“Pure Genius”—Protecting a Black Box in a Plane Crash… or Truck Collision

Bobby Miller

The first episode, original airdate May 1, opens with host Kal Penn explaining the scope of the series. He then tells the contestants to watch a little show as two white pickup trucks drive in traveling at 35 mph, about 56.3 kph. They collide head-on, causing boxes of explosives in the truck beds to explode.

Penn explains that the explosives in the trucks were designed to detonate if their gravitational force, or G-force, exceeds 25 G’s. WiseGeek.org defines g-force as “either the force of gravity on a particular celestial body or the force of acceleration anywhere.” It goes on to explain that “it is measured in G’s, where one G equals the force of gravity at the Earth’s surface, 9.8 meters per second, per second.”

Traveling at 35 mph unsecured, the box in each truck had a G-force of roughly 40 G’s. In just a few days, two other trucks will collide with one another the same way, only this time each team will get to work with one truck. It is up to the contestants to devise a means of preventing the box in their team’s truck from exploding.

Nvate Big Brain Theory Pure Genius by Discovery Channel, innovation Mark Fuller, WET

Credit: Discovery Channel

This begins the Blueprint Challenge, where each contestant individually calculates and designs a plan for keeping the box’s G-force under 25 G’s. According to Penn, this challenge has a real-world application. Specifically, the engineers’ designs could help protect a black box recorder from being destroyed in an airplane crash.

The judges believe that every contestant has come up with creative ideas, but they name Joe Caravella the winner. He is the only one who nailed the math by calculating the minimum distance necessary for the box to travel if it is to stay below 25 G’s. The runner-up is Amy Elliott, who came up with a rotating arm design the judges found clever. One-by-one, Elliott and Caravella pick their teammates, which is mostly guesswork since they do not know one another yet.

This week, the red team consists of Elliott, Corey Fleischer, Dan Moyers, Andrew Stroup and Eric Whitman. The blue team consists of Caravella, Gui Cavalcanti, Joel Ifill, Tom Johnson and Alison Wong.

After spending the night at their “living quarters,” which impresses the contestants with its sleek design and large size, it’s time to get to work.

The Red Team’s Preparation

Although the judges were impressed by Elliott’s rotating arm design, the team decides to go an arguably more straightforward route. Their idea is to place the explosive box on top of two long rails that will are held above the truck. Since the rails go the full length of the truck, rather than only sitting in the bed, they have more distance for slowing down the box. They plan to use clamping mechanical brakes to slow the box down gradually as it travels down the rails upon collision.

Nvate Big Brain Theory Pure Genius by Discovery Channel, innovation Mark Fuller, WET

This is the red team’s truck in progress. Credit: Pilgrim Studios

After a while, the judges check on the team, and it looks as if everything is going fine. According to Mark Fuller, all they really have to do is put the finishing touches on the brakes. Since it looks like they’ll have so much time remaining, Moyers suggests that they make a secondary system in case their main idea fails. Working himself up as he yells at his teammates, he finds that half the team is for his idea and half against. Elliott, being the team leader, makes the final call by saying that they won’t complicate things with another device.

This proves to be a wise decision because it takes them much longer than expected to finish their creation. Various members of the team notice that Moyers is becoming short-tempered, opposing other people’s ideas often and failing to admit when he’s wrong. Moyers himself is concerned that Whitman and Fleischer may have tightened the brakes too much. When Moyers asks Whitman if he took static friction into account, Whitman responds with nothing more than a baffled look. Despite the team’s tension, they finish with two minutes to spare and even nickname their truck “Crusher.”

The Blue Team’s Preparation

Like their opponents, the blue team decides to deviate from the group leader’s design in favor of one that involves the box traveling down a rail system in the truck. This one, however, will use a gas spring system to absorb the shock for the box, and it will be confined to the bed of the truck. Although Caravella, the leader, cheerfully announces that he wants this to be a fully democratic process where he’s equal to the other group members, some of his companions believe that he’s not stepping up to his role as leader properly.

After the first day in the shop is complete, Caravella works on the mathematics behind their plan and finds that the numbers just aren’t adding up, so they have to change their approach. This bothers Cavalcanti since they already bought expensive gas springs. Cavalcanti decides that they should use mechanical brake clamps instead of gas springs. With this setback, the judges believe that the team has a great idea, but time is working against them.

To make matters worse, there is team conflict. Many of its members believe that Caravella can’t handle stress well, so Cavalcanti steps up and basically takes on the role of leader. He tells the audience that, if he ever gets on a team where the leader’s incapable, he won’t hesitate to take the reins. The judges are worried that his confident, perhaps even arrogant, attitude may make it difficult for him to keep a deadline. Meanwhile, Caravella feels discouraged, saying that his head is probably “on the chopping block” if his team fails.

On the final day, the team is especially tense. Ifill believes that Cavalcanti is coming up with ideas that are too complex given their short amount of time left, but his alternate, simpler suggestions fall on deaf ears. As time runs out, teammates are yelling at one another to do whatever they can even if they’ll never finish. In the end, they only have one brake completed instead of two. They believe it might still work, however.

The Test: Trucks Collide

With the moment of truth approaching, Penn announces that the guest judge this week is NASA astronaut Mike Massimino, who completed two space shuttle missions and was the first person to tweet from space. When the teams present their final products to the judges, Caravella of the blue team openly says that there’s only a 10 percent chance their unfinished creation will work, which his teammates describe as an embarrassing lack of confidence. However, the red team isn’t worried, though Moyers is concerned that the clamping mechanical brakes may be too tight.

The contestants watch with excitement as the trucks collide. To their surprise, the boxes in both trucks explode. While the red team looks disappointed since they expected their final product to work, the blue team looks pleased since they are at least on an “even playing field,” as Wong puts it.

Nvate Big Brain Theory Pure Genius by Discovery Channel, innovation Mark Fuller, WET

Credit: Discovery Channel

Upon inspecting each truck, the judges decide that the red team’s brakes were too tight—Moyers was right all along. The box came to a stop almost immediately without traveling down much of the rail at all, putting a great amount of G-force on it. The blue team’s missing brake did them in, as there wasn’t enough to slow the box down and ease its amount of G-force. To summarize, one judge says that red team failed due to a miscalculation and the blue team failed due to poor time management.

Since both teams lost, the contestant sent home could be anyone. They are asked who they thought was the “weakest link” on their team. While most of the red team criticizes Moyers for his aggressive behavior, Elliott and Moyers believe that Fleischer and Whitman are at most to blame for their failure because they miscalculated the braking system. Most of the blue team believes that Caravella failed as a leader—even Caravella himself believes he’s the weakest link for this reason!

After the judges deliberate, Penn announces that they have decided to send Caravella home first due to his poor leadership. The host tells him to “pack your plasma torch and go.”

According to a poll on the show’s website, over 90 percent of voters believed that the judges made the correct decision in eliminating Caravella.

Of course, the comment section below is open to discussion as well.

To watch the full episode, visit the “Pure Genius” website.

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