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Mythbusters' most recent episode was a Breaking Bad special. Mythbusters so rarely does chemistry--I can think of an episode where they tried to blow up a tub with sodium, and there's the Mentos/Coca-Cola thing, but really, 90% of their myths are classical physics (stuff go boom!) and the other 10% are behavioral. So I appreciated seeing the science of my heart.

But I also realized, watching it, that I have a real visceral fear of the chemicals they were using. The first myth was about hydrofluoric acid. Those of you who know me know I got a chemical burn from hydrofluoric acid in college. I talk about it in a flip way, and there were many reasons I left chemistry, but it's hard to express just how disturbing this experience was. First--I didn't even notice anything had happened until the next morning. It was only on thinking back that I remembered a single drop had fallen up my sleeve--I had been wearing a lab coat and gloves, but that wasn't enough. I won't go into details of what this actually did--and I don't have a scar, so it was relatively minor overall--but I kept an enormous bandage on it in part because I could not bear the thought that something so grotesque was part of my body.

That was one drop. And I was lucky--one drop of some other things would have killed me. We were working with an experimental compound whose toxic qualities were unknown. And I worked in one lab that had mercuric fluoride just sitting on a shelf.

So when they do a myth with 26 gallons of concentrated sulfuric acid--acid is scary, scary stuff. It doesn't come through on the small screen, the smell of that much acid. Just diluting acid is exothermic, which can cause it to bubble and splash. (That's why it's AAA--Always Add Acid.) If you work in chemistry, even if your experiments aren't on strong acids, you will have to handle them, since an acid bath is how you clean glassware.

The thing that scares me about the chemicals they were using is that, unlike most of what they experiment with, once the experiment is over, things are not safe. If you crash two trucks, once they're at rest, they're perfectly safe. You blow up a water heater, once it has exploded--safe. You dissolve a pig in sulfuric acid, that's still toxic. Blow up fulminated mercury? Guess what. You've still got mercury fumes and a fine coating of it over every surface. I hope they used more safety measures than they showed, cause man, these are really not things you can mess around with as a dilettante.

One of the reasons I left chemistry is because I knew if I stuck around, I'd more than likely blow something up or give myself another chemical burn. If you work with extremely dangerous materials, even if you exercise caution, you get acclimated to it because that's just what humans do. And I never, ever wanted to get acclimated to something that could do to my arm what a single drop did. This episode just reminded me why.
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I've been slowly working my way through old Mythbusters eps on iTunes. I'd already watched all the collections and lots of reruns, but there are a bunch of episodes that were never released in collections and are never aired.

Now that I see them, I know why. Because they are ENORMOUS FAILURES. You know "Lead Balloon," which they re-air all the time and Adam still cites as his favorite Mythbuster moment? They had previously done a similar build, "Helium Raft," that failed spectacularly. I just watched an episode, "22,000 Feet," that starts out with Adam saying, "this is the biggest Mythbuster build ever!" And since I'd never seen the episode before, I knew it was going to go tits up. And boy, yeah, it did.

I kind of love these eps, though. Any episode where someone yells, "Holy shit! RUN!!!" is one of my favorites. Comparing the early seasons to the current, it's not even the same show. In early seasons, they're always referencing time constraints and budget. A huge amount of screen time is spent on them making ballistics gel. Almost every episode, they have to mock up a wind tunnel or a g-force meter cause they can't afford a real one.

Now, they have access to all of that stuff. I just watched an episode ("Hypermiling") where Grant had a trunk full of high-tech equipment to take readings. Compare this to the first season episode where they determined if adding sugar to an engine did anything to it by...listening to it.

The better equipment means better science...but a lot of the fun of watching Mythbusters for me was watching them come up with ingenious solutions to difficult problems. Now that they have a ton of resources, you see less of that.

Also, re the last episode, "Duct Tape Canyon"--I hate this genre of episode. They're turning the show into a survival show. That wasn't science, and science is what I'm here for. Remember how they used to have, "Warning: Science Content" labels? When was the last time they've even used that?


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