Barack Obama, entertainer-in-chief, appears on Mythbusters.

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Dec. 7 2010 10:01 PM

Obama on Mythbusters

The entertainer-in-chief helps make "science" fun.

Also in Slate, Daniel Sarewitz explains why it's a big problem that there are so few Republican scientists.

President Barack Obama records an episode of the Discovery Channel’s television show Mythbusters with co-hosts Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage. Click image to expand.
President Obama appeared on Mythbusters

The Bush administration got the country badly off track, television owners of all political stripes will undeniably agree. Rare for a cheerleader, George W. Bush resisted the role of the showman. Yes, as a candidate he turned up on a Saturday Night Live special, but at this point skipping SNL is like skipping New Hampshire, and anyway we're also talking here about sensibility. Bush for the most part failed as an entertainer-in-chief. This is not blameworthy, but it is noteworthy. This is America, pal, and our business is show business. With Barack Obama at the helm, the republic is properly charting the course predicted by the likes of Tocqueville and McLuhan and previously piloted by Clinton ("Rock & Roll President") and Reagan (winner in 1957 of a Golden Globe in for "Hollywood Citizenship"). Wednesday night, four years after first flirting with the Monday Night Football audience, 25 months after his triumph over fellow Army Wives enthusiast John McCain in the general election, six weeks after his turn on The Daily Show, Obama will pop up on Mythbusters, an educational-ish show airing on the Discovery Channel. His appearance is brief, warm, and not unpresidential. He does a fine job of improvising a protocol for interfacing with a show that poses such physics problems as "Can a motorcycle pull a tablecloth out from under a setting for a banquet?" and "Can fireworks really launch a person over a lake?" The small trick is that his cordiality is very slightly self-consciously stilted. Welcoming into the White House a show that makes "science" "fun" ("see if a BBQ propane tank can heat up enough in a fire to launch through a garage roof"), he puts his formality in quotation marks. He and the Mythbusters team are enacting a storytime theatrical for the benefit of our nation's youth. It happens that Obama is appearing on the show the day after the release of the latest Pisa study by the OECD, that triennial reaffirmation of the fact that American teenagers are, globally speaking, C students at math and science. "Nothing's more important to our country's future than getting young people engaged with math and science," this TV president tells these TV personalities. He and his daughters therefore approve of the show's patented way of testing urban legends, folkloric tidbits, and pop-culture conveniences. "You blow things up, which is always cool," he adds. The implicit promise is that the show—a heaping spoonful of sugar—is worth the president's time because there are at least trace amounts of medicine in it.

Obama tasks the Mythbusters to take a stab, their second, at reconstructing Archimedes' heat ray, supposedly an array of bronze shields or perhaps mirrors that, reflecting and concentrating sunlight, incinerated approaching ships during the Siege of Syracuse. Why did the White House and Discovery pick this myth to re-bust? Is there a metaphor about national security in there? A parable of collectivism? Is this the light of the unum out of the pluribus? Does the Pentagon think this technology might have practical applications?

Such questions do not trouble the lively minds of our likable hosts, the goatee'd duo of Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, special-effects experts by training. Adam, lightly manic, closely resembles Timothy Busfield. Jamie, wry and quietly jovial, closely resembles a walrus, I am not the first person to observe. It bears mentioning, however, that he specifically and precisely resembles the Walrus who consorts with the Carpenter, as rendered by John Tenniel. Back at their Bay Area headquarters, Adam and Jamie toy with scale models and fabricate an invading vessel and make test runs and ultimately get 500 local schoolkids in on the action. The narrator makes cute dorky puns. The audience does not necessarily learn anything about optics or the scientific method, but I found it pleasant to reintroduce my brain to some trivia about antiquity, and I'm certain beyond all doubt about one matter of thermodynamics: Things only catch fire when hot.

A secondary storyline on this episode finds the Mythbusters' JV team attempting to re-create a moment in Hellboy in which a Jeep Cherokee, struck on the hood by a superhero's fist, flips end over end. On the thin pretense of studying fulcrums and such—it's mentioned, almost as an afterthought, that momentum equals mass times velocity—they colorfully destroy a number of SUVs, which is always cool. Mythbusters does not quite qualify as educational television, but unlike a strong plurality of TV programming, it does not actively dull the wits. And I must observe that Americans teenagers are still No. 1 in the world at totaling Jeep Cherokees.

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Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

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