MacGyver Season 2 Episode 5 Science Notes: Skull + Electromagnet

Decoration with syringe hydraulics

As they decorate for Halloween, the crew builds this skeleton that is controlled by syringes. The basic idea is to use a tube to connect two syringes (the big kind). Fill it with water. When you push or pull on one syringe, it makes the opposite thing happen with the other syringe since water is incompressible.

Here is a nice video showing how to make something like this.

Directional Antenna

In order to track down a dude, MacGyver builds a directional radio antenna. Well, actually he just combines a yagi antenna and a dish antenna—I’m not sure it would work like that, but it looks cool.

I don’t think I should go into the physics of a yagi—it might take a while to explain. However, I can say this: that old style TV antenna you had on your roof? That’s a yagi. It does have a directional dependance on amplitude. That means that if you point it one way, you will get a better signal than pointing it another way.

DIY Thermal Camera

How do you find people in a dark abandoned military base? What about a thermal camera? A “thermal” camera is just like a normal camera except that it’s different. Instead of detecting electromagnetic waves in the visible region (we often call this visible light), a thermal camera works in the infrared range. That’s why they are also called infrared (IR) cameras.

Normally, that wouldn’t help you see in the dark—except for one important thing. All objects radiate light. The wavelength of this light depends on the temperature of the object. For most of the objects you see around you, the wavelength of radiated light is in the infrared range. So, with an IR camera these objects are like their own little light bulb. You don’t need an external light source—the objects are the light source.

Let me show you an example. This is an image using the FLIR One—it’s an IR camera attachment for your smart phone (pretty cool). Here you can see the family dog in IR. There’s a bunch of cool stuff you can see, but I will just leave this post for you if you want to know more.

The first devices to produce an IR image (mostly) came about in the 1950s. They used a single sensor that scanned over an area to produce an image. It wasn’t fast and the sensor had to be cooled. But still it worked.

So, how could MacGyver make an IR camera? Step one would be to find one of these sensors—maybe lead sulfide detector. This detector just gives a voltage though and not an image. To get an image, you need to scan over the scene and then run that into a television or something. Here is an early sketch.

Inline image 2

How far away could you detect a human? I tried this out using my kids and my FLIR One. Here’s what it looks like at a distance of 7 meters.

Inline image 4

Just for fun, here is the image from the episode.

In the end, IR camera’s are pretty complex. Honestly, it’s amazing that we have something that does this on a phone.

Escaping a hyperbaric chamber

Samantha Cage has been placed in a closed hyperbaric chamber that’s being filled with water. A hyperbaric chamber is essentially a person-sized scuba tank. You can put someone in there and then increase the pressure. This can be useful for a person suffering from decompression sickness (from scuba diving).

Anyway, she’s trapped and needs to escape. MacGyver builds a captive bolt gun to break the window. Oh, that’s cool and all—but I have a better option to escape.

What if you sealed up the chamber to get her out? It sounds crazy, but it would work. Here’s the problem. In order to add water to the chamber, you either need to increase the interior pressure by adding high pressure water. Or—you can add water while letting some of the air out. The second method is much easier to do (since it just uses normal water). But this means there is either a valve that is open to let the air out or maybe there are some old and bad seals that let air out.

Now, if you seal off the chamber the water can’t come in. And if the water does indeed enter, it will increase the interior pressure. Hopefully the pressure will get high enough on the inside that Cage can add a little extra and bust out.

It’s just an idea.

Electromagnet Lift

Could an electromagnet actually lift something large? Absolutely. Have you not seen those giant electromagnets at the junk yard that lift cars? But what about a human? The human body doesn’t really have enough ferromagnetic material in it for this to work (unless you are Magneto). However, it’s at least plausible if that person has a steel plate implanted. Yes. It’s true that many metal implants are titanium. Also, the steel implants are stainless steel and some versions of stainless steel aren’t magnetic. But still—it’s possible.

An electromagnet is really just a coil of wire with current running through it. It’s not hard to make, here you can do it yourself.

But what about a HUGE electromagnet? If you want a super strong magnetic field, you need a GIANT electric current. It’s possible to get perhaps 10 amps out of a truck engine (from the alternator or the battery)—but that might not be enough. My suggestion is to get a bunch of car batteries together so that you can get the highest current possible. Of course this high current is going to make the wires hot, so don’t run it for too long.

MacGyver Season 1 Episode 17 Science Notes: Ruler

Propane tank flame thrower

Take a propane tank and bicycle tube. Cut the bike tire to make it a hose and connect it to the propane tank. Use a road flare to light the gas—boom. There is your flame thrower.

Oh but wait. It’s just a dream. Bozer’s dream. The flame thrower wasn’t real anyway.

Listen in on a landline phone

Who uses a landline now anyway? Oh well. They want to use a landline then it’s possible to listen in. Actually, this isn’t even that difficult. Check it out.

Here is another version.

You just need a capacitor and maybe an inductor. You could grab these from a radio or something like that.

But wait. I made a mistake. While going over this hack, I said something like this:

“Yeah, this is pretty easy. Just get the capacitor and earpiece (or radio) and then tie it into the wiring box”

Here’s what that looks like.

I just want to point out this small mistake (that you would never notice) just in case you saw it. You don’t actually “tie” the lines—that’s just a term we use in circuits to mean “connect”.

Bomb radius calculation

There’s a bomb in the truck. Where should you park it so that no one gets hurt? Yeah, this is a tough calculation. However, tough has never stopped MacGyver before and it won’t stop him now.

Here is my rough calculation and explaination.

Bombs are complicated. But usually it is the pressure produced by the explosion that will get you. We can come up with some pretty useful models to calculate their impact. First, there is the Hopkinson-Cranz Scaling Law (this is a real thing). With this law, the acceptable distance can be calculated based on the explosive weight.

\mathrm{Range} = (z)(\mathrm{weight})^(1/3)

In this expression z is a factor that depends on the type of distance with 14.8 being the distance factor for a public traffic route. That means that 2 kilograms would need 18.6 meters (60 feet).

Infrared face jammer

OK, it doesn’t actually jam your face. That would be weird. MacGyver wants to prevent the security cameras from recognizing their faces. So he takes some infrared TV removes and pulls out the IR LED lights. Normally these flash on and off so that the sensor on the TV can “see them” but humans can’t.

He mounts these IR LED lights on some sun glasses with a battery to power them. When a security camera sees the face, it just gets blinded by the IR light since many video cameras can also detect IR.

If your phone camera doesn’t have an IR filter (most now do) then you can actually see the light flashing on a TV remote by pointing it at your phone.

Oh, so this could really work. It just depends on the type of video cameras. Some people even put stuff like this on their car license plate so that police cameras can’t see them.

Car jacking

How do you open a locked car door? One way is to jam a wedge into the door. This will pull the door out just a little (by bending it) so that you can get a stick in there. The stick then can be used to push the “lock” button.

In this case, MacGyver uses something for the wedge—maybe a shoe horn or a door stop. Then a monopod is extended to click the lock button.

DIY soldering iron

You might have missed this one. But as MacGyver is building his stuff for the last mission, he needs a soldering iron. He takes the heating element out of a hair dryer and connects it to some stuff. That works.

Fake noses

Need a disguise? How about DIY latex to make a nose? Yes, this seems plausible. Here’s how to do it.

DIY keypad cracker

MacGyver makes a quick circuit board that can crack a keypad by using a brute force method that goes through all the combinations. This is from a different episode, but it’s the same idea.

If you want to play with one yourself, here is an online version of the code.

Oh, here is the code on

DIY police radio

Well, it’s just a radio. MacGyver needs a speaker and a transmitter. Really, a radio transmitter is essentially the same thing as a radio receiver—OK, not really but sort of.

Instead of going over the way MacGyver did it, how about a real actual radio you could build yourself? Here is a spark gap transmitter from simple parts (and awesome).

Here is a more detailed explanation of the spark gap transmitter from one of my WIRED posts.

MacGyver Season 3 Episode 3

Transparent Explosives

Yes, this is probably real –

Liquefaction of Sand

This is real.  You can make a simple version of this yourself.




Or you could make a crazy huge version like this.


Weather balloon pop

MacGyver needs to get a thermal camera down from a balloon.  The balloon (it’s not actually a weather balloon) is tethered down by multiple lines.  So Mac uses the jumper cables from the car and connects them to the car battery.  Then he connects ONE cable to the wire and the current causes the balloon to burst.

OK, let’s step back for a moment.  Remember that this is a show – this is not real life.  I just want to make sure we are all on the same page there.  So, there’s a small mistake here (you can blame me if you like).  In order to get an electric current from the car battery to go through the balloon, you would need to make a complete circuit.  One jumper cable connected to the line is a start, but there needs to be a path for the current to get back to the battery to make a complete circuit.

One way you could get this to work is to take another line going to the balloon and connect the other jumper cable to that one.  If you look close, it seems like the other cable isn’t connected to anything (in the show).  Of course, that mistake is better than connecting both wires to the same line.

This is sort of the same problem as this double spark in Iron Man 3.

Thermal camera

Yes.  Thermal cameras are indeed real.  Yes, the heat signature of an electric car would be different than an internal combustion engine car.  Actually, I need to see how hot they get in real life (electric cars).  I’m going to test this the next time I see a Tesla.

Oh, and here is an overview of seeing stuff in infrared (also called “thermal image”).

Just for fun, here is a visible and infrared image of me with a bag over my head.

X-Rays from a Vacuum Tube

MacGyver needs to find the transparent explosive.  One of the tools he needs for this is a source of x-rays.  This seems to be real – but it appears you can make x-rays from a vacuum tube, a lighter (the long kind) and a diode.

Here are the instructions from (I need to build one of these).

There are so many cool parts of this hack, I could probably write a book on just this one thing – maybe I will write a separate post.  This x-ray device does the following:

  • Uses a vacuum tube from an old radio.  Historically, the vacuum tube was used where transistors are used now.  These things are awesome.
  • The lighter has a piezoelectric in it.  When you apply a pressure to these devices, it produces a voltage – the voltage can get high enough to make a spark in air which lights the gas from the lighter.
  • When you connect the piezoelectric to the vacuum tube, you can make a super high voltage inside the tube.  This can accelerate electrons such that they crash into the other electrode.  This crashing electrons is exactly how you create x-rays.
  • X-rays are just like normal visible light except that they have super small wavelength.  This can make them interact differently with matter.  For instance, they can pass through some materials (like human skin).
  • What is the x-ray used for in this hack?  X-ray fluorescence.  This is essentially the same as glow in the dark (kind of) material except get’s “activated” with x-rays instead of other visible light.

Oh wait! I already have a video on x-ray fluorescence.



One final note.  In the show, MacGyver says something about shooting ions.  That’s not really what happens here.  X-rays are not ions.

Hydrogen balloon from a trash bag.

Can you fill a trash bag with hydrogen?  Yes.  Will it lift stuff?  Yes.  Could it lift a trash can?  Maybe…just maybe.

Here is my super short introduction to buoyancy.

Suppose you take a box of air – the box is 1 meter on a side such that the volume of this air is 1 x 1 x 1 = 1 m3.  Assuming there is no wind or breeze, this “box of air” will stay in the same location.  Since the box is at rest, the total force acting on the air must be zero.

OK, there is obviously a downward gravitational force on the air puling it down.  Yes, air has weight.  If something has mass, it has a gravitational interaction with the Earth.  Everyone likes to think of air as being weightless – but that’s probably because it has a low density and it’s normally “floating”.  But if there is a downward gravitational force on the air, there must be an upward force pushing to counteract the weight.  This upward force is the buoyancy force.

Since the box of air floats, we know the buoyancy force has to have the same magnitude of force as the weight of the air.

Now let’s suppose I take away that “box of air” and replace it with a sealed cardboard box (it could be a box made out of anything, but in my mind it’s a cardboard box).  The air around this box is going to interact with it in the same way as it did with the box of air (because air is dumb and doesn’t know any better). This means the cardboard box has the same buoyancy force as the box of air – it is equal to the gravitational weight of the air the box displaces – this is essentially Archimedes’ principle for floating stuff.

Oh, this buoyancy force is still the same no matter if the object is floating or not – it just has to displace air.  You can also do this with water or really any substance –  like pudding.  Not sure why you would float something in pudding.

But what if you want to calculate this buoyancy force?  In that case, you need to know the density of the air (which is around 1.2 kg/m3) and the local gravitational field (9.8 N/kg).  With that, the buoyancy force would be:

F_\text{buoyancy} = V_\text{object} \rho_\text{air}g

Finally, we are getting somewhere.  Now you can calculate the size (solve for V) of a balloon needed to lift a trash can.  If you want a simple estimate – you can ignore the mass of the hydrogen in the balloon (but it does indeed have both mass and weight just like the air).  I’m leaving the rest of this as a homework assignment for you.