MacGyver Season 3 Episode 13 Science Notes: Wilderness + Training + Survival

There is no funny intro for this post. Oh wait, this is an intro.

Rock and steel to make a spark.

OK, this isn’t actually a MacGyver hack in this episode but I’ve talked about it before. Here is a video.

Other fire stuff

Are there certain plants that ignite more readily than others? Yes. Here is a nice article from Field and Stream that goes over the basics.

What about burning poison oak? Yes, that is bad too.

Wet cotton clothes are bad

Again, not a hack—but cotton is terrible when wet (so is denim jeans). When wet stuff is next to your body, the water evaporates. In this process the liquid water turns into a gas water (water vapor). The phase transition requires energy. Guess where the energy comes from? Yup, it comes from the human. This makes the human colder. Here is my more detailed explanation.

What about wool and other materials? The key to these better fabrics is that they “wick”—they pull the water away from the body. Here is a nice post on that.

Zipper for ice traction

MacGyver takes the tent zippers and uses them on people’s shoes for added traction on ice. It’s sort of like mini-spikes on your shoes. Classic.

How to make drinkable water

MacGyver uses a tree branch to act as a water filter. This seems to be real (from MIT) so you know it’s got to be good.

Here is a nice video showing how this would work.

Making rope (string)

I’ll admit it—I’ve never really understood how this works. If you take some vine or some other material, it has a certain maximum strength in its tension before it breaks. If you take two of these things together, it doubles the strength. If you take these two things and then twist them—the strength is more than double. What? But it does indeed work (I need to do an experiment sometime to really understand this).

Here is an older video in which I attempted to make rope from a TV guide.

Size and weight of 18 million dollars

This is a classic MacGyver estimation problem. How do you find the size and weight of a bunch of money? Why does it even matter? Well, one big thing is to find the density of the money. If the density is less than the density of water, then the crate of money would float and then be swept away in a flash flood.

Yes, you don’t need the weight and size—but just the density. However, if you want to estimate how long the crate was floating you DO need the size. Bigger crates will “hit the bottom” before smaller crates.

If you want to look at more stuff about the density of money, here is an older post in which I find out how far 1 trillion dollars would stack. Would it make it to the moon?

Surveying tools

How do you find the slope of the ground? This is where you need surveying tools. Here’s how it works. Get a scope (from a rifle) and make sure it’s aimed level. There are plenty of ways to level a scope—those little bubble levels work great. Next get a survey stick. Make sure this is also vertical and then measure where the scope points at the stick.

If you know the change in elevation and the distance between the stick and the scope you have the slope.

Float distance calculation

Yeah, this is pretty tough—but that should never stop anyone from trying. How do you estimate the distance a crate will float in a flood? Here are some things to consider (some of these would be tough to estimate).

  • How fast was the water flowing?
  • How deep did the water get?
  • How long did the flood last?

Really, if you know those things you can calculate the speed and time of the floating crate. This would then give you the distance. From that you can find the location on a map.

Drag sled

To move a crate (or an injured MacGyver), it shouldn’t be too hard to make a drag thing—called a travios.

Grab hot coals

Don’t try this at home, but it is indeed possible to grab hot coals. Essentially, you can grab hot stuff if you are really quick. There isn’t enough time to transfer energy to cause a major burn.

It’s just like walking on hot coals. Here is a nice physics post on that.

MacGyver Season 3 Episode 6 Hacks

Getting through a giant chunk of cement with acid.

Really, this isn’t a “Mac Hack” since MacGyver didn’t do it.  Instead it was someone else.  She used muriatic acid to help get through a tunnel that was plugged up with cement (or concrete—I always get those two confused).

But yes, muriatic acid will indeed “eat” through cement.  If the goal is to create a hole that will allow a human to get through, it’s not so bad.  You can use the acid to weaken enough of the structure that you can take it out in pieces.  You don’t have to dissolve all the cement.

Now for a bonus homework question—actually an estimation problem.  Suppose there is 10 feet of cement to get through.  If someone uses muriatic acid, how long would this hole take to make?  Go.


Thermite is awesome—oh, and slightly dangerous.  Basically, it’s a chemical reaction between two metals in which one of the metals has the oxygen needed for the reaction (like iron oxide).  The key to getting this reaction to work is to have super tiny pieces of metal (like super super tiny).  Really, that’s the tough part.  But once you get that, the thermite gets really hot, really fast.  Hot enough to melt stuff.

Could it be used to close up gun ports in an armored vehicle?  Probably.

Pressure to open an armored vehicle

An armored car has armor.  That’s why they call it an armored car.  The primary role for the armor is to keep out things like bullets and people so that the stuff inside (probably money) is safe.

But what if you seal off the openings and then pump in some air?  The cool thing about air pressure is that even a small pressure increase can exert HUGE forces on a wall.  Let’s say that MacGyver doubles the atmospheric pressure inside the truck so that it goes from 10^5 \medspace \text{N/m}^2 to 2\times 10^5 \medspace \text{N/m}^2.  If you have a wall that has dimensions of 2 meters by 2 meters, there would be a net outward force of 4 \times 10^5 \medspace \text{N} pushing it outward.  For you imperials, that is like 90,000 pounds.

Oh, this is why submarines are cylindrical shaped.  Flat walls bend under great pressure.

DIY balance

I really don’t know how much detail to go over for this hack.  MacGyver builds a simple balance scale to find the weight of some money.  As long as the arms are equal, this should be easy.  Maybe in a future post (on Wired) I will show you a design for a symmetrical balance scale.

Pry Bar Lever

Again, there’s not too much to say here.  MacGyver uses a piece of metal to pry open a door.  This is why humans use crow bars.  In short, this is a torque problem.  The torque is the product of force and lever arm.  So a small force with a large lever arm (MacGyver pushing on the end of the bar) gives a small lever arm and huge force (from the tip in the door).

Ok, I lied.  Torque is way more complicated than that.  Really, it’s a vector product:

\vec{\tau} = \vec{F} \times \vec{r}

That’s a little better.

Oh, there were two good hacks that didn’t make it into the show.  Too bad.