Todd Sampson’s Life on the Line – fun but not so scary thanks to science

Todd Sampson balances on a metaphorical high wire throughout his latest science show. That’s funny because he doesn’t physically touch a high-wire, but he does pretty much everything else. The basic premise of  Todd Sampson’s Life on the Line sees Sampson do a bunch of dangerous stuff, relying on the laws of physics to keep him safe. So he bungy-jumps with the rope attached to interleaved phone books, or has a one-ton wrecking ball swing just short of him. The real trick here, though, is keeping an edge to the viewing, while knowing damn well that the laws of physics are just that, laws, and so not open to do anything other than what they have done since the Big Bang.

Sampson does his usual engaging and very clear job of explaining the science involved: He’s really very good. And it’s impossible not be geekily jealous of the obvious fun he has working with his build team. He also does a good job of looking nervous when clearly, even if he didn’t believe in the science involved, he’d have to rely on workplace health and safety laws and insurance obligations to keep him perfectly safe.

The trick in this show, though, is the balance between demonstrating the laws of physics while simultaneously hinting that this might be the one time in history that they might not work. He’s demonstrating the laws of physics by ‘putting his life on the line’, but if you believe in the laws of physics, then he’s never in any danger. The wrecking ball simply cannot swing back further than its release point, if engineered properly. To the extent that Sampson is in danger it would be from poor engineering, not from physics.

Sampson carries off his balancing act nicely, but if you already understand the science the show loses an edge. However, as Sampson is quoted as saying: “Anything in this post-fact world that can give science a push is a good thing… there’s one part of me that hopes we can make science engaging and interesting for a whole other generation of people that have lost faith in it. I hope they enjoy the show.” I can only agree with that.

The show remains entertaining, but not half as entertaining as it would be if you did it with someone who didn’t believe so strongly in science. Imagine Senator Malcolm Roberts facing down the wrecking ball…

Image: ABC

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