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It's funny.  Laugh. Science

MacGyver Physics 165

counterfriction writes "This month's issue of Symmetry, a magazine jointly published by SLAC and Fermilab, is featuring an article that points out the sometimes extemporaneous and unconventional solutions physicists have come up with in (and out of) the laboratory. From the article: 'Leon Lederman ... used a pocket knife, tape, and items on anyone's grocery list to confirm that interactions involving the weak force do now show perfect mirror symmetry, or parity, as scientists had long assumed.'"
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MacGyver Physics

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  • When I was in school (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday May 27, 2007 @10:23PM (#19297043)
    attached to projects involved with materials experiments in very low atmospheric pressures, they all had one thing in common. They appared to run on aluminum foil. Now there is a reason for this, it's not sexy. But in a lot of circumstances, the foil would make it easier to reach an maintain low pressures which of course are critical. sometimes the improvement could be an order of magnitude or two maybe even more.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday May 27, 2007 @11:06PM (#19297281)
  • by syousef ( 465911 ) on Sunday May 27, 2007 @11:13PM (#19297319) Journal
    Hey I love MacGyver. I watched it as a kid and now I watch the DVDs with my fiancee who has fond memories of watching the show with her grandmother as a kid. However that doesn't stop me wincing at how bad the physics (and all the science is) in that show. Anyway it's not MacGyver physics unless there's a baddie waiting in the wings to kill MacGyver and the "experiment" foils their plan to do so, preferably causing the bad guy to fall flat on his ass or be blown up.

    Seriously though. Why associate ingenuity with a tv show (even if it's a good one)? It's like describing math breakthroughs as "reminiscent of the TV show 'Numbers'". These shows are inspired by the real science more than they inspire it.

  • by ookabooka ( 731013 ) on Sunday May 27, 2007 @11:36PM (#19297435)
    Or has it?

    Ever wonder why the cat doesn't count as an observer? What does it feel like to be alive and dead at the same time? Do you have to have a soul to observe life or death?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday May 27, 2007 @11:52PM (#19297493)
    Some time ago I read an article about the science advisor for the show, IIRC a metallurgist. He said they made sure there was some critical thing missing to make sure that some kid doesn't go duplicate some dangerous thing in the show. So, it's a feature, not a bug.
  • My schtick (Score:5, Interesting)

    by stox ( 131684 ) on Monday May 28, 2007 @12:05AM (#19297545) Homepage
    When repairing some of the main computing systems, at Fermilab, I would joke that I needed a rubber chicken to repair the problem quickly, otherwise it would take a few hours. The one Christmas, one of the Ops staff bought me a pair of them. From then on, the joke was, when called at 3AM in the morning, did I have my chickens handy?
  • by SocialWorm ( 316263 ) on Monday May 28, 2007 @12:29AM (#19297625) Homepage
    ...or at least I tried to, and the link even appeared in the preview, but somehow it got eaten: []
  • by kevinadi ( 191992 ) on Monday May 28, 2007 @12:36AM (#19297653)
    From the TFA:

    Intrigued by the experiments of Madame Chien-Shiung Wu, Lederman called his friend, Richard Garwin, to propose an experiment that would detect parity violation in the decay of the pi meson particle. That evening in January 1957, Lederman and Garwin raced to Columbia's Nevis laboratory and immediately began rearranging a graduate student's experiment into one they could use. "It was 6 p.m. on a Friday, and without explanation, we took the student's experiment apart," Lederman later recalled in an interview. "He started crying, as he should have."

    Great mind, horrible human being.
  • by Antique Geekmeister ( 740220 ) on Monday May 28, 2007 @03:41AM (#19298289)
    It does make me wonder what else they cannibalized from other people's work. Perhaps a review of these gentlemen's papers for plagiarism is in order? Or perhaps the grad student should keep an eye on their fiscal behavior and rat them out to the IRS?
  • by kevinadi ( 191992 ) on Monday May 28, 2007 @04:05AM (#19298361)
    Hell I'm a grad student and I don't get treated like that. Dismantling someone's experiment out of some higher-ups whim is not what I would consider normal, or I'm just really lucky to have a supervisor that I can actually talk to instead of him expecting me to treat him like a royal subject or anything.

    Now there's a lot of "don't-knows" in that little story, but that goddamn student is in the lab at an hour that I wouldn't consider normal working hours (on the weekend, no less), so it's probably safe to say that he/she's been working on that experiment for quite some time or simply just having a bad luck of getting elbowed all the time so there's no other hours available. Imagine waiting for a time slot in a lab and then when you're finally can get some work done, it's suddenly getting ripped apart by someone who has already elbowed your time many times over. If I were in that position, I would be considerably pissed and very likely to do something about it.

    The point being, even if you're Einstein and Newton incarnate combined, you have no right whatsoever to do whatever you please to anyone else. Lederman should have the decency of helping the student to put his/her experiment back to the way it was before, it's very plausible that he has the ability to. However, judging from his tone of no regret in the interview, most likely he didn't care and just left the student to pick up the pieces of his brilliant experiment.
  • by Cyberax ( 705495 ) on Monday May 28, 2007 @05:05AM (#19298519)
    "To steal from one author is plagiarism, if you steal from many, it's research." :)
  • by jpellino ( 202698 ) on Monday May 28, 2007 @06:36AM (#19298817)
    ... at the Rogers Commission hearings.
    C-clamp: $1.79
    Styrofoam cup of ice water: $.50
    Watching the expressions on the faces of NASA scientists who had inconclusive data from millions of dollars of testing? Priceless.

    Also he allegedly was the only person to see the Trinity blast - as he figured the auto windshield glass would protect him from the UV, just as long as he ducked before the blast wave hit the glass.

    Plus the one about Enrico Fermi at Trinity: he put some pieces of paper on the ground, scraped their start and finish positions in the sand with his toe, and based on the distance moved, the paper mass, and the distance to the blast, estimated the yield pretty darn close for that method.

  • by perturbed1 ( 1086477 ) on Monday May 28, 2007 @07:10AM (#19298967)
    And I should add that there are experiments worth confirming.

    I might be going off the deep end here, but the fact of the matter is, the universe is expanding quite rapidly and there is nothing that says that physics constants can not change over time. One "constant" that has changed and actually is not a constant at all, is the fine-structure constant (Read this to mean: the electric charge. ) The coupling of photons to electrons change, effectively changing the electric charge with distance. Hence, the fine-structure constant is known as a running-coupling constant. There are experiments under progress right now that are trying to measure the fine-structure constant from very-far-away galaxies, or back in time. Ok, maybe I am talking about cosmological scales here, but it would be funny if humans evolved, and some billions of years later, someone reading about some experiment like Rutherford's re-did it and got different results...

    Back to the subject: yep, it is pretty crucial to get undergrads to repeat old experiments, especially ones like P-violation, Moessbauer, optical-pumping, muon-lifetime, which have all contributed to our current understanding of physics as a whole. Afterall, if they continue in physics, they might be stuck on experiments like mine, where one does not get data for the next "n" years. (I consider myself a physicist now for 10 years and have not been on a running and data collecting experiment yet. I am very happy that I got to do all those old-experiments in my undergrad years. Good old junior lab... )

  • by dasunt ( 249686 ) on Monday May 28, 2007 @07:43AM (#19299079)

    There is a beautiful essay by Feynman about the classical rats-in-a-maze experiment, and how the scientist discovered that he had to change many conditions of the maze before the rats would learn how to run the maze themselves, instead of relying on other navigational information.

    Feynman also comments that this scientist's work with rats was more or less completely ignored, and the rest of the field continued to run their rats-in-a-maze experiments the traditional old-fashioned way.

  • by FuzzyDaddy ( 584528 ) on Monday May 28, 2007 @09:01AM (#19299561) Journal
    One "constant" that has changed and actually is not a constant at all, is the fine-structure constant

    Let's not be too hasty here. Changes in the fine structure constant have been proposed to account for some cosmological observations, but the evidence is spotty, with the best evidence indicating that it is NOT happening. See, for example, []

  • by jpellino ( 202698 ) on Monday May 28, 2007 @12:05PM (#19300839)
    We had Bob Tinker (founder of TERC & Concord Consortium) on our interactive satellite science telecast back in the late 80s.
    He was demo-ing some of the bank street labs software, including the graphical sound scope on the Apple ][.
    He did with a caller on the air, and when he recorded, we got some feedback from the open phone audio.
    Bob quickly realized that the echo was going up to the bird, back down to the caller, and thru the phone lines. Hmmmm.
    He quickly changed gears, told the caller to stay on the phone, and did some single claps to get a distinct spike on the sound recorder.
    Freeze the screen, some quick metrics on the screen, carry the 7 - and voila! Speed of light +/- 10%

  • by Roger W Moore ( 538166 ) on Monday May 28, 2007 @12:33PM (#19301035) Journal
    It should be noted that parity is preserved; it just turns out that the opposite version occurs in anti-matter.

    No that just means that parity is broken oppositely for matter and anti-matter. If you are refering to the combined symmetry i.e. doing a parity inversion followed by switching all matter from anti-matter then this is know as CP symmetry (C=charge conjugation [matter <-> antimatter] and P=parity).

    Fortunately the CP symmetry is broken too but the effect is a lot smaller than parity violation. This CP violation [] allows us to unambiguously differentiate between matter and anti-matter which is useful if we ever get visted by aliens because we'd like to know whether they are made of anti-matter or not before they set foot on the planet! Of course nature already seems to have used CP violation to solve the problem for use: astronomers can find no evidence of any significant anti-matter in the universe which means that early on in the Big Bang CP violation must have caused more matter than anti-matter to be created and what we are is the leftover matter (in fact it is one of the Sakharov conditions for the Big Bang). The exact mechanism of ho this happened is unknown but if we find CP violation with neutrino mixing (so far we only see it in quark mixing) then we may be able to explain it [].

"Well I don't see why I have to make one man miserable when I can make so many men happy." -- Ellyn Mustard, about marriage