Whenever Mythbusters meet bullets — no, not literally, though this week’s episode of Mythbusters does have Adam and Jamie trying to shoot cardboard cutouts of themselves — you know something wacky and interesting is about to ensue. The myth in question is that, with an unwisely aimed shot, it’s possible for a bullet to bounce off three steel beams and come back to hit the shooter.
Seems straightforward enough, right? If the beams, or walls as the case may be, are lined up at right angles to each other, why shouldn’t a bullet just bounce off all three and come right back to where it started?
As Adam and Jamie (re)discovered during the show, bullets don’t bounce, at least not when they’re moving as fast as, well, a speeding bullet. They shatter on contact with any hard enough surface, like steel, and the pieces spray out in what could be a completely different direction from what you’d naively predict.
From a physics perspective, this highlights the difference between elastic and inelastic collisions. Elastic collisions are based on the idea of a ball bouncing off a wall; it goes in at some speed and bounces right …