“Pure Genius”—Bridging the Gap to Victory: Season Finale

Bobby Miller

The final episode of “The Big Brain Theory” brings us to the only two contestants remaining—Corey Fleischer and Amy Elliott.

Fleischer is a mechanical engineer and single father who has never been on a losing team throughout the competition. Elliott is a creative grad student who has been the team leader four times out of the past seven competitions thanks to her ingenious ideas. She has never been the leader of a defeated team.

In the final episode each contestant formed a team to conquer a classic engineering problem, building a stable bridge.

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

But they wouldn’t be building any old bridge. It had to be one portable enough to carry in the back of a pickup truck. As Kal Penn informed the engineers, this has vital, real-world applications. Being able to haul around portable bridges would allow people to cross dangerous paths in war zones or areas torn apart by natural disasters.

Elliott and Fleischer went head-to-head in the last Blueprint Challenge to decide who would be allowed to pick a teammate first. Fleischer presented a bridge that expands itself through a “telescoping method” similar to how a fire truck’s ladder expands. Elliott’s idea involves small, expanding struts that are able to unfold into a long bridge. As Mark Fuller put it, she is taking a many-sided shape and making it a linear line.

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

Elliott’s idea is creative enough to make her the winner of the Blueprint Challenge for the fifth time. She had the first pick, and I am shocked to see that she went with Gui Cavalcanti. Although she admires his creative ideas, they’ve butted heads in the past over their differing leadership styles, and many of Cavalcanti’s creative ideas have failed. Elliott then picked Eric Whitman because he has wanted to work with Cavalcanti but has never had the chance.

Fleischer picked Tom Johnson first, believing that his skills will prove invaluable. He’s slightly disappointed, though, that he can’t work with Whitman again. To nobody’s surprise, Fleischer picks Dan Moyers when there’s no one else left to choose from.

This week, the red team consisted of Elliott, Cavalcanti, Joel Ifill, Whitman and Alison Wong. The blue team consisted of Fleischer, Joe Caravella, Johnson, Moyers and Andrew Stroup.

Penn threw a few more details into the challenge. The truck can be used as an anchor while deploying the bridge, and the bridge must be strong enough for the 3,400-pound truck to go across it safely. That instantly throws out the team leaders’ original ideas because making those strong enough to hold a truck would be too difficult in a short amount of time.

The teams have five days and $10,000 to make the winning bridge.

The Red Team’s Preparation

The red team decided they would build a bridge using a series of equilateral triangles connected by nodes. Cables will run through all the metal, which is hollow. By tightening the cords, they will allow the bridge to become firm and take shape. Finally, they would add metal plates to the bridge for the truck to cross.

Capt. Kyle Lundequam of the Army Reserve, who has built over 150 bridges for the military, is allowed to visit each team for 30 minutes to give them advice. He’s skeptical of how complex the idea is. The judges believe the team has a very clever idea. Fuller is especially excited because he’s been engineering bridges for years, but has never seen anything like this. However, he’s concerned that this will become another one of those ideas that sounds cool, but is just too ambitious to pull off in a short amount of time.

The Blue Team’s Preparation

All the members of the blue team contribute their ideas for the build. They decide to have two, aluminum I-beam structures swing out from the bed of the truck. These will be spaced apart just right so that the truck’s wheels can go along the I-beams safely.

Lundequam seems fine with the idea, though the team is more than willing to listen to his suggestions. Fuller is less than impressed, though, because they have not done any concrete calculations to make sure that the bridge can carry the load of the truck. Fleischer is confident nonetheless.

The Test: Cross the Canyon

It’s time to see which side wins. The teams get right to deploying their bridges. Fleischer feels nervous because, looking over at the red team’s truss design, he knows the bridge could support the truck, something they’re not so sure of with their design. Plus, the truck begins tilting as they deploy the I-beams, so they’re nervous about it toppling over. However, they are able to deploy the bridge safely, which Stroup attributes to their solid communication.

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

Elliott’s red team had trouble putting their bridge together. The cross beams holding the bridge’s two long sides together aren’t quite matching up right, so they have to whack at the tubes with hammers to get them to fit. But they are able to put it together and begin sliding the bridge across the gorge.

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

The bridge began to droop, so they used a crank to tighten the cables inside of it so that bridge would become sturdy and straight. They kept tightening and tightening the bridge, but it sags enough that it’s just a few inches short of the platform on the other side of the gorge. They cannot tighten it any further, so they can’t get the bridge onto that safe platform. The show’s safety officer declares it is too dangerous for the team to go out and put aluminum panels along the bottom of the bridge. So, Elliott’s team has failed.

According to a presentation given by Fuller on the show’s official website, the team could have avoided this dilemma by adding a post and cable to the top of the bridge. That way, they could pull the cable to lift the bridge up as they deployed it. He also believed that they underestimated the power of gravity when looking at their design on a computer.

Even though Elliott’s design failed she still has a chance to win if Fleischer’s bridge fails to support the truck. In that case, both teams would fail, and the judges would pick the winner.

Fleischer kissed the blue truck for good luck, and then he and his teammates pushed it onto the bridge. They stared in suspense, hoping the bridge would not collapse. However, the truck safely makes it to the other side.

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

Why did the truck cross the bridge? Because a bunch of genius engineers built a portable bridge that worked.

The Final Verdict

Before announcing the winner of the competition, the judges picked the winner of the Judge’s Award, a prize of $20,000 for the best team player. All the eliminated contestants believe they have some chance of winning the prize.

However, the judges pick Johnson as the best team player in this competition. According to Fuller, he not only contributed valuable insights and shop labor to the builds but also mentored others in his unique skills. Penn pointed out that all 10 of the engineers should inspire the next generation to keep America at the frontline of technological innovation.

Since Fleischer’s team was the only one to succeed in the final challenge, he is named the Next Great American Innovator, the winner of “The Big Brain Theory: Pure Genius.” Buzz Aldrin, a guest judge who was the second man to step on the moon, said he knew right away Fleischer was a leader as they set up the bridge. Fuller is excited to invite him to work at WET.

Closing Thoughts

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

This was an interesting show to watch overall. I’m not usually into reality TV, but unlike most shows in this genre, “Pure Genius” involved intelligent minds tackling important problems. Seeing the designs they came up with was very interesting. I was always in suspense whenever the teams had to test their contraptions.

If a second season is ever made, I would like to see a few changes, though. It would be nice for the teams to have more time to make their builds. While I know the show’s creators want them working under a tight deadline to make things difficult and stir up arguments, we would probably see more innovative ideas if the teams had more time to work. The more outlandish ideas often flopped due to time constraints in this season, but maybe that would change with more days in the workshop.

Overall, I enjoyed this look at how engineers come up with innovative ideas. We often picture scientific and mathematic thinkers as old people sitting in front of computers all day, but “The Big Brain Theory” showed that they have human sides to them as well. It also shows how a good idea isn’t always enough to be successful. By showing viewers the dynamics involved in coming up with ideas, forming teams, putting things together and handling conflict, “Pure Genius” has given us a more complete picture of what the engineering world looks like.

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

Also, all the episodes can be purchased individually for $1.99 on the show’s official YouTube page.

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