Feb 03 2013

Chemtrails – a Science Learning Opportunity

Published by at 10:22 am under astronomy

In my role as a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador,  the number one question I get from school kids is “is there life on Mars (or outer space)?”  My standard reply is, “I don’t know.  Why don’t you become a scientist and be the first to find out?”  That’s why I like astronomy as a tool for engaging the public in science: it touches so many “hot topics” that can be channeled into really good science.

For the past decade or so, people have been asking me if I knew about Chemtrails, which are supposedly part of a conspiracy to holds that some trails left by aircraft are chemical or biological agents deliberately sprayed at high altitudes for purposes undisclosed to the general public in clandestine programs directed by various government officials.

The evidence they point to is that some contrails from jets (the “Chemtrails”) persist and spread out, while others were narrow and dissipated rapidly (which they call “real” contrails).  They then move on to state these “chemtrails” are part of a government conspiracy, and then point to the fact that “the authorities” are denying their existence as proof of the conspiracy.

This theory is popularized on various internet-based conspiracy sites, and is similar to the Seattle Windshield Pitting Epidemic.  This was characterized by widespread observation of previously unnoticed windshield holes, pits and dings, leading residents to believe that a common causative agent was at work. It was originally thought to be the work of vandals but the rate of pitting was so great that residents began to attribute it to everything from sand flea eggs to nuclear bomb testing…. Within a week [of the initial observation], the news and the so-called “pitting epidemic” had reached metropolitan Seattle. As the newspapers began to feature the story, more and more reports of pitting were called in. Motorists began stopping police cars to report damage and car lots and parking garages reported particularly severe attacks.

Several theories for the widespread damage were postulated:

  • Some thought that a new million watt radio transmitter installed by the Navy was producing waves that caused physical oscillations in glass;
  • Some believed it to be the work of cosmic rays;
  • Some reporting seeing glass bubble form right before their eyes, believing it to be the work of sand fleas;
  • Some attributed it to a shift in the Earth’s magnetic field.

The whole “epidemic” came to a halt when folks realized that this was just normal pitting of windshields.

I find that when someone believes in a preposterous theory, coupled with a conspiracy cover that “the authorities” are covering up the facts, it is nearly impossible to talk about rationality.  I am simply aligned with the deceiving “authorities” and thus part of the conspiracy.  As Robert Park says in Voodoo Science:

I came to realize that many people choose scientific beliefs the same way they choose to be Methodists, or Democrats, or Chicago Cubs fans. They judge science by how well it agrees with the way they want the world to be.

My Proposal: Use Chemtrails as a Science Learning Opportunity.

The chemtrail phenomenon proposes a very specific hypothesis: that the emissions from Jet aircraft are leaving behind abnormal trails of vapor and chemicals that can’t be explained as normal contrails.  Contrails are everywhere, and observable just by looking up.

This is great science.  Now, let’s prove or refute this theory.

It turns out that NASA is already way ahead of this.  It is asking citizen scientists, teachers, and students to study contrails, and is even providing resources to do so.  There is even a global reporting system for students to record their local observations.  If there is so much energy to hype the conspiracy theory, let’s turn it into energy to scientifically research it.

And in the tradition of great science, studying this phenomenon from one perspective can lead to another discovery: the contrails play a big role in our understanding of climate change.  They may change the albedo of the planet significantly – and folks all over the world can make simple measurements to contribute to our understanding of this phenomenon.

So, next time I hear someone talk about Chemtrails as a conspiracy, I’m pointing them to this post as a “why don’t you find out for yourself?”




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