. It’s basically because the two humans have their heads in roughly different directions — you know, because the Earth is spherical.

Nose Bridge and Zip Ties

Yes, you can undo a zip tie without cutting it. Basically, you need something thin to lift up the little ratcheting piece in the zip part. You could easily do this with the metal piece from your mask (assuming you can catch it).

Using a Broken Phone

Actually, for older phones you don’t even need the phone to dial a number. Those old rotary phones use pulse dialing. You can do this manually.

In this case, MacGyver used the rotary to dial the number and then shorted out the microphone wires to tap out a message in Morse code.

Invisibility Cloak

Everyone wants to make an invisibility cloak, right? Well, real invisibility is quite difficult — but it’s possible to make something sort of invisible. In this case, they use a camera to take a picture of a background image. They then send this image to a projector (lined up JUST RIGHT) to that it projects onto a sheet. When viewed from the right angle, the sheet looks invisible.

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Image: MacGyver CBS

Here is how this works — I tried it myself. It’s tough to get everything set up right. Oh, it’s also helpful to use retro-reflective clothing. Check it out.

DIY Ventilator

At the beginning of the episode, MacGyver is working on a ventilator from very basic parts. It’s not really working though.

Then, at the end of the episode he gets an idea to use a windshield wiper motor to squish a soda bottle and pump air. It looks like this.

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Awesome, right? No. It’s more than awesome — because this is real. So, a team at the University of Texas at Austin actually did this. They designed a low-cost ventilator from common parts (including a windshield wiper motor).

The best part is the quote in this article in which it says they went “full-on MacGyver”. So, here is a project inspired by MacGyver that inspired MacGyver. I just think that’s crazy — crazy awesome.

Oh, bonus picture — here is my sketch for MacGyver’s version of the ventilator.

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Image: Rhett Allain

I don’t remember why I wrote “S4” at the top.

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

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