Outrageous Experiments

Ben’s Exit Interview

posted: 01/14/17
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Paint Explosion: Elimination

College student and SpaceX intern Ben Nowack was the youngest of the MythBusters: The Search candidates, and the second person to go home. While his build skills were impressive, his ability to communicate was considered a bit lacking for a MythBuster, so the Painting With Explosives myth was Ben's last episode. We talked to Ben about what went right and what could have gone better during his experience.

  1. You were the force behind the design of the small-scale painting with explosives rig. What do you feel went right for you?

The small scale rig didn't really work. Primarily due to the fact that plastic bags don't scale. The pressure wave from the explosion wasn't strong enough to rip the plastic bags. The gasses essentially had enough time to go around the bags, through the much weaker tape seams. This led to rather worrying small-scale test results, which we (with our fingers crossed) decided to ignore and continue on with the much larger C4.

We did learn a few things:

  • The wire screen didn't disperse the paint much, so we could omit that.
  • The idea of bringing the expansion to the edge seemed to work, which is most of our painting mechanism! That's good!
  • The egg crate doesn't shatter as we had hoped (although this might actually have worked better than our final design if we had tried it with C4).
  • Any gaps in our plastic bags might dampen the shockwave, so we had to be thorough while loading the bags in full scale.

Also, we learned that an airspace between explosion and paint really dampens the shockwave. More than we expected.

  1. Of the three teams, the red team got the most paint on the walls ... except that the explosion also knocked down one of those walls. What went wrong?

The hamburger man was designed to paint the walls; we weren't concerned about shrapnel. We figured shrapnel didn't matter. We didn't plan on holding in the explosion, merely shaping the blast and bringing the majority of that expansion out farther and inside the paint. It wouldn't have required much modification to ensure the rig didn't blow apart, but we wanted to keep the C4 ball shaped in the center and didn't want too many supports screwing up our pressure fronts.

Not certain we achieved that to the extent we were hoping for. I feel that if we had more C4 tests we could get some better coverage with a few tweaks ... After the small-scale bags remained totally intact through the explosions, we had significant concerns about the explosion's ripping force being lost through air, and brought the top and bottom closer. If we had left them as wide as originally planned, we would have likely had some better coverage and less wall-knocking-down force, along with more paint flying around.

  1. What were your thoughts when you saw that wall come tumbling down?
Yes! The shockwave wasn't attenuated by the air between the C4 and the paint! I see RED!!

That was my biggest concern going into this test; we really weren't sure how much those bags would get ripped up by the C4. Turns out they shredded; perfect! The rig blew up! Who cares?! There's paint in the wall! Is that enough? I hope so ...

Guess we'll see!

  1. If you could change anything about this episode, what would it be?

I would have liked to spend a few days in the bomb range with multiple tests with the actual C4 charge. The small-scale testing had too many intrinsic parameters that were too different from the properties of C4. Multiple tests with the C4 as we perfected the design of our rig would have yielded better results. It would have been pricier, but we would have painted the walls more thoroughly in the end, or realized that we actually can't get much better than we did.

For a month after that day I was thinking about ALL the stuff we should have done a little differently, and it would have been fun to see how far we could push it. I'd really have liked to see a test with our original paint-in-egg-crate design, in conjunction with computer modeled pressure wave simulations to optimize the top and bottom plates.

  1. How is being a MythBuster harder than it looked to you as a viewer?

Having never been on someone else's show, I had a tough time figuring out what they wanted at a given time. Being a contestant, we were kept in the dark on a lot, so it was difficult to judge what to say when. I was always sorta surprised with the questions and didn't have as much time to think through everything, so I couldn't exactly answer them as well as I'd have liked to. I'm not as good at coming up with snappy one liners with a film crew watching.

I probably focused on getting the projects done a little too much. Explaining things in a TV-friendly way proved difficult for me, too, as typically I talk fast and assume people know everything. It was fun to go for it and figure it out, but I did feel like I could have used more practice. The MythBusters clearly had a good understanding of what their audience would find interesting and could talk about it without going over everyone's heads or boring all the experts. They seemed to have enough novel, different ideas to keep everyone intrigued.

  1. How is being a MythBuster easier than it looked to you as a viewer?

The building came very naturally. It's really fun stuff to make and someone else pays for all of it! That part was great! You'd say "I need this tube... " and the crew would buy it and get it delivered the next day, or run out right then and pick it up!

I enjoyed the projects and everything sort of worked out perfectly. I had no problem figuring out what needed to be done, what I would be best at and jumping right in to try and get it done, which is about as good as you can ask for. Sometimes we didn't have all the necessary parts or my teammates had different ideas, but it never felt like much slowed down. It was pretty easy to adapt; we had a fair amount of parts on hand and big stores close by. If that didn't cut it, the crew had a ton of connections to draw from.

The builds were pretty straightforward, very similar to what I would be doing if I had a bit more more stuff to play with, so I was gung-ho to go for whatever. The build pace was pretty much spot-on and just very enjoyable!

  1. Is there anything you want viewers to know about you or this experience that they may not get from watching the show?

I'm very used to building things, whether it's machining, welding, fine or large-scale woodworking, metal casting, composites, designing circuits, high-voltage equipment, coding, CAD, radio frequency gear, camera systems, thermoforming, high-vacuum equipment, cryogenic equipment ... and I'm ready to try anything new. If I come up with a project and need to learn some obscure skill for it, I'll learn the skill or make some random tool just for it. I just do what it takes to get the project done.

I taught myself pretty much everything I know from watching years' worth of YouTube videos and reading online resources. If I come across something and I don't know how it works I'll look into it and try to figure out how it works, why they did that and how they make it. It's pretty easy to build up a good base, and after a while you can just build almost whatever you need.

I'm pretty outdoorsy too. Sometimes I'll go on a 40-mile run, go on weeklong solo winter hikes in the mountains, speed run up mountains or just walk for two days straight without sleeping. I train every day, and just enjoy progressing through things.

I'm not really gifted at much, but definitely have no problem fully committing to what I arbitrarily decide I want to do.

  1. What's next for you?

I'm still in college, so for sure more classes until I can get that nonsense out of the way. Over Christmas break I started working on a bunch of projects again and it was great! I'm going back to SpaceX this summer, hopefully after a trip to Denali. I want to put this time-lapse camera system I made up there and get a three-year or so time lapse of the glaciers (after summiting).

I like to keep myself busy, and the more I do the more I can do, so my projects get more fun. I try to have more fun too; I'm really getting into paragliding lately. It would be cool to link up a bunch of mountains, paragliding between and setting a fast time across a really big distance. Like X-alps but around my home range, the White Mountains. I'm writing this on my phone on an ice climbing trip in New Hampshire.

  1. What was it like meeting Adam Savage?

It was pretty cool. I like Adam a lot; he has built a lot of very cool stuff and is very entertaining. It's one of those things that doesn't really feel real when you remember it. I felt like such a fanboy; he seemed fully awesome. Afterward I was like, "I'm competing to be the next him!!? How did this happen?!"

  1. Did you watch MythBusters? What was your favorite episode?

I watched a lot of MythBusters as a kid. I've seen every episode at least once, and some quite a few times. I really did grow up with it; I think from about age 10? It was for the builds, always for the builds. I think my favorite was the giant whirlpool simulator. I'm not sure why, as they have done harder stuff, but that's always the first one I remember. Probably because it's so big, worked so well and seemed so easy to figure out logistically with the connections they have. Again, I'm not sure why that makes me feel like it's the best, but it just has that spark.

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