Obama challenges Mythbusters to debunk the Archimedes death ray

a demo of archimedes death ray using magnifying glass

President Obama will appear on a "Mythbusters" episode about the Archimedes death ray to promote STEM education programs for young people. Image: CC spacepleb/Flickr

President Obama’s “Mythbusters” appearance may seem like an ideal forum to debunk the Republican Pledge to America. Instead, Obama has challenged the Mythbusters to revisit the Archimedes death ray, a legend the Discovery Channel show busted in 2006. Obama’s “Mythbusters” appearance will air Dec. 8 as part of the president’s STEM education campaign to inspire young people to embrace math and science.

Obama to appear on ‘Mythbusters’

Obama on “Mythbusters” was announced at a White House science fair Monday. The White House Science Fair is a week of promotions for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, and the USA Science and Engineering Festival on the National Mall is the grand finale. The New York Times reports that in Obama’s “Mythbusters” appearance, the president will direct Mythbusters Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman to test the feasibility of the Archimedes death ray, a legend describing how Greek scientist Archimedes set an invading Roman fleet ablaze using mirrors to focus sunlight.“Mythbusters” tested the Archimedes death ray in 2006. Savage and Hyneman declared the myth “busted.”

The Archimedes death ray

Archimedes calculated pi and developed the principle of hydrostatics that explains why a steel ship floats, among other achievements. According to Wikipedia, Archimedes allegedly designed a “burning mirror” to incinerate ships as the Roman fleet invaded Syracuse in 214 BC. But the earliest accounts of the battle only mention Archimedes’ genius combined with the Syracusan ability to “hurl fire.” A Byzantine historian 800 years later started the tale of the Archimedes death ray. How Stuff Works reports that in 2005, M.I.T. students set fire to a 10-foot long, one-inch thick wooden model of a Roman ship using 127 one-foot square flat mirrors arranged in a parabola.

Mythbusters debunk the death ray

“Mythbusters” invited the M.I.T. students to replicate their demonstration of the Archimedes death ray in 2006. According to kwc.org, the students could only get smoke at 150 feet and flames at 75 feet. Archimedes would have had to focus morning sunlight. After all that planning and construction, the sun needed to be out. The death ray would need an instant effect because the Roman ships were moving. Plus sails, because of their light color, would have been very difficult to ignite.

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