MacGyver Season 4 Episode 1 Science Notes: Fire + Ashes + Legacy = Phoenix

Wow. It’s back. Finally, season 4 has started. I’m actually more pumped up than I thought I would be. Also, I’m ready to get back to my science notes.

Oh, one non-science comment. I think the Russ Taylor (played by Henry Ian Cusik) character turned out really nice. It was difficult for me to picture this guy just from the script. Henry did a great job.

Now for some science.

Professor MacGyver

At the beginning of the episode, we see MacGyver teaching a university class. At least once, they say that he is “professor” MacGyver. Is this possible? Could he be a professor? Could he even teach a university class?

OK, some background. Remember that Angus was a student at MIT before he dropped out to do bomb stuff in the Army. So, he probably doesn’t have a college degree—but it’s not clear. It’s also possible that he picked up some extra courses here and there to finish and graduate. It’s also very plausible that someone in the Phoenix Foundation just said “poof”—now you have an engineering degree. You know, they seem like the type that would do that stuff.

But what about the “professor” part. Oh, I guess I should add (in case you didn’t know) that I have a PhD in physics from North Carolina State University (Go Wolfpack). I’m also an Associate Professor of Physics at Southeastern Louisiana University. So, I kind of know some stuff about this.

There are actually multiple uses of “professor”. It can be used fairly generically to just mean some type of educator—this is common at the university level. But in terms of academic rank, you have the following titles (there are variations in these from place to place).

  • Instructor. This is a primarily teaching position. Most instructors have either a Master’s degree or a PhD.
  • Visiting Assistant Professor. This is almost always a PhD position for a faculty to come in and work on some research project temporarily. It can sometimes lead to a permanent position.
  • Assistant Professor. This is the first step in “tenure track”. When a person gets this rank, they will work for 5-6 years and then apply for tenure (and usually promotion to the next rank).
  • Associate Professor. This is the rank obtained after tenure. Oh, just to be clear—tenure is a method to give faculty the job security so that they can take chances on research and teaching that might not work out so well. Yes, sometimes that means the faculty just does nothing. No, they are not fire-proof. You can fire someone with tenure, it’s just not very easy.
  • Full Professor. This is just a rank higher than the two Ass-profs (I like to say that).

So, in this episode—it’s probably the generic sense of “professor” that is being used. It’s not very likely that MacGyver has the rank of Full Professor.

But what about teaching a class? Can anyone do that? Probably—yes. Most universities have a minimum requirement of 15 hours of graduate course credit in the field of the class. So, if you want to teach introductory physics you would need probably 5 graduate level courses that you had passed. This is about the same number of courses required to get a Master’s degree in physics (some variations apply).

Some universities also make exceptions for temporary faculty to teach courses. Either in an emergency situation (need some one the day before classes start) or to bring in an expert. Non-qualified experts are often used in fields like journalism (by non-qualified I mean they don’t have the degree requirements).

Now back to MacGyver. I’m going to say that at the end of Season 3, Phoenix Foundation just fixed his transcript. Boom. Easy.

Equations on the boards

Again, not really a MacGyver-hack, but I want to at least mention these equations. The first board is in the lecture hall. There’s a bunch of stuff on there—and it’s not all related.

The one part that I like the most is the stuff on the lower right. These are the tree physics representations of a ball moving vertically with a gravitational force. These three methods are:

  • Newtonian Mechanics
  • Lagrangian Mechanics
  • Hamiltonian Mechanics

Here’s an older post describing these three methods.

What about the other board? There are a bunch of equations on a white board in MacGyver’s place. Russ quickly just erases them—because that’s what he does. But what are these equations? If you look carefully, you can see the Greek symbol \psi (pronounced psi). This is used to represent the wave function in quantum mechanics.

Potassium in Water

Wow. We are still in the first few minutes of the episode. I think I was just excited to write about MacGyver and science such that I got a little out of control. I’m sorry about that.

For this “hack”, Professor MacGyver is trying to get the attention of his students. Simple solution—put some potassium in water. Seriously, don’t ever do this. The stuff on the left side of the periodic table does bad stuff in water. That means Lithium, Sodium, Potassium…they all make fire and then explode. Check it out.

It would be a lot louder and quicker than you saw in the show. Something would break.

Low tech photocopier

How do you copy someone’s hand written notes without a phone camera or an actual photocopier? How about using something hot? If you put a blank piece of paper next to the paper with ink on it, you could be able to partially make an impression on the blank paper. It would be something like this.

Let’s assume that the heat thing doesn’t fully work (it didn’t work perfectly in the video above). Maybe MacGyver needs to add a little something extra to make the copy readable. It’s plausible that he would need some acid to interact with the tiny bits of ink on the paper to make it readable. That’s what the lemon was for.

Hack a car to make it drive

Oh, this is sadly real. You know—we like to assume that we can add cool features to our cars and they will be safe. Apparently, this is not the case. Here’s a video showing a remote car hack.

I guess that 1985 Honda Civic looks like a pretty good choice now. Right?

Rocket fuel

Yes, you can get rocket fuel from liquid oxygen and kerosene – it’s called RP-1.

DIY Nitrous Oxide

Seriously—don’t do this. Here’s how to make it.

https://www.thoughtco.com/make-nitrous-oxide-or-laughing-gas-608280

Stopping a torpedo

I know it’s a stretch—but’s also fun. There’s a torpedo traveling through the water system. MacGyver finds a “diaper factory”—I love that line and then he gets a bunch of sodium polyacrylate. It’s that stuff they put in diapers. When liquids get into this stuff, it gels up. So, putting it in the water will gel it up. The torpedo will hit the gel and slow down and stop. Save the day.

Actually, in a previous episode MacGyver used this stuff to make fake snow.

OK—one more thing. Why can’t MacGyver get out of the gel? Why is he in the gel? You will have to watch the episode to find out.

But here’s the deal. He’s stuck because of the atmosphere. Yes, there is a bunch of air above him pushing down. The air pressure is 10^5 Newtons per square meter. If you try to lift him up, air can’t get in below him so there’s just the atmosphere pushing down. You are going to either have to pull up REAL hard or get some air down into the gel.

Don’t worry, Mac survives. SPOILER ALERT.

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