A few years ago I started finding sticks around the yard covered with strange messages that looked like they had been seared right into the wood. It turned out that the unknown words were names sacred to the world of Bionicles
– and that one of his friends had taught my son how to set fire to things with a magnifying glass.
After laying down some parameters (I grew suspicious when he said that something smelled "like burning ants") I agreed to let him experiment, carefully, with his new-found mode of expression. I even incorporated his message sticks into an article on solar-powered crafts.
And in the course of researching that article, I found a fascinating experiment performed by the Mythbusters, those guys on the Discovery Channel who try to prove or disprove urban legends and other popular folklore. In 2004, Jamie and Adam reflected on one of the world’s oldest enduring tales — did the Greek scientist Archimedes set fire to a Roman fleet of ships using only mirrors and sunlight? The duo claimed to have disproved the myth, but an engineering class at MIT decided to give it a try themselves. Their successful attempt to set a two-dimensional model of a boat aflame led to an invitation to recreate the experiment with the Mythbusters themselves. This new try resulted in some charring and smoldering but not much of a conflagration.
Now they’re at it again. And you can help! Makezine’s blog reports that the show is looking for 300 volunteers to man the mirrors on a third attempt at the Archimedes Death Ray. The experiment take place in September in the San Francisco area. So if you’re a fan of the show (which has been called the biggest booster for science on television) and don’t mind standing around for a day in the hot sun, give them a ring.
Can’t make it? Try these links with your kids (caution advised in trying them out at home, though):
- A giant solar furnace in France
- The original Solar Death Ray
- Ant City (cruel but fun, and not harmful to real living creatures)