Friday, 31 January 2014

Myth Busters Busted

Tonight I watched an episode of the popular TV show "Myth Busters" .... this episode related to the attempt of the two American presenters, at the request of President Obama, to debunk or prove Archimedes "Death Ray", which he supposedly used to sink Roman warships via a concentrated beam of light reflected from mirrored bronze or metal shields, to create a single hot spot and set the ships on fire.

The details of the arrangement used are sketchy, so attempts to recreate it, are often very different ...... disappointingly, the two presenters, tried and failed to generate the heat required to start a fire and concluded that the myth was 'busted'.

But I thought that I had seen this same event recreated successfully in the past by various TV 'scientists' on varying degrees of size scale model. In particular, I noted that like most of the researchers they had fallen into trap of trying to set fire to wet wood on a ship .... ignoring the obvious method of all 'fire-ships', which was to set fire to the sails and masts .... which are in the main very dry, especially in the Mediterranean.

In point of fact I had also read that a group of MIT students had managed it, and so had a Greek scientist .... So off I went on to the web to research this and lo and behold ....... there was an article here, on both the MIT students and the Greek guy. However it was slow and cumbersome, and its been suggested that the mirrors were in fact a diversionary tactic which dazzled the Roman sailors.

There were also a number of videos of the experiment working to some degree or other ....

And this bunch of students holding mirrors ...

And Adam Hart-Davis - at about 21 minutes into this episode of 'What the Ancients Did For Us: (The Greeks)', demonstrates a mirror attack on a ship model ....

and finally this one .... where a guy ingeniously used a long strip of mirrored metal, which could be flexed to give a focus point for the light of great variability, which meant focus could be kept on a moving target.  

So I am not convinced that the Myth Busters team were actually right, especially as their model was rather a clumsy attempt to recreate the device described by the records ..... it certainly didn't show the ingenuity of some of these other attempts.

Archimedes after all was a genius, the two presenters rather obviously aren't.


  1. I saw that show and your right 'geniuses they ain't'.

    1. Yup! Thanks for the comment.

    2. The Mythbusters are scientific in their approach and their remit was, correct me if I'm wrong, to test whether the task was acheivable using the historical specifications. We could credit people throughout the ages with the ability to generate electricity or fly, the question is : did they actually do it with the knowledge and materials available to them at the time?

    3. Not arguing that they don't try, but rather but that they don't try very inventively .... the 2nd century AD author Lucian was the first to describe the weapon, a whole 400 yrs after the Siege of Syracuse (c. 214–212 BC), and therefore the description (even if based upon contemporary sources available to him but lost to us), are his non scientific interpretation of the reports from Roman sailors at the time.

      The clips in the post all meet the basic requirement of polished metal, arranged in some manner that focuses all the reflected light on one spot in such away as to induce a flame to ignite. The Adam-Hart Davies effort above was also an attempt to interpret the historical data correctly and recreate the event as described, and was fairly successful. The other attempts were more experimental, but again worked to some degree or other ... Archimedes would have experimented with his weapon to get the wanted result, and therefore is likely to have had some sort of working model of his 'Heat Ray' when the Romans arrived.

      As for what they had available at the time, well all they needed was some highly polished metal, arranged in a manner that could be adjusted to create one point of focus ... given what we know the Romans and Greeks had already achieved with everything from heavy and military engineering to fine tools (including the earliest computing devices e.g. the 'Antikythera' mechanism), they were more than capable of making anything shown in the film clips ... and perhaps more importantly using it correctly to set fire to the dry sails, and not the wet wood of Triremes.

      So to my mind, the Mythbusters attempt was a failure because their initial model was poor.

    4. I take your word for that particular episode as I haven't seen it. Of the episodes that I have seen, although, as stated, the Mythbusters are not terribly inventive (that's not their job), they are diligent and they make great efforts to faithfully recreate the original conditions of the event being tested. That's not counting the times that they descend into self-indulgent pyrotechnics.

    5. Vroomfondel - all the relevant episodes are on the You Tube links in the article including both the 'Mythbusters' and the 'What the Ancients Did For Us' episodes: ... you ought to know me better! I wouldn't discuss this sort of thing without providing the evidence on the post.

    6. The TV show, 'The Reinventors' demonstrated a full cremation - well scaled down using Archimedes mirrors ... It worked.

    7. Personally I am convinced that by some method Archimedes managed to burn Roman warships (probably the sails), by use of mirrored concentrated heat .... the fact that TV presenters haven't managed it is just that they are just that.


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