On Wednesday, Barack Obama, the president of the United States, will appear on "Mythbusters," the long-running Discovery Channel series that tests the truth of common wisdom, received notions, popular legends and stuff you see in the movies. On a more basic level, it is a show about building and blowing things up, and that, as the president himself will say here, "is always cool."
Obama has been criticized at times for the seeming alacrity with which he will go on television, any old television, but his trip to a comical basic-cable series is not without presidential precedent. George W. Bush caught a four-pound bass on the Outdoor Life Network's "Fishing With Roland Martin" and appeared, via tape, on the NBC game show "Deal or No Deal" to wish a decorated soldier luck and knock out a couple of one-liners. ("I'm thrilled to be on 'Deal or No Deal' with you tonight. Come to think of it, I'm thrilled to be anywhere with high ratings these days.") Gerald Ford beamed in to "Saturday Night Live" to demonstrate that he could take, and make, a joke. Bill Clinton, who has just filmed a cameo for, jeepers, " The Hangover 2," went on MTV to reveal the nature of his undershorts — not all he said, but all that anyone recalls.
And Obama, who proclaims himself a "big fan" of "Mythbusters," is, after all, a TV baby: In his 1995 memoir "Dreams From My Father," he recalls watching cartoons and sitcom reruns in the afternoon after school, watching more TV during dinner, and petitioning to stay up late to watch more. Arguments against overexposure or the wrong sort of exposure notwithstanding, he is clearly a person who does not fear the medium and sees nothing demeaning to his office in using it to get a message through. It's where the people are.
The people he has in mind at this moment, he tells Mythbusters in Chief Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman are "young people," and the mission is to get them "engaged in math and science," for their own good and yours. But even when "Mythbusters" does not seem to be about science — when it asks "Can you teach an old dog new tricks?" (you can) or takes a look at the old simile "like a bull in a china shop" (your dishes are safe) — it employs the scientific method: a useful, undervalued remedy for a world that feels increasingly to run on bootless assertions, mad slogans and the convenient rewriting of facts.
Real physics are employed Wednesday, for Obama's "viewer's challenge," to further test the feasibility of Archimedes' legendary solar ray, in which the reflected power of the sun was supposedly used to set Roman ships ablaze during the Siege of Syracuse — a weapon the Mythbusters had attempted twice to re-create without success.
"Well, that is a classic," Hyneman says.
"That is a classic," POTUS agrees, "and I'm hoping that we can take one more crack at it."
The president has had an idea about adding "manpower" to the experiment, or gets to pretend that he has. This will eventually take the shape of 500 teenagers pointing 500 mirrors at a boat in San Francisco Bay. Meanwhile, the show's B team will try to discover whether, as in a scene from the movie "Hellboy," it is possible to flip an SUV tail over headlights by punching it in the nose. This will also require the use of actual math and physics, but just as important, it will involve dropping a giant metal fist from a great height onto the hood of a moving car.
Without saying too much about what happens in either attempt, or whether the Pentagon will be ordering millions of mirrors in the next defense budget, it is the normal business of the show to disprove more than it confirms. "'Mythbusters' is about experimentation, not demonstration," Hyneman says. "When we experiment, when we try things and fail, we start to ask why, and that's what's important."
"I do know that science requires a lot of trial and error," Obama says. Trial and error is, of course, not what people want from the people we elect to save us — what we want from them, actually, is magic. But it is the only way to bust a myth.