Biology professor is ‘Mythbusters’ consultant.
An Indiana State University faculty member served as a consultant for the “Star Wars” themed season premiere of “Mythbusters,” which aired Jan. 4.
Producers of the popular Discovery Channel television program called on George Bakken, professor of biology, for help with a segment that tested whether Luke Skywalker’s life really could have been saved by sleeping inside a giant animal, as depicted in “The Empire Strikes Back.”
Bakken’s research focuses on how animals regulate their body temperature. Beyond Productions, the Australian company that produces “Mythbusters” contacted Bakken for help in determining what weather conditions to simulate for the test, and what type of animal fur would best simulate the fictional tauntaun, which Hans Solo’s character slices open to use its warm pelt to protect him from hypothermia.
They referred him to an online analysis that claimed Luke would have perished in what was claimed to be -60 temperatures, and asked what physical principles must apply “long ago and far away” to make the show plausible. Bakken responded that the properties of water must remain the same, and that provided the key to his analysis.
At first, the producers wanted to pour liquid nitrogen over a shipping container and put a giant Hollywood fan inside to make the wind. But, in examining stills and clips from the movie, Bakken concluded that the scene looked like a typical 0-degree F blizzard in the professor’s home town of Fargo, N.D. It could not possibly be -60 degrees F and still snow as shown in the blizzard scene. Air can hold virtually no water with which to make snow when it’s that cold. Further, Luke and Han had bare faces, but bare skin would freeze solid in less than a minute in the howling wind (and so would hosts Adam and Jamie’s faces in the shipping container). Thus, a frozen food locker was used instead.
They also asked about the tauntaun’s fur. Bakken said the fur appeared to be unshorn sheep wool. After studying available data dating back to 1950, he recommended the use of wool from Dall sheep, which “hang out in the most appalling winter conditions in Alaska mountains,” he said. Bakken observed Dall sheep in Denali National Park during a trip to Alaska last summer.
While “Mythbusters” producers initially suggested polar bear fur, Bakken said it is a common misconception that fur from polar bears provides better insulation from the elements than other species of bears.
“The hair (of polar bears) is rather coarse and stiff and provides little or no protection while swimming and only mediocre protection in air,” Bakken said. “(But) it sheds water very well when they climb out on the ice and shake, which is more important.”
The relevant parameters for determining insulation or heat conductance are the thickness of an animal’s fur, resistance to wind penetration and air movement in the pelt, Bakken said. The Dall sheep has thick fur with good protection from the cold per unit of thickness, he said.
The Mythbusters elaborate test also involved the use of foam to replicate blubber and fake organs kept at 99 degrees. Producers used a sophisticated mannequin as a stand-in for Skywalker and pumped liquid through the mannequin to simulate human blood flow. The mannequin’s body temperature dropped only slightly and co-host Jamie Hyneman thus pronounced the tauntaun-as-heated-sleeping-bag experiment “plausible.”