We Asked A Physics Ph.D. If Those MacGyver Hacks Really Work

Technical Consultant Rhett Allain infuses real science—and real-life inspiration—into MacGyver's thrilling action.
Posted on Mar 8, 2018 | 12:35am
For decades, MacGyver has been part of the American lexicon. Even before you watched the current series—even if you'd never seen the original—you probably said you "MacGyver'd" something or have a handy friend who's "a real MacGyver."

STREAM: Full Episodes Of MacGyver On CBS All Access

But few people could live up to that title as well as Rhett Allain, who serves as the show's Technical Consultant. You may recognize him from the DIY Mac Hack how-to videos posted on CBS.com, and you've definitely seen his work on air. Whenever MacGyver has to get out of a sticky situation, the writers can always turn to Rhett—sort of like a one-man Phoenix Foundation!

It turns out that many of the MacGyver Hacks you've seen are grounded in real science—something Rhett (a.k.a. Professor Allain) is an expert in. In this interview, we asked him about the weirdest (and most expensive) MacGyver Hacks, how he got into this line of work, how to incorporate DIY Mac Hacks into your own life, and more...

How would you explain your job to somebody who doesn't know about TV production?

Rhett Allain: In general, my job is to add a plausible science element to the MacGyver hacks in the show. This could mean checking on the ideas from the writers or possibly coming up with some science elements that MacGyver can use in the show.

What's your favorite MacGyver Hack?

Rhett: My favorite hacks are based on real science with stuff that someone could actually do at home. Perhaps my favorite was the photophone from "Mac + Jack" (Episode 12, Season 2). The photophone uses a changing light source detected by a photocell to transmit sound via light. It's awesome and you could build one yourself

STREAM: The Full "Mac + Jack" Episode On CBS All Access

Were any MacGyver Hacks inspired by a particular real-life incident?

Rhett: Most are based on real things. Sometimes there are really cool ideas from the web. For instance, there was this video of Vietnamese police using a pole to gain access to a second story building and we used that in an episode of MacGyver. Oh, it's real and would work, too.

What's the weirdest tool or material you've ever used in a MacGyver Hack?

Rhett: How about quantum dots? Are those weird enough? A quantum dot is a super small semiconductor particle that can do some weird stuff. In a MacGyver hack, these were used as an infrared dye so that the good guys could track a bad guy. The best part is that weird stuff like infrared emitting quantum dots are real.

What's the most expensive thing you've broken for a MacGyver Hack?

Rhett: Fortunately, I don't usually do the actual MacGyver Hack. However, there are lot of hacks in the show that are based on Jack's phone being broken to pieces. That cost could add up to something significant. In real life, if I want to make a hack you could do at home I try to use just everyday stuff that doesn't cost very much.

Any safety tips that you can't live without?

Rhett: Don't mix chemicals if you don't know what they do. Sometimes mixtures can produce gases that aren't very nice for humans. Other than that, make sure you unplug stuff before you take it apart. Oh, it never hurts to wear safety glasses, but it might hurt to not wear them.

What sort of training/professional background do you have?

Rhett: I have a Ph.D. in physics and am currently an associate professor of physics. Besides that, I have always enjoyed taking things apart and building stuff. Of course there were many times that I just broke stuff in an effort to make something. Other than physics and working with MacGyver, I also write for WIRED.com, and I am the science advisor for MythBusters.

Are there any non-traditional ways you've learned your skills (hobbies, etc.)?

Rhett: I'm not sure if this counts as non-traditional, but most of the stuff I learned—I learned by doing it. How do you learn how to solder wires together? Yes, you just have to do it. Sure, it also helps to check out a nice YouTube video or something, but that is just the beginning. As with anything, real learning takes time. But in regards to the science stuff in MacGyver, I have always tried to incorporate new and interesting physics demonstrations in my classes. If you do this on a low budget, you start to figure out how to make cool stuff with the things you find around you.

Have any MacGyver Hacks changed the way you do things in your own life?

Rhett: Really, the thing that changes in my life is that I am now constantly paying attention to how everything is done. You never know when you are going to find something that can be used for a cool hack. Also, browsing online—I keep a list of cool hacks that I see on YouTube or other sites in case these things could be used in the show. Oh, also I might take apart more things now just to see how it works and if it's useful.

Are MacGyver hacks plausible?

Rhett: Mostly. First, it's a show and not real life. Hopefully we all realize that. Second, all of these hacks are based on some actual hack or a scientific principle. Maybe the effect is exaggerated or it wouldn't always happen a particular way—but it's plausible. I love that the writers and producers are even concerned about the scientific aspect—plus it means that I get to look at the scripts early. Oh, and some of these hacks aren't plausible—they are real. Yes, some of these things are straight-up real hacks—I think that is awesome.

Watch Rhett break down some of the MacGyver hacks you've seen in the show in these DIY Mac Hack videos...
How To Make A Super Bright Light With A Battery
How To Make A Speaker With Household Items​
How To Make A Chemical Detector With A Cabbage
How To Communicate Sound With Light
How To Make Fake Snow Using A Diaper
How To Put Out A Fire With Carbon Dioxide
How To Use X-Ray Fluorescence
How To Create Suction Using Household Materials 
How To Make A Magnetic Compass With A Paper Clip
How To Run Up A Wall Using A Stick

- How To Make A Door Alarm​
How To Make A Floor Jack

Have a new appreciation for MacGyver Hacks after reading this interview? Watch all-new episodes of MacGyver on Fridays at 8/7c on CBS and CBS All Access.