MacGyver Season 3 Episode 17 Science Notes: Seeds + Permafrost + Feather

The Seed Vault is real

It’s basically a giant insurance policy. Suppose something terrible happens and a bunch of crops are wiped out. What then? How do you start over? Yes, you go to the seed bank and withdraw your seeds.

https://www.croptrust.org/our-work/svalbard-global-seed-vault/

Feather to detect air currents

MacGyver pulls a feather out of his jacket and uses this to detect air currents. This should work since the feather will move due to super tiny air motion that would be too small for a human to feel.

This reminds me of a job I once had. The job was to go to people’s swimming pools and find leaks. I would take a small squeeze bottle with red dye and let out tiny amounts into the water to see what would happen. If the red dye got sucked into the wall—there’s your leak. Oh, this was done with scuba gear so that I could stay underwater for long periods of time. It was extremely boring.

Finding position from a smartphone accelerometer

Your phone has an accelerometer (probably). At the very least, this accelerometer is used to determine the orientation of the phone so that it knows if you are taking a normal video or a vertical video (don’t do vertical videos).

This accelerometer is essentially a tiny mass on a spring (but not an actual spring). When the phone accelerates, the spring gets compressed by an amount that is proportional to the acceleration. That’s how you get the acceleration. Once you have the acceleration, you can integrate twice to the get the change in position of the phone (assuming the phone started from rest). If you keep doing this every tenth of a second (or whatever time frame you want), you can track the location of the phone. True.

In fact, if you use the augmented reality (AR) on your phone then you have to use the accelerometer. Your phone figures looks at a surface from different viewpoints to figure out how far away it is. The different viewpoints are determined by the motion of the phone and the accelerometer.

Just because it’s cool—here is my short explanation of AR on the phone.

Toxic Pea

Can you actually make a toxin from a pea seed? Yup. That’s possible. In fact, there are a bunch of things out there in the real world that have some pretty deadly stuff in them. Here are some options.

Directional satellite dish

If you have a normal wifi antenna on your computer (and you probably do), it basically just transmits radio waves in all directions. It’s not a completely uniform signal strength in all directions, but let’s just assume it is.

Imagine these radio waves expanding out and forming a sphere. Since the area of the this radio wave sphere is proportional to the square of the radius, the signal power decreases with distance. That’s just how it works.

But wait! What if you redirect these waves into one direction? That would increase the radio power along that direction and give you a better signal. However, you now have to aim this thing.

There are several methods to make a directional antenna. The two common methods are to use a parabolic dish (like a satellite dish) or a wave guide. The wave guide uses a tube with an antenna located at a certain point. Waves go down the tube and then reflect to constructively interfere and make the signal stronger in that direction.

MacGyver Season 1 Episode 18 Science Notes: Flashlight

Hold on. There’s a metric butt ton of science in this episode. It’s going to be great.

Turning bullet

SPOILER ALERT. This episode has a bullet that can turn. It’s sort of the key plot element in this episode. These dudes are trying to steal the technology for these “smart bullets”. These bullets are essentially tiny guided missiles with fins so that they can turn in flight.

I’ll just leave this Wikipedia link on smart bullets and then move on (it’s not really a MacGyver hack anyway).

The physics of birthdays

Again, not a hack—but MacGyver thinks birthdays are dumb. Well, not dumb but arbitrary. I think he is right. In fact, I use the following phrase on people’s birthday’s:

Happy Solar Orbit Day.

Yes, that is the day the person completes another orbit around the Sun. I like thinking of it that way.

Fixing a generator inverter

There are lots of different types of generators. Most of them involve a gasoline engine that turns stuff. Some times this turning stuff involves a magnet to make an electric current. But what happens when the magnet get’s messed up? Yes, you have to fix it.

A permanent magnet is a ferromagnetic object (like iron) in which all the magnetic domains are aligned. If the domains are not aligned then it would just act like a dumb piece of metal. You can get the domains align by applying a strong magnetic field.

This is exactly what MacGyver does to the generator. He uses a defibrillator to generate the current and forms a loop of wire to create the strong external magnetic field. Seems like it could work.

DIY sand blaster

How do you get people out of a collapsed building? What if you could just cut through the wall? Yes, that’s the MacGyver plan.

In this case, he uses high pressure water mixed with sand—a type of sand blaster. If you have water at a high enough pressure, it can pretty much cut through anything. Of course MacGyver’s water by itself isn’t fast enough. That’s where the sand comes in. When the sand hits the concrete, the abrasive interaction is enough to eat away at the concrete.

Oh, this would take quite a while to work.

Seeing through walls with radar

Yes, this is a real thing. NASA made this device. Here is a description. Basically, this thing sends out microwaves and detects the reflected microwaves. But the magic is that it only looks for variations in reflections caused by small oscillations—these oscillations are from a human heart.

For MacGyver’s version, he starts with a radar gun (from a police car). These don’t use the same frequency as the microwave detector, but he can make a modification. With some software from Riley, that’s pretty much what he needs to get started. It’s at least plausible.

Screw jack

How do you lift super heavy stuff? You need a simple machine. All of the simple machines deal with force and distance. If you can increase the distance over which you apply a force, you can get a greater output force over a shorter distance.

In this case, MacGyver makes a screw jack. You can lift a large mass by turning the screw to get it to extend. In fact, you could do something like this yourself. Here’s how.

Ascender rig

The goal of an ascender rig is to allow some device to move UP a rope, but not down. This means you can climb up a rope one little bit at a time. Here is an example.

Oh, MacGyver made an ascender rig to climb an elevator cable and escape a collapsed building.

Modify laser

The smart bullet is aimed using a laser. Of course the bullet is only a little bit smart. It only aims towards the brightest laser. If you could make another laser that gets the attention of the bullet, you can get the bullet off course.

MacGyver takes the laser sight off a pistol. In order to increase the power output, he burns off a potentiometer. This could work on some lasers—like this.

Oh, DON’T DO THIS. You don’t want a powerful laser without knowing what it can do. These lasers can seriously damage your eyes in ways you wouldn’t be able to predict. Remember, you only have two eyes. Don’t mess them up.

So, they use this powerful laser to redirect a smart bullet. That part is plausible. It’s unlikely they could get a bullet to turn all the way around. They wouldn’t have time to move the laser dot and the bullet fins couldn’t make it turn that much.

Who cares. It was still a great episode.

MacGyver Season 3 Episode 15 Science Notes: K9 + Smugglers + New Recruit

Dog nose

Dog’s are pretty awesome for smelling stuff. They have noses that are much more sensitive than a human and they are smart enough to be trained. Oh, also they are dogs—so that’s an extra bonus. Dogs can detect more than guns. When trained, they can sniff out drugs or even some humans with particular medical conditions. Pretty awesome.

Here is a nice PBS article on the science of dog noses. Oh, this isn’t actually a MacGyver hack. I guess that’s clear though.

Wall climb

Again, not a MacGyver hack. Instead, there is a scene in which Desi (yes, Desi is the new recruit) runs and uses a corner of two walls to climb on top of a storage container.

So, how the heck do you run up a wall? The answer is “friction” and “momentum”. Let’s start with friction.

When two surfaces interact, there can be a frictional force. This force is parallel to the surfaces and proportional the perpendicular force that pushes the two surfaces together (we call this the normal force). If you put a book on a flat table, you can feel that frictional force as you try to slide the book. If you push DOWN on the book while trying to pull it, the frictional force will increase.

Since you have a vertical wall, it’s possible to have an upward frictional force to prevent Desi from falling down. However, there needs to be a force pushing Desi INTO the wall in order to have a significant perpendicular force. Actually, try this yourself. Take that same book you had on the table. Now put it on a vertical wall and let go. Yes. It falls. There is nothing pushing the book into the wall so there is no frictional force.

Now for momentum. Momentum (represented by “p”) is the product of an object’s (or human’s) mass and velocity where the velocity is a vector (depends on both the speed and the direction). Momentum is important in its relationship to the net force on an object. Here, we have the momentum principle:

\vec{F}_\text{net} = \frac{\Delta \vec{p}}{\Delta t}

So, what happens when Desi runs TOWARDS a wall and pushes off? The direction of her momentum changes from towards the wall to away from the wall. This change in momentum means there must be a force on her. Yes, this force comes from the wall. The faster she runs towards the wall, the greater her change in momentum and the larger the normal force.

This means a large normal force also produces a large frictional force. The frictional force is high enough to prevent Desi from falling while in contact with the wall. In fact, it’s a large enough force for her to move UP the wall. Of course, she is also now moving away from the wall. This is where the second wall comes into play. Now she just does the same this with that other corner wall. Physics.

Smoke screen

MacGyver needs a distraction. He takes some gun oil (used to trick the dog) and pours it into the engine of a forklift. When the fork lift starts, it is now running with extra oil in the fuel. This oil produces a blue-white smoke that comes out the exhaust. Yes, you have seen this with cars. It’s a bad sign that there is oil leaking into the engine cylinders.

The next thing that MacGyver does is to cut the fuel line. This pours extra diesel onto the hot engine. Theoretically, it could catch fire. Theoretically, this fire could cause an explosion. In theory.

DIY dog whistle

Yes, you can indeed make a whistle from a stick. Some sticks are easier than others—but still…

What makes a dog whistle different than a whistle? It’s really just the fundamental frequency that it blows. A normal whistle has a lower frequency that human ears are good at detecting. The dog whistle has a much higher frequency that most humans can’t hear.

Oh, what about the plastic bag? Yes, MacGyver gets a plastic bag and attaches this to the whistle. This makes an improvised bellows. The idea is that you can fill it up with air and then push the air out at a greater rate than just blowing. It makes the whistle louder than normal.

RFID detection

Cody (the dog) has an RFID chip in him. The basic idea behind a passive RFID is that you can excite it with a radio wave such that it transmits some data (like an ID). Oh, but you have to get pretty close for this to work. Here is a nice RFID tutorial.

Now for the MacGyver hack. In order to find Cody with his RFID, they need two things. First, they need a method to activate the passive RFID at a long range. To do this you need lots of power. That’s where the AM radio station comes in. If you use a nearby radio transmitter, it could activate a bunch of RFID tags. This is fairly plausible. No, you wouldn’t “hear” anything—it would just broadcast a particular frequency that the RFID uses.

The second thing—something to detect the RFID signal from a range. That’s why you need a satellite dish. The parabolic dish reflects weak radio signals into the detector. Of course this only works if you are pointing it in the right direction. So, you need to sweep this over some area until you get a signal. Once you find the dog you want, you have to use the dish to zero in on the location.

Disabling a car

What can you do to prevent a car from driving? Yes, there is the classic banana up a tail pipe trick (from Beverly Hills Cop), but how about something different?

OK, I admit this is a bit of a stretch. However, if you can make some sort of electromagnetic pulse device then it can interfere with the car’s electronic system.

That’s “essentially” what MacGyver does here. Let’s just leave it at that.

Foam fire extinguisher

How do you put out a fire? One way is to remove oxygen from the fire. Without oxygen, the fire can’t burn. This is essentially what a carbon dioxide fire extinguisher does. It shoots out carbon dioxide gas which displaces the oxygen and the fire goes out.

You can make a foam-based fire extinguisher that essentially does the same thing. The only difference is that the carbon dioxide is trapped in the foam. This means that you can cover some stuff with the foam and it should put out the fire.

Now for the fun part. You can make fire extinguishing foam with three things: vinegar, baking soda, liquid soap.

When you mix baking soda and vinegar, it produces carbon dioxide. If you add soap to the vinegar, then it also bubbles. This is not too difficult to try (but it can get messy).

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 trinket.io.

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 1 Episode 15 Science Notes: Magnifying Glass

It’s too late to change now—but I wish I had planned better for my titles for these science notes. I just don’t like the way it looks. Oh well. On to the science.

Jumping out of window with a TV cable

MacGyver yanks a TV cable from the wall and ties it around him. Then boom—he’s out of the second story window to catch a bad guy. As he falls, the cable gets pulled from the wall and sort of prevents him from a full force impact with the ground.

Electrostatic dust print lifter

Electrostatic dust print lifters are indeed real. Here is an example of a real one.

The basic idea is to take a conducting sheet and lay it on top of the area where you want to find a print (finger print or shoe print). When a large electric field is applied, the dust literally gets lifted and stuck to the conducting sheet. Boom. There is your print. Oh, you need about 800 volts to get a high enough electric field (according to one paper that is no longer online for some reason).

For the MacGyver version, he uses some mylar for the sheet. In order to create the large electric field, he can use the charging capacitor for the flash in a disposable camera. That might not get up to 800 volts, but it’s a good start. Yes, it’s also true that you can get fairly high voltages just by rubbing two different materials together—as long as the air is dry. This is exactly what happens when you rub your feet across a carpeted floor and then shock the bejeezus out of someone. Same idea.

One more thing. The official version of the electrostatic dust print lifter is pretty expensive. But someone made one for just 50 dollars using a stun gun. Here is the hackaday.com link, but it looks like the original post has link rotted.

Just to show you some more electrostatic stuff—here are some demos that you could try.

Open an envelope with steam from a radiator

Yup, this works.

Wifi wall detector

OK, it doesn’t detect walls. Instead, the wifi can find empty spaces behind walls. MacGyver takes a wifi router with a partially parabolic dish (using aluminum foil) over the antenna. He then connects the output to a speaker (for a cool effect).

Yes, wifi is essentially a radio wave (it is a radio wave). Radio waves mostly pass through walls—but you have wifi in your house and you know that sometimes you don’t get a great signal. This shows that wifi is at least partially blocked by walls. The wifi can also reflect off stuff.

It is this reflected wifi that MacGyver uses to find the hidden room. When there is nothing on the back side of a wall, you don’t get a good reflected signal and that changes the sound of the connected speaker.

OK, this probably wouldn’t work—but it’s still based on this idea that wifi can interact with walls in different ways. Anyway, MIT has created a tool to use wifi to see through walls. Note, this show came out before that. I’m not saying MIT based that wifi thing on this episodes. I’m just sayin.

Movie film roll for distracting fire

MacGyver takes one of those movie film rolls. Adds some stuff and then lights it on fire. When he rolls it down to the front of the movie theater—boom. Distracting explosion. Yeah, lots of stuff burns. No problem here.

MacGyver Season 3 Episode 14 Science Notes: Father + Bride + Betrayal

Hotel door break in with a coat hanger

MacGyver uses a series of coat hanger wires to build a device that opens a hotel door from the inside. It’s basically a long wire that goes under the door and pulls down on the handle from the inside. Here is a video of what that looks like.

Don’t break into other people’s hotel rooms. That’s illegal. You have been warned.

Oh, but that’s not the best part. MacGyver says this is really about torque. Yes, that’s true. You need to exert a torque on that inside handle to get it to turn.

Wait. The real best part is when Riley says “It means physics is awesome”. Yeah it does.

Thermite toothpaste

So the bad dude that is turning himself in has a special safe. If you try to break in—thermite melts the stuff inside. Yes. Thermite is real and thermite is awesome. In fact, here is an older video where we set off some thermite as a chemistry demo.

We need to do this again.

OK, but could you make thermite into a paste? You might be thinking “oh, if you put the thermite in toothpaste, it won’t get as much oxygen for the reaction.” Good idea—but surprise! Thermite has its own supply of oxygen. You can even get a thermite reaction to work underwater.

Really, the only issue with toothpaste is that you don’t want to get the thermite stuff (particles) too far apart so that they can still interact with nearby particles.

Spray can flame thrower with a bonus

Yes, we pretty much all know that if you get a spray can and shoot it into fire you get a mini flame thrower. Oh, I’ve never done this myself but I know a friend of a friend that did it that one time. I’m sure you’ve never tired this either.

But what about the bonus? If you get any type of fine powder, it also explodes (that’s the powdered sugar part that adds to the flame thrower). Yes, when particles are very small and very spread out—they can explode.

Here is an example from season 1.

Cyanide detection

It turns out that there is a fast method to test for cyanide poisoning (which can happen from certain fires—not just for spies).

Here is an article on how this works— https://phys.org/news/2015-03-cyanide-poisoning-seconds.html.

The basic idea is to get the cyanide the cyanide by mixing the blood with both an acid (muriatic acid and/or vinegar) and a base (like baking soda). Add this to a fluorescent agent like a detergent and then look at it with an ultraviolet light. If it glows—it’s cyanide. At least this is plausible.

Cyanide antidote

For the antidote, MacGyver is basically going to make sulfanegen—an experimental cyanide antidote. Yes, humans do indeed build up a sort of tolerance to cyanide since it’s a natural element in many fruits and stuff. Here is my half-plausible method.

  • You need sulfur. You can get this from match heads. Yes, that’s true.
  • Acid—cleaning supplies.
  • Hydrogen peroxide
  • Blood. Yes—that might be gross, but you do need that.
  • Heat it up and filter it with a coffee filter.

Now, how do you get it to Riley? You could use an IV—but a nasal spray should work too. This is why they give some kids the flu vaccine with a nasal spray.

Don’t actually try to cure someone with this recipe.

Finding the real bad person with interference

MacGyver uses the interference sound from Riley’s radio when she is attacked to figure out that someone is the bad person. Basically, someone had a device that interfered with the radio.

If you had a mobile phone (we didn’t call them smart phones because they weren’t that smart back then) in 90s or early 2000s, then you know what happens when they get near a speaker.

It’s entirely plausible that a medical alert bracelet could do this. In fact, medical equipment often uses older technology because they don’t like to move to newer stuff until it’s been fully tested.

In fact, there could be some type of extra interference caused by the taser and the medical bracelet. That’s what MacGyver wants to reproduce and detect. All he needs to do is to reproduce the taser signal and create an audio output so that he can “test” different people and find the baddie.

MacGyver Season 1 Episode 13 Science Notes: Large Blade

Tarp restraint

This is sort of like a straight jacket made out of a tarp and a belt. I wonder how long this would last—but it’s still a classic MacGyver hack. This blog would probably be better if I included pictures. Oh well.

Space blanket as chaff

A space blanket is basically a thin mylar sheet. It has a nice property in that it reflects infrared radiation. The idea is that you cover yourself with this and when your body radiates infrared light, it reflects it back to your body.

Can you use this as a countermeasure against a ground to air missile? Maybe. Of course there are two types of missiles. There is the heat seeking missile and the radar missile. For the heat seeking missile, it is guiding by the giant infrared source—the engine of the aircraft. It’s a least plausible that this space blanket could block the infrared light from the helicopter enough to confuse the missile. Possible.

If the missile is radar guided, then you can block the radar that comes out of the missile. This is the idea behind chaff (a real thing). It’s basically thin strips of metal that fall in the air behind an aircraft. The metal spreads out and can make a large radar reflection such that the missile thinks it’s a target.

Would a space blanket work? It’s possible. Really, you want metal—but this might work at least a little bit.

Splint and crutch from helicopter parts

Classic MacGyver stuff here. Nothing else to say.

Clean water from a tree

Can you get clean water from a tree? It seems like this is legitimate.

Dried wood as a desiccator 

This seems like a plausible way to dry out a wet phone. It would take some time though.

Swiss Army Knife as a signal mirror

MacGyver uses the blade on his knife to attempt to reflect sunlight towards a rescue helicopter. I’m pretty sure this would work.

As a side note—I’ve been thinking about the brightness of light reflected from a mirror (for another project). It seems like this is fairly difficult to calculate. Perhaps the best way is to just experimentally measure the brightness of reflected light. I guess I will do that at some point.

Tree sap and a battery to start a fire

If you want to use a battery to start a fire, you need an electrical conductor. This allows electric current to flow from one terminal of the battery to the other. It’s this electrical current that can make things get hot—hot enough to catch on fire.

So, the battery part is good. What about the tree sap? Yes—apparently, it is indeed a conductor. There you go, a fire.

Distance to lightning strikes

This is another reminder. I should write a post about how to estimate the distance to a storm. The short answer is that when lightning strikes it produces both light and sound. The light has a super high speed, but the sound is just fast (not super high fast). This means that the light gets to the observer first. By counting the time between the “flash” and the “boom” you can estimate the distance.

I thought I had already blogged about this—but I can’t find any such post.

Creating a homemade capacitor to store charge

Here is the short version: MacGyver makes a DIY electrical capacitor (a Leyden jar) to get some electrical charge from a lightning storm. He then uses this to power the satellite phone.

The Leyden jar is totally real. Honestly, I was surprised at how well this worked. Check it out.

Photo Google Photos

Also, I have a much longer blog post over at WIRED.

Finally, you can make something like this yourself.

Zipper as an wire

MacGyver uses the zipper to make a complete circuit from the battery to the sat phone. Would this work? It’s tough to say. In order to get an electric current, you need a closed circuit with a conductor the around the whole path.

Parts of a zipper are clearly conductors (the metal parts). However, if there are gaps between the metal, then it wouldn’t work. If you zip the zipper, there should be contact—at the very least, this is plausible.

MacGyver Season 1 Episode 10 Science Notes: Pliers

Boosting car speed.

Mac and Jack are trying to get away in a car chase (using a not very fast car). Of course MacGyver is going to give them a speed boost, but the first step is to remove the car hood. MacGyver makes some small explosives using chemicals and soda cans. Boom. No more hood.

The second step is to remove the air filter and pour some hydrogen peroxide into the intake. What would this do? This would give the gasoline more oxygen (from the hydrogen peroxide) to produce more combustion. Would this give a speed boost? Probably—at least a little bit.

Chemistry demo – elephant toothpaste.

This is real. Everyone does this—at least all the cool kids do it. You should be cool.

Liquid nitrogen in water

OK, liquid nitrogen is pretty awesome. It’s the same nitrogen that you find in the air, but in liquid form. That makes it very very cold (-196 C). When you add it to room temperature water, the liquid nitrogen boils. In this boiling process it produces a bunch of water vapor—stuff that looks like a cloud.

This was for a different episode, but here is my introduction to liquid nitrogen.

Remote listening device

MacGyver wants to hear what is going on inside a house. The obvious solution is to build a remote listening device. Here’s how it works.

A laser is aimed at a window such that the laser reflects off the window and back to a solar cell. Because people are inside the house speaking, this causes tiny vibrations in the window. The window vibrations vary the intensity of the reflected laser light. When this reflected laser light hits the solar cell, it causes variations in the voltage. Plugging this solar cell into an amplified speaker produces sound. Yes. This is real.

It’s pretty awesome—and you can do something like this yourself. All you need is an amplified speaker and a solar cell (don’t worry about the laser). Connect the solar cell to the audio input and you can hear variations in different light sources.

My favorite trick is to aim a TV remote at the solar cell. You can hear the variations in the IR light that produce different signals to change channels.

Here is a video.

Stop a car with paper

Yup, a version of the banana up the tail pipe from Beverly Hills Cop (great movie). See—everyone is a version of MacGyver at some point.

In this case, MacGyver sticks some paper up the tail pipe of a car. When the exhaust can’t escape, you can’t get internal combustion. Car stops.

Yaghi Antenna

Yes, you can build an antenna out of just about anything—including band instruments. It helps if they conduct electricity. I think this would work.

Technically it’s possible to find the location of a signal with just one antenna (well at least the direction). Just turn the antenna until you get the maximum signal. A better option is to use 2 or more antennas—but you have to work with what you have.

Over inflate tire

Yup. Boom.

Elephant toothpaste version 2

Bigger is better, right? It’s sort of funny.

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 12 Science notes: Fence + Suitcase + Americium-241

Toothpick in grenade

It’s not a super Mac-hack, but it works. The only thing MacGyver does is to put a toothpick in place a grenade pin. It only works for a little bit before the grenade explodes. However, the physics discussion is pretty good. Let’s go over some of the terms.

  • Tensile strength. This is essentially the maximum force a material can withstand when being pulled apart. Just imagine a rope—how hard can you pull on the rope before it breaks. That would be the ultimate tensile strength. Yes, wood has a pretty high tensile strength.
  • Compressive strength. How hard can you squeeze the thing before it fails? Something like concrete has a very high compressive strength, but not so much with tensile strength. Wood could have a good compressive strength if it’s wide and short. Long skinny boards of wood tend to buckle.
  • Sheer strength. This is the maximum force an object can withstand when two forces are pushing in opposite directions but not directly at each other. Think of scissors.

What is a dirty bomb?

This is another non-hack. However, I just want to describe the difference between a nuclear bomb and a dirty bomb. A nuclear bomb uses a nuclear reaction (usually started with conventional explosives) to make a massive boom.

The dirty bomb is NOT a nuclear explosion. Instead, it uses conventional explosives to spread radioactive material around. It’s dirty.

Electromagnet

MacGyver builds a strong electromagnet to move a bolt inside a locked door. Yes, this is possible. You would need a strong electromagnet—that means high electric current and thus thick wires. You also need a fairly beefy battery to get this much current.

Oh, one possible problem. If the bolt is ferromagnetic (steel) and so is the door, then it’s going to be difficult to get that bolt to move. However, if the door is aluminum or some type of non-ferromagnetic material then this would work.

Wall walk

There are two methods to get over the pressure sensitive floor (they end up not using this though). There is a wall-walking stilt method and a rolling sled method. Both have the contact point with the wall at an angle—this is needed in order to work (because of physics).

Let me just start with a setup that would only barely work. Here is a view of a person using completely horizontal stilts along with the forces on the person.

The first problem is that the stick the reaches across the hall would have to fit perfectly. The harder it is pushed against the wall, the greater the frictional force. And it is this upward frictional force that balances the weight pulling down.

The second problem is with these horizontal arms. When they attach to the person, there is no upward force. This would be like trying to hold a rope with a weight in the middle perfectly horizontal. It won’t work.

Here is a better option.

This setup fixes both of the problems. The sticks can be longer than the hallway (and not fit perfectly) and there is now an upward component from the wall that helps support the human.

Mercury Switch

What is a mercury switch and how can you build something similar? Here, I made a video for you.

Smartphone Radiation Detector

MacGyver uses some smartphones (as usual) to detect radiation from the dirty bomb. This is essentially real.

A smartphone camera has a sensor that is normally used to detect light. However, this same sensor can be set off by other types of radiation—like the stuff that is produced by radioactive stuff.

In order to actually detect this radiation, you need to block the light from getting to the camera—electric tape over the lens will do the trick.

But wait! There is a real project that uses normal human smartphones to detect cosmic radiation. Check it out—the CRAYIS Project. https://crayfis.io/

Rolling Tire Bomb

Yeah, mixing stuff and make explosions. The end.