On Wednesday the news feeds and Twitter were all aflutter about the Mythbuster team’s wild cannonball. Seems a test firing went awry during a shoot, and a 30-pound cannonball traveling 1,000 feet per second escaped the test site, struck a house 700 yards away, and continued straight through, coming to rest in a parked minivan. No one was injured in the incident, luckily. I’ve read many of the accounts which make it sound like the Mythbuster team were recklessly shooting cannons into an unprotected California neighborhood. Based on everything that I have read, it was a complete accident that no one could have predicted.
No, the Mythbusters weren’t testing the myth of being able to shoot a cannon ball more than two miles and see if it can punch through the side of a house. They were testing a myth to see if objects other than a cannon ball could be shot out of a cannon. I’m having visions of Adam and Jamie dressed as pirates planning on sticking cutlery into the cannon and lighting the fuse, a la Pirates of the Caribbean. Tory Belleci, Kari Byron and Grant Imahara had assembled at a bomb disposal site in Dublin, CA, along with a safety supervisor from the Alameda police department. This is a location they have used more then 50 times for this kind of shoot. The idea was to shoot the softball- to cantaloupe-sized projectile where it would hit a series of barriers to help it slow down before it reached the ground. On the third firing of this cannon, the cannon ball missed a set of water barrels, crashed straight through a concrete wall, took a bad bounce on a safety berm and bounced off into the local neighborhood. Normally the size of the range and the barriers that had been put in place would easily be enough to slow that size projectile. This time, they didn’t.
What many people don’t understand is that while performing science, accidents can and do happen.
[To read more of astrophysicist Helene McLaughlin’s explanation of projectile motion — and how a slight miscalculation can have big consequences — visit GeekMom!]