May 4, 2007

In the spirit of Mythbusters, a small group of Kettering students spawned Thinkbusters and used a samurai sword, Mentos and liquid nitrogen to unravel some scientific mysteries.

Proving or disproving popularly held beliefs about science and technology can be a tricky business. Sometimes involving liquid nitrogen, ping pong balls and samurai swords. But in the name of scientific clarification a group of Kettering students were willing to bust a myth.

It all started when Tom Beyer and Joseph Gallagher launched an informal group called "Think" (because they thought it was a catchy sounding name - not an acronym for anything) to explore intellectual ideas for fun.

Think itself oversaw two separate groups: The Society of Opinionated Students (SOS) where group conversations ran the gamut from Einstein's Theory of Relativity to toaster strudel vs. pop tarts, and the Society of Technological Students (STS) which aimed to further new technical know-how among students.

One of the first projects of STS was Thinkbusters, with student Colin Odneal, of Rossford, Ohio, in charge. Each week members of STS would attempt to debunk myths that they had researched much like the popular Discovery Channel show "Mythbusters." They once tried to cook eggs with cell phones (not a screaming success).

Their efforts caught the attention of Kettering's Marketing director, who suggested that the group take ideas from incoming freshmen on popular technological myths and then bust them or prove them to be true.

"We received a total of about 20 to 30 suggestions," said Odneal, "some were extremely easy or so far out of whack we'd need multiple Ph.D.s and millions of research dollars to attempt them."

One such suggestion was to verify or validate the theory of relativity. "One freshman wanted us to take planes and fly around the world to prove or disprove it (relativity)," Odneal said. Another one that would be tough to prove or disprove in a short amount of time was "is globalization good?" One of the simpler suggestions asked "can you eat six saltines in a minute without water?"

Beyer, of Zeeland, Mich., and Odneal sorted through the do-able ideas and picked three of the freshman suggestions, designing all the experiments themselves. To record their process and maybe even entice potential students, they were given a video camera to record the testing.

The result is part reality show and part scientific-ish documentary. "The guy who edited the video made us look really funny," said Odneal. Both he and Beyer admitted their original delivery was relatively deadpan. "We ad-libbed every line, nothing was scripted," they said.

The three suggestions they chose included: "Will other types of candy geyser just like Mentos when put in soda?" submitted by Alanna Grippin of Akron, Ohio.

"Do cryogenically treated golf balls (or tennis, or racquet) bounce higher or fly farther than untreated or heated golf balls?" submitted by Andrea Matuska, of Rochester Hills, Mich.

"Can a samurai sword shred clothes and paper as seen in countless movies?" submitted by Jeraldo Villarosa, of Rochester, Mich.

To explore the Mentos suggestion, Beyer and Odneal tested 10 types of candy; Mentos as the control, Pixie Sticks, Altoids, mint Lifesavers, Party Mints and Tic Tacs. They built a height scale and shot the experiments off in front of it to show how high, if at all, the candy caused the soda pop to geyser.

They found that yes, other candy does work like Mentos, but the effect is not as strong. "Nothing comes close," said Beyer and Odneal, "except Pixie Sticks, but that gives you a delayed reaction." In Mythbusters fashion, this pop culture myth was CONFIRMED.

For the second question, related to whether cryogenically treated balls fly farther or faster than those that are heated, the pair compared ping pong, tennis, racquet, super balls and golf balls.

After sacrificing a door for the hinges to make a quick release to drop all the balls at the same time, they put one of each in: liquid nitrogen, in a freezer for 24 hours, in liquid nitrogen and then re-warmed to room temperature, one was kept at room temperature as a control and one was heated in a 200 degree oven.

They lined up balls of the same type (i.e. golf balls) from coldest to hottest and then dropped them. So, only treated and untreated samples of the same material were tested against one another.

They tested five types and found that hotter equals higher bounce, and colder means less bounce. "Essentially, we busted this suggestion," said Odneal, "because the hotter it was the higher the ball bounced. This myth was BUSTED.

Their last round of testing required a little extra help. The inquiry as to "whether or not a samurai can cut your clothes cleanly with a sword during a battle?" required someone with a samurai sword who knew how to use it.

They called the test "Samurai Tailor," and found Craig Finney, from Phi Gamma Delta (FIJI) Fraternity, who takes swordsmanship classes. "We got him to cut shirts," said Odneal, "at first it did not work well because the fabric would move. When we held it taut the sword would cut. "The sword we had was not as sharp as 'real' swords, so we surmised a trained samurai could probably cut your clothes," said Odneal. This myth was determined PLAUSIBLE.

Accomplished on one Saturday afternoon in about three hours, the biggest challenge for the project was securing the liquid nitrogen. "That was the hardest thing," said Beyer, "getting the liquid nitrogen. I had to go to a welding supply store that was a 30-minute drive from campus. The Physics Department loaned us the nitrogen container so we could transport it," he added.

After all the myths Beyer and Odneal went to a classroom and did the confirmed, busted or plausible ratings like the Mythbusters television show. "We had our Thinkbuster interns explain why it did or didn't work," said Beyer. The "interns" were Jacob Howarth, of Flushing, Mich., and Brian Dixon, of Zeeland, Mich., who helped out with the Thinkbuster process.

Done busting popular myths for now, Beyer and Odneal have continued with SOS. Still informal (not a formalized campus student group), SOS meets every Thursday at 8 p.m. in Room 3-102 of the Academic Building, to talk about everything from movie reviews to Facebook, sports vs. video games, and whether there is or is not absolute truth. "About a dozen individuals show up on any given night, with a core group of about six or so who are there every time," said Odneal.

What they'll come up with next is anybody's guess.

Written by Dawn Hibbard
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