Monday, January 22, 2007

The Hindenburg on Mythbusters

Mythbusters had an episode recently where they tested the hypothesis (not really a "myth") advanced by a NASA scientist that the doping agents in the paint used on the canvas were more a culprit than the hydrogen. The canvas outer shell was doped with iron oxide and powdered aluminum, two constituents of rocket fuel. I'd seen a special on, I think, Nova a few years ago where they explored this hypothesis, and so I was anxious to see what the Mythbusters would find out.

Unfortunately, as I have often found with Mythbusters, I was disappointed. I watched a little when it was first recommended to me, but the methdological errors, while not frequent, always came up in the experiments I was most interested in, so I stopped watching for a long time. I recently started watching again, and things have not changed.

In this particular case, they built three scale models of the Hindenburg: two doped just like the original, and one doped with pure thermite (a combustive mixture of aluminum powder and iron oxide that represented the worst-case, if unrealistic, scenario). They burned one of the ones authentically doped without hydrogen and it took way, way longer to burn than the Hindenburg. Then, they burned the other authentically doped one with hydrogen, and it burned much faster, but still slower than the real Hindenburg (it was on the order of, as I recall, a minute and a half for the model but only 34 seconds for the actual one).

They more or less declared the theory busted at this point, but still, for fun, they burned the model doped with pure thermite with hydrogen. In theory, this should have been much worse than the actual Hindenburg, but, in fact, it still took over a minute for the model, a 1:20 scale, to burn. Then, they declared the theory busted.

But wait a minute! Why couldn't they get a 1:20 scale model to burn up even as fast as the Hindenburg, if not faster? Why did it take so much longer for a model doped in pure thermite, which should have gone up like a torch compared to the actual Hindenburg, to burn?

I don't know. But the fact that none of their tests was able to get a 1:20 scale model to burn even as fast as the full-size dirigible means that there was something different between the real thing and the models that hasn't been accounted for. I don't know what it is, and I don't know why the models didn't burn the way they were expected to. But I don't think the doping theory can really be declared busted when there is a significant discrepancy between the simulation and the actual event. Whatever the factor is that made the Hindenburg burn so much faster than the model, despite being 20 times bigger, could also be the factor that makes the doping theory work.

Or, it might not. But I didn't feel the episode successfully proved anything one way or the other. I know that it's a TV show, so they have limited time, a limited budget, and have to have a show to put on whether they get conclusive results or not. I don't know if they have the option for a judgment other than Busted, Plausible, or Confirmed, but in this case the real verdict should have been 'Inconclusive.' I know an inconclusive result probably doesn't make good TV, but I would have liked at least a nod towards the fact that they realize that there was a flaw in the experiment somewhere, because otherwise I kinda feel like they're trying to put one over on me.


At 6:41 AM, Blogger R. Paul Wiegand said...

I've often felt this way about the show. I've finally managed to let go of a little of my anxiety by recasting my view of the show. They aren't really busting myths, they are entertaining us (which fortunately often involves pyrotechnics).

Still, I also agree that the episodes where they do the most interesting things are the ones in which I am (typically) the most disappointed. For example, early on they had one on troops walking over a suspension bridge ... and while I didn't necessarily disagree with their conclusion, nothing they did in the episode spoke to the issue in any substantive way. It was just funny TV.

They just aren't good methodologists.

They do, however, blow things up real good like.

At 8:43 AM, Blogger mooglar said...

You're right, I know, it's just TV, but sometimes I actually want to know the answer, dammit! :^)

At 2:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gosh I love how Markiarchy is genius on all subjects. He knows everything about politics, religion, science, and manages to write novels in his spare time (how does he have any?) Seriously, how do we all manage to bask in the glow of his intellect and not shudder?

Your problem is you think you know everything and the only person you talk to about it is yourself. I respect your writing skills and your sense of humor, but admit it you don't crap from apple butter sometimes. Go on, it'll make you feel better.

At 8:38 AM, Blogger mooglar said...

Why is it that being smart is seen as a bad thing in US society? I don't think I have actually claimed to be a genius or to "know everything" on this blog, but somehow simply demonstrating intelligence and competence in many fields makes me a target for derision.

You're allowed to excel and display lots of other talents without others being automatically threatened the way they seem to be threatened by displays of intelligence. Why don't people say, "Oh, that Payton Manning, he just thinks he's so good at throwing the ball. I like how he just keeps going out on the field and throwing the ball accurately over and over. Seriously, how do we all manage to bask in the glow of his athletic skill and not shudder?"

At 11:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

But that's just it, you haven't really demonstrated competence in many fields, just a derisive opinion of all things that don't fall in line with your world view. That makes you a smartass not an intelligent person. I recognize the breed, being one myself. Loquacious, yes. Smart? Not necessarily. But I do enjoy the debate.

True wisdom is realizing how little you actually know.

At 5:28 AM, Blogger R. Paul Wiegand said...

Last I heard there was no prerequisite for having an opinion.

I think I can pretty much distinguish applebutter from feces 99.9% of the time, btw. I'll allow some error for unforeseable circumstances, but more or less I am confident I can tell the difference.

Good thing, too. I like applebutter.

I don't like feces.

At 6:25 AM, Blogger mooglar said...


If you have a refutation of anything I have posted here, feel free to present it. Otherwise, my intelligence or lack thereof is not relevant to whether the observations and arguments posted here are true or not.

I have, as yet, never mistaken crap for apple butter. We have some apple butter in the cupboard, actually, and my girlfriend's diabetic cat poops on the carpet almost every day. I suppose I could ask her to put a dollop of apple butter out where the cat poops on some random morning for me to find, but I don't think she'd actually be interested in helping with the experiment.

At 9:19 AM, Blogger Zeinrich said...

Inconclusive?! Unacceptable! I need closure! This is why you're not in TV. (That and they're too filled with their sparky innards to fit you.)

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