MacGyver Season 2 Episode 12 Science Notes: Jack + Mac

Before I get to this science for this episode (there’s some great MacGyver hacks here), let me say something else about the show. The storyline for this episode was great. It had a nice plot, and I really enjoyed the MacGyver and Jack flashbacks. Now for some science.


The best Mac-hacks are real. This is real—very real. It is indeed true that this was an early idea for a phone. Here’s how it works.

  • You need a directed light. One way to do this is to get a mirror that reflects sunlight. A parabolic mirror works a little better, but still the mirror is a great idea.
  • Use your voice to shake this mirror. This changes the intensity of the reflected light to match the wave pattern of your voice.
  • Use some type of electrical photo device (solar panel, photo diode, photo resistor) to modulate an electric current to this same sound pattern from the light. Send this to a speaker.
  • That’s it.

For MacGyver’s build, he uses a microphone and connects it to a porch light. The idea is that the microphone will modulate the brightness of the bulb. For this to work, I think it has to be an LED bulb. An incandescent won’t work (I don’t think) since the hot bulb filament won’t change brightness quickly enough for sound frequencies.

There is also the problem of AC vs. DC. If MacGyver connects to the AC power line going to the bulb, this might not work. But still—it’s very plausible.

On the other end of the photophone, Riley uses a police car light as her transmitter. Again, if this is LED it should work (plus the car runs on DC, not AC). Finally, the only problem is aiming. In practice, you need your detector to pick up the changing brightness from that one light. Of course it’s daytime, so there are many “lights” outside. Putting a lens on the detector to aim it would help a bunch.

OK, now you want to build one of these yourself. You should. It’s actually not too terribly difficult. Let’s start with the simplest part—the receiver. The easiest way to get this to work is to connect a small solar panel to an amplified speaker.

Oh, do you know where I got that solar panel? Yes, it was from a garden light. You put these small lights outside and the solar panel charges a battery during the day and the light comes on at night. They were old and the battery was bad, so I took it apart.

Now for the transmitting side of the photophone. I tried to do this with a laser instead of a light (so that I could aim it). It mostly worked, but it’s a bit more tricky.

This is something I need to rebuild at some point in the future. Make it better. But still, this should be in my list of Top 10 MacGyver Hacks. I need to make that list.

Gum Wrapper and Battery to Start a Fire

Ok, actually this was to melt a wire. MacGyver takes a foil gum wrapper and connects it to two ends of a battery. The idea is that the foil will make a short circuit.

But there are two questions:

  • Is a gum wrapper an electrical conductor? I don’t think they are actually made from aluminum foil—but I suspect that many of these do in fact conduct.
  • Would it get hot? Even with a small battery, yes I think it would.

DIY Non-Contact Voltage Probe

MacGyver needs to find wires behind the wall. He puts together this awesome looking probe (or as Jack calls it—a doohicky)

Actually, this prop is great. Here’s why.

  • It looks cool and it’s clearly a combination of multiple items.
  • It’s not specific—it doesn’t show exactly what MacGyver uses. This is good because that way it could still be plausible.
  • Finally, it’s based on something real.

But how does it work? There are multiple ways to detect voltages without touching—I think the most common method measures a super tiny voltage that is created by nearby electric fields. The NCVP is essentially part of a capacitor. When in the presence of an electric field, there is a voltage across the capacitor and you detect this voltage. I need to build one of these—for fun. I’ve seen a very basic version somewhere.

Kitchen Chemistry to Detect Explosives

How do you detect explosives? MacGyver is correct that most explosives are based on nitrogen. If you measure the nitrogen, you can get an estimate of the type of explosive.

There are many things in the kitchen that can be used to detect chemicals. Here is one that you can do at home—it’s a chemical-based pH detector (to determine if something is acidic). The color of this cabbage juice will change color depending on the pH level of the material.

Here’s how to make it.

Laser-Based Wire Cutter

Here’s the problem. There are two bombs that need to be disarmed at the exact same time.

The idea is to use a laser that turns on two identical cutters at the same time. The first thing to use is a beam splitter. This takes a laser beam and breaks into two beams. I guess that’s fairly obvious from the name. Here is a video showing how that works.

For the cutter part, it uses a photocell as the “switch” to turn it on. Here is a rough diagram I created for this hack.

In the end, these two motors might not cut at the exact same speed. But it’s still a fairly fun MacGyver moment.

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