Barack Obama challenged Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage to dispel an ancient myth. Photo / Supplied

Barack Obama challenged Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage to dispel an ancient myth. Photo / Supplied

There are many questions that occupy the mind of Barack Obama. Is there a lasting solution that will bring peace to the Middle East, will the US be able to enter into a new nuclear arms reduction deal with Russia, and is it possible to polish a turd?

Obviously the faecal matter might not be at the forefront of his mind but it's likely to be a question he has considered, because he is a fan of one of the most successful science programmes ever broadcast, MythBusters, and the "turd" idiom has been tested by the show in the past.

In November the President appeared in a special episode and challenged presenters Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage to create a death ray using mirrors and solar energy.

Legend has it that the weapon was used in 212BC by Greek mathematician and inventor Archimedes during the siege of Syracuse in Sicily to ignite the sails of Roman ships.

Obama appeared on the show to highlight his Administration's commitment to science in education and during his appearance he admitted he often watched the series with his daughters.

The presidential seal of approval is testament to just how influential MythBusters has become. It has spawned a genre of science-as-entertainment programmes and is credited with changing the way science is taught in some schools.

Now in its eighth year, the show, which is broadcast in New Zealand on Sky's Discovery Channel, rode on the crest of nerd-culture popularity and was one of the first science and entertainment crossover shows.

It has spawned copycats such as Brainiac and Bang Goes the Theory. It has been vital to the popular science movement in America and has also been credited with attracting a generation of young people to scientific study, which it presents as dynamic, exciting and fun. The often complex theories the show investigates are peppered with explosions, stunts and special effects.

The theme of MythBusters is simple. The two presenters use scientific methods to test the validity of rumours, myths, movie scenes, adages, internet videos and news stories, and to conclude whether the supposition chosen to be tested is true or false.

The subject matter is diverse and ranges from questions such as "Are elephants genuinely afraid of mice?" and "Can a human voice shatter a glass?" to "Is it possible to plunge your fingers in molten metal without being burned?" and "Will the pressure 100m underwater really squeeze a deep-sea diver's body into his helmet?"

Although the show is unashamedly entertaining, it is underpinned by sound scientific theory.
Savage and Hyneman dipped their hands in molten lead to demonstrate graphically the Leidenfrost effect, whereby a layer of cold water creates a temporary protective shield around an item being immersed in a liquid of a specific heat.

Executive producer Dan Tapster explains that scientific theory and method are intrinsic to the show.
"The scientific integrity of what we do is vital," he says. "Every episode has a logical scientific progression. The myth is our hypothesis, our plan, is our method, and within that method we test data and interpret that data to get a conclusion about our hypothesis.

"That logical scientific storytelling is always the same in every show."

The show's popularity is evident from the viewer interaction it elicits. It has more than three million Facebook followers and the Discovery Channel's message boards are full of debate about each set of conclusions.

Many of the myths tested are suggested by viewers and if fans disagree with results they can request that the subjects are retested and suggest method refinements.

The Archimedes death ray myth, which Obama challenged the show's makers to prove or disprove, has already been the subject of two previous shows.

As Tapster explains: "The President genuinely felt that we had messed up previous attempts. We first tested the myth in 2004 and used descriptions from history books to create a single huge mirror. It did not work.

"Viewers wrote in and suggested that we should have used hundreds of single mirrors, so we produced another show in collaboration with the engineering department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where we used lots of bronze mirrors placed on stands.

"Again it failed, but President Obama argued that the one thing ancient Greeks had in excess was manpower and that we should have used hundreds of people holding individual mirrors."

Because of the range of scientific theorems tested, MythBusters, which is made mainly in San Francisco and edited in Australia, calls on expertise from the scientific community.

In the case of one show which tested the myth that an empty bottle causes more damage when smashed over a head than a full one, a neurologist was consulted.

And as for Obama's possible conundrum? Yes, you can polish a turd using the ancient Japanese tradition of dorodango, which involves working water into ground dirt and forming a ball with your hands.

This sphere needs to dry and then the moulding/polishing process has to be continually repeated until a sheen appears on the ball.

* MythBusters screens on Sky's Discovery Channel at 8.30pm on Mondays