Makers on TV: Big Brain Theory

Makers on TV: Big Brain Theory

Hello makers! I wanted you all to know that there’s a new design/build show on the Discovery Channel that you might be interested in, called The Big Brain Theory. It pits 10 designers, engineers, and fabricators against 8 extremely hard challenges, to be solved in very short periods of time. The challenges include everything from keeping a 160-pound package of explosives from detonating in a head-on collision, to shooting a 20-pound missile out of the sky, to stopping a speeding car without damaging it or the occupants. Check out the extended teaser:

YouTube player

I competed on the show with 9 others, who range in backgrounds from owning and operating a CNC machine shop, to a rocket scientist, to a humanoid robot control systems engineer, just to name a few. Each week, we team up into two groups of five, and attempt to solve our given challenge in 3-5 days. The show features true-to-life engineering on a very tight time-table, and does a good job of breaking down how our various contraptions worked in a style similar to Junkyard Wars.


If you’re interested in learning more about team-based design, engineering, and fabrication processes, I strongly suggest watching this show. We start off a little rocky, but slowly and surely we come together as a group to build really cool stuff in very short periods of time. I think makers everywhere will be inspired by the kinds of contraptions we put together, and the way we end up solving problems together.


Episode 2 of The Big Brain Theory aired tonight at 10/9c on the Discovery Channel, and previous episodes (plus plenty of extras) are available for watching on Discovery’s website. As you watch, check out the shop we’re in – having access to all those kinds of tools in one space (that allow you to build pretty much whatever you want, from scratch) was one of the big drivers for me to want to start Artisan’s Asylum, and is why I’m so excited about helping other people start makerspaces and hackerspaces of their own.

24 thoughts on “Makers on TV: Big Brain Theory

  1. Troy Coleman says:

    I watched the first episode and thought the challenge was interesting, but the format was the same old formula used by reality shows across most networks. It’s like producers watches old episodes of MTV’s The Real World and then add “x” to generate a “new” show (engineering in this case). I was disappointed when I saw that they really don’t trust the science and engineering to be exciting enough to carry a show on it’s own. Arguing and personality conflicts don’t really enhance the experience for me. Manufacturing personal “drama” is unnecessary.
    Someone should point out to the producers that Mythbusters has been going strong for ten years and it features cooperation and teamwork in every episode. I judge Lego FIRST robotics teams a couple of times a year and it always makes me happy that “Gracious Professionalism” is a focus of those competitions. I’ll give the show another try, but I do not have high hopes based on the first episode.

    1. Gui Cavalcanti says:

      I agree that the amount of airtime given to personal drama is a little over the top, and that they don’t focus enough on the engineering. What I will say, though, is that almost none of the drama is fabricated – each build was all of 3-5 days long, with a group of people you don’t know, who all have ideas on how to solve the problem. The time constraint and the “newness” of the teams was really hard, regardless of how the competition plays out. Later on, you’ll see teams being more cooperative, having significantly less drama as people get used to each other, and even sharing resources at times (three of us – myself, Amy, and Eric – are from FIRST, and even referenced Gracious Professionalism on-air). The first two episodes are a little rough, but I encourage you to stick through it!

  2. Marcelo says:

    I second you, Troy. I was reakky interested until I heard “the competitors are gonna live together” and the bs reality show footage was showed.

  3. Charles Johnson says:

    I third that.
    Not only are they focussing on the personality conflicts, but it looks like every challenge has some sort of sensationalistic explosion, or bomb related to it. Plus, the teams don’t have enough time to actually build and test good, working machines. As a result we’ve seen four attempts and four failures (yawn). Take another couple of lessons from Myth Busters: small scale test, do the math, do some valid experiementation, take the time and do it right.
    Perhaps Discovery Channel will go back to their educational roots and bring us some exciting shows about morotcycle building and chair throwing.

    1. Gui Cavalcanti says:

      The challenges start off sensationalistic, and then eventually get much more practical. We build human shelters, bridges, elevators, automated food-making machines, and robots to compete in athletic competitions. We do also build a machine to stop a speeding car at a checkpoint without stopping, which is a bit sensationalistic, but relatively grounded in reality.

  4. clide says:

    I think the show is decent, but like others said they seem to give priority to drama instead of going into more detail about the actual design of things. Luckily most of the contestants seem to be fairly level headed and there are only a couple of them that breed drama, so it’s not unbearable.

    I realize they have to be able to stick to some kind of production schedule, but the race against the clock to throw together something for all or nothing doesn’t seem to be working well. I think it would be more interesting if they were able to design something and do some testing and refinement. That is a big part of engineering especially with the types of challenges they have been given.

    1. Gui Cavalcanti says:

      Yep! Towards the end they started allotting specific time for testing. One thing to realize is that it’s been more than a few years since Discovery did a design/build challenge type of show, and designing the challenges themselves proved pretty daunting. On the one hand, we could always use more time – on the other hand, they often had around 100 people on-set during shooting, which meant that each day of shooting cost tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Next time through, they’ll likely modify the challenges a bit to give us more time, because they really didn’t want us to fail either.

  5. Gui Cavalcanti says:

    If you’re interested in learning more about the engineering and all the stuff that didn’t get shown (including a lot of nuance in the way the teams interacted personally), you can check out my after-action reports here: . I’m a little disappointed at the level of editing done to simplify all of the social situations and engineering, but I appreciate Discovery being interested in showing off design, engineering, and manufacturing again.

  6. mg says:

    At least this show is going after minds. It’s better than no minds.

  7. j.d. says:

    I would like to see more real life problems tackled like designing things that clean up the enviroment, save energy,protect homes ,promote industry and education It’s good to see science on prime time t.v.. remember SAFETY SAFETY SAFETY !

  8. Tetsuo says:

    What a travesty ! This is just Big Brother/West Coast Choppers with Geeks. This show makes us “Makers” look bad…

  9. Mike Loooooo says:

    Glad to hear they realized that giving no time for testing was incredibly contrary to good engineering.

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