“Pure Genius”—Fire at Will, Don’t Miss the Missile

Bobby Miller

The second episode, original airdate May 8, opens with a unique twist. Apparently the eliminated contestants will still be participating in every build. As the competition winds down, the judges will pick one capable “wild card,” who will then have a second chance at winning. Joe Caravella, who was eliminated last week, is confident that he can make a comeback. The wild card aspect certainly adds suspense to the show, and allowing the contestants to return prevents the teams from shrinking—smaller teams would mean less interesting builds.

After explaining this concept, host Kal Penn launches into the goal for the week. In the 1980s, during the Red Scare, the United States made a missile defense system called “Star Wars” that would shoot missiles out of the air should the Soviet Union attack the United States. It’s like shooting a bullet with a bullet. It didn’t quite work though, and yet the engineers will be making something similar this week. Each team will be inside a bunker, and they have to shoot down missiles fired at them.

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

Credit: Pilgrim Studios

Dismissed contestant Caravella is not allowed to participate in the Blueprint Challenge since he was eliminated, so anyone booted out won’t have the opportunity to be a team leader. I believe this is to Caravella’s advantage, though. Last week, he seemed knowledgeable when it came to the math and such, but he wasn’t leadership material. I’m also beginning to wonder why someone would want to win the Blueprint Challenge in the first place. No prize is given to the winners, and they’re the most likely to be blamed if something goes wrong. It’s probably safer to be just another worker on the team.

This week, Gui Cavalcanti won the Blue Print challenge with his clever design. It is similar to toys that shoot propellers into the air. His plan is to launch a giant propeller and knock the missile out of the air with that. The runner-up spot goes to Eric Whitman, whose net design also seems feasible.

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

This time, the teams will have five days in their shop and $20,000 to spend.

The Red Team’s Preparation

Since Whitman’s net plan will not work upon further inspection of the math behind it, Moyers proposes that they shoot balls out of long tubes using air pressure. He tests it out, and it looks quite effective. He and Fleischer have different ideas for controlling the air pressure with valves, and Fleischer almost buys the supplies needed for his idea before Moyers is able to test his own. This infuriates Moyers, especially since Fleischer forgot to help him test his prototype. Tension between him and the rest of the team rises each day, but they are able to complete their project by working up to the very last second.

Moyers is convinced the other team members will call him the weakest link just because they’re mad at him, but he believes he took on the leadership role Fleischer failed to uphold. They did, after all, use many of his ideas. I think he’ll be eliminated the next time his team loses. Although he clearly knows his stuff, he needs to figure out how to control his temper and do the whole “team thing” if he’s going to be fully competent in this game, and in the real world.

The Blue Team’s Preparation

Cavalcanti, the team leader, instantly decides that his crew will be following his idea of shooting a propeller at the incoming missile. He assigns different jobs to everyone, which frustrates Ifill and Elliott since they have ideas to contribute too. When Elliott talks to Cavalcanti at the living quarters that night, she tells him that five minds are better than one, so they need to pool all their ideas. However, Cavalcanti believes that Elliott just needs to see how a real team functions; in his words, “hierarchy works.”

As the team works, Cavalcanti accuses Ifill of doing whatever he wants rather than following the plans laid out, which results in errors such as welding some pieces incorrectly. Meanwhile, Elliott complains that she feels like a “shop monkey” since Cavalcanti won’t listen to anyone else, and Ifill and Wong feel the same way. The judges believe that their design is wild and exciting, but it might not be practical. However, the blue team is able to finish with three hours to spare.

The Test: Stopping the Missiles

Three missiles will be fired at each team’s bunker one-by-one, and whichever team manages to shoot the most out of the air wins.

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

This is the blue team’s firing device. It fails to work at all.

The blue team is up first. When they try to launch the propeller at the incoming missile, it just falls to the ground. Needless to say, it fails to stop the missile. Wong points out that Johnson is furious—he even calls it the most embarrassing moment of his life. And since he’s 50 years old, he’s had plenty of time to be embarrassed. The team blames this error on Ifill, who didn’t screw in the propeller tightly enough.

The second time, the team makes sure the propeller bolt is super tight. However, it again fails to launch, this time because they blow a fuse from making the propeller spin too quickly. With the third missile shot, the propeller doesn’t launch—again. This time, they realize that the metal clamps on it are simply too heavy to launch, which seems like a glaring oversight to me.

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

This is the red team’s firing device. It nearly missed taking down a missile on the launch’s third attempt.

This challenge doesn’t treat the red team well either. For the first shot, their trigger doesn’t work due to electrical issues, which Moyers believes is Whitman and Stroup’s fault. The second time, their bullets fire properly, but they don’t fly high enough to take down the missile. And the third time, the bullets barely miss the missile.

Once again, both teams have failed to complete the challenge at hand. This is rather disappointing since the whole point of the show is to see engineering ingenuity at work, but we’ve seen nothing but mistakes so far. How is that supposed to inspire future thinkers?

However, the judges decide that the red team wins this week since it at least managed to fire projectiles, something the blue team failed to do. To my surprise, Elliott is the only member of the blue team that considers Cavalcanti the weakest link since he failed to use their most valuable resource—their brains. Almost everyone else blames Ifill due to his silly oversights.

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

The two regular judges as well as guest judge Bobak Ferdowsi, who was the flight director of NASA’s Curiosity rover, deliberate. They announce that Ifill is being eliminated because he failed to assert his ideas strongly enough and couldn’t keep up with the pace of the competition. However, Ifill is convinced that he’ll “come back swinging” as the wild card.

I believe the judges made a huge mistake this week. Yes, Ifill failed to screw the propeller bolt on tightly enough the first time. However, the two remaining launches completely failed as well, and that sure wasn’t his fault. Ultimately, it was Cavalcanti’s poor design decisions and inability to listen to his teammates that doomed the blue team. The fact that the propeller’s metal clamps were too heavy meant it would have never launched properly.

Next week, the contestants will have to build a shelter capable of protecting human life from various extreme conditions. This could be quite interesting due to the obvious practical implications of what they’re designing. Hopefully someone makes something that actually works!

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

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