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Todd Sampson puts his life on the line for science in new show


In the first episode of Todd Sampson’s new science-adventure TV series, he slides feet first through an 800C inferno with nothing but a dousing of water to stop him from burning to a crisp.

The moment before he releases the slide, the presenter/adventurer/advertising guru offers a brief explanation of how the physics of heat transfer should keep him safe, and declares: “I trust it enough — I’m willing to put it to the test.”

It would be a rather terrifying prospect for most of us, but there’s something about Sampson’s unwavering belief in the physics that seems almost religious. Is this a kind of science lover’s leap of faith?

“Science is certainly my way of understanding the world and its complexities and intricacies,” Sampson told Daily Review. 

“I am an incredible science enthusiast, and I encourage my kids to be science enthusiasts, and they both are. It’s not necessarily everyone’s way of understanding the world, but I believe in it so much I’m willing to put myself on the line for it.”

That’s the premise of the show, and echoes its title: Todd Sampson’s Life on the Line. In each episode, Sampson puts himself in a situation that seems incredibly dangerous and very possibly fatal. But in each situation, the laws of physics dictate that he’ll escape unscathed.

Since his TV breakthrough on ABC hit Gruen, the former Leo Burnett CEO has hosted two successful shows that merge science and adventure: BodyHack and Redesign My Brain. But Life on the Line takes the adventure and danger element to a new level.

“We worked backwards,” Sampson says. “We asked, ‘What natural law would be interesting to explore?’, whether that was heat, or resistance, or friction, or air pressure. And what’s the best way of making that entertaining and visually interesting to watch?”

In one episode, he stands in a swimming pool, three metres from an AK-47, which fires directly at his stomach; in another he leaps from a 47m-high bridge with a bungee cord held together by two phonebooks with interwoven pages; in another he swings a one-tonne wrecking ball on a 13m chain directly at his face; in another he climbs up a 13-storey building with the use of just two vacuum cleaners attached to his back.

Todd Sampson - Life on the Line 2

Of course, just because Sampson had total faith in the science doesn’t mean he faced those situations with no fear.

“I see the show as an inquisitive exploration of life, because it’s about the laws that govern our life,” he says.

“But I’m definitely not a daredevil — I was scared for everyone of them. I was trying to maintain my composure, not for the cameras, but for error.

“I was trying to be as calm as I could in these situations because I just didn’t want to make an error in what I was doing.”

Along the way, Sampson enlists a number of leading young physicists who ensure that the science behind each experiment is watertight and explained clearly to the viewers. But the potential for all kinds of failures in each experiment is huge, whether they be weather problems, mechanical faults, or even Sampson’s own human errors.

In the inferno episode, Sampson is warned that if he opens his mouth, breathes in, or screams out of fear or pain while inside the fire, his lungs may collapse. There’s a medical team on standby to perform an emergency tracheotomy if the situation calls for it.

In the wrecking ball episode, a problem with an attachment means the ball swings out of the safety team’s control. The experiment has to be halted as the one-tonne ball comes dangerously close to knocking down a heritage-listed building.

The high stakes of each experiment certainly give the show a great sense of tension and excitement, and Sampson hopes that thrill will inspire more people to explore the world of science.

“There’s not a huge amount of young people hanging out for the next big science or physics show, so we wanted to make it as entertaining as it was smart,” he says.

The show is also premiering in a social and political climate where there’s a growing distrust of science in some circles, with climate change sceptics and anti-vaccination groups attaining surprising strength and influence. So, is Life on the Line some kind of response to that thinking — a demonstration that science can be trusted in the dangerous and life-threatening situations?

“It wasn’t a response, but it was certainly a consideration in doing it in this post-fact world that we live in,” Sampson says.

“If this show makes science interesting for a younger generation — if two or three people who watch it are considering their subjects for the next year and think they should maybe study science, I think, mission accomplished.”

Todd Sampson’s Life on the Line airs on ABC TV on Tuesdays at 8pm, beginning tonight.

This article was first published on The Daily Review.

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