Are you sick of brainless, insipid, hackneyed, and utterly stupid TV shows? (I’m not, but some of you might be.) If you are, then direct your eyes and DVRs to a new show on Discovery Channel called The Big Brain Theory. The premise of the show sounds like typical reality fare: a set of contestants are competing to win a job in some organization. But this show isn’t typical at all – it is, in a word, amazing.
Contestants on The Big Brain Theory have to use real science to tackle truly difficult tasks. In last week’s premiere episode, teams watched a demonstration in which two small pickup trucks were crashed head-on at 35 mph. In the bed of each truck was a wooden box that exploded in the collision. The host explained that the crash generated 40g of force on the 160lb package, which was rigged to explode if subjected to 25g or more. The task: design a mechanism that will ensure that the package experiences less than 25g in an identical crash.
The ten contestants are a diverse and brainy bunch. They’re a mix of mechanical engineers, rocket scientist, robot makers, and product designers. One thing that I particularly like is that whenever a contestant is on camera you also see their name, specialty, and IQ score. This raised the quality of our living room kibitzing to “Hey 125, you should listen to 132 – he knows what he’s talking about,” and “Are you kidding me? You’re a 142, and you can’t manage a team of four people – or drill a hole in a steel support beam?”
After getting their challenge, the contestants, working alone, come up with their own solutions. Their approaches are then rated by the judges: Mark Fuller, CEO of WET (the engineering firm behind Bellagio Fountains in Las Vegas) and Dr. Christine Gulbranson, CEO of energy/nano firm Christalis LLC. The designers of the top two solutions become team leaders and select their worker bees from the remaining contestants.
Trying to lead a bunch of geniuses is no small task – even if you’re a genius yourself, as the first episode showed. The teams have a couple of days to build their solutions on limited budgets, with limited opportunities to test their design. Plus they all think they’re the smartest person in the room. And in most rooms, they would be correct. There are a few who are insufferable, but probably not a higher jerk:good guy ratio than you’d find in the general population.
It’s a bit like the old UK series Junkyard Wars, but with more science and way fewer beards. The host is Kal Penn (Kumar from the Harold & Kumar movies), who sounds like he knows what he’s talking about when it comes to mechanics and science. This show is a near-perfect fit for the high-tech audience, and I heartily recommend it. (I realize that saying this is a mistake; it will solicit hundreds of El Reg reader comments telling me the show sucks, and I suck; but I’ll man up and stand by my statement. Just give the show a shot before telling me it blows.)