Okay, so when the big snowstorm hit the southern United States last week, it was a pretty big deal. People were snowed in from Texas to Virginia and it caused power blackouts and numerous accidents. The biggest problems were apparently in Atlanta, though, when the entire city was paralyzed by roughly five centimetres of snow and ice. The reasons for that were varied, but something very unusual cropped up in the aftermath.
Once people had gotten home or were at least hunkered down for the storm, they got to playing with the snow that fell, and someone decided to hold up a lighter to a snowball. When this didn't immediately produce a steady stream of water dripping from where they held the lighter, and the snow even seemed to be scorched by the lighter flame, there were some immediate concerns that this wasn't really snow!
Up popped the conspiracy theorists, always quick to fold any event into their paradigm, to support this idea! Some said that it was really chemicals, sprayed as 'chemtrails' by airplanes flying overhead. Others even went so far as to bypass the chemical claims and dive into the mechanical, saying that it was actually nanobots!
So, the bottom line for this is that the snow was actually melting, and the water was just absorbed up into the snowball. The 'scorching' some people saw on the snow wasn't scorching; it was soot from the butane lighter, which also produced any chemical smell people reported (even burning a candle produces these kinds of smells).
Taking this video for example, even though the gentleman recording the process says there's no water, you can actually see the melted water being taken up by the end of the little block of snow when he holds the lighter to it. Same thing with the torch. When he turns the torch off, the melted water has settled into what's left of the block. If he had actually finished the job, you'd have seen a pool of water left on his cutting board. Remember that there's actually very little water in that block of snow, because the block is mostly air. When he pulls an ice cube from his freezer and puts the lighter and torch to that, of course you're instantly going to get drips of water, because the ice is tightly compacted, with no air pockets for the water to fill up.
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The chemtrail conspiracy is a persistent one. The claim here is that water vapour contrails produced by jet engines are actually chemicals being sprayed down upon us to poison us or control our minds (although some claim that it's simply part of a 'geoengineering' project and the poisoning part is just a byproduct). The idea, quite frankly, is absurd. Even if the government was perpetrating such a diabolical scheme (they aren't), and was able to cover it up and keep people quiet (no need because it isn't happening), it just wouldn't work. It would be the most inefficient and ineffective way of dosing the population with anything. If a government were adept enough to keep such a massive project a secret, they would also be adept enough to realize it would be useless and just not bother.
When it comes down to it, conspiracy theories like this are not only a problem when it comes to promoting rational thinking, but they're also a silly distraction. If an actual real conspiracy like this did come to light, it would be completely lost in all the 'chaff' that's being spread around.
As Phil Plait posted in his blog: "We need to teach people how to think (and not just what to think), or else we won't be able to separate the factual conspiracies from the fantasy ones."
(Picture courtesy Reuters, video c/o Phil Plait/Bad Astronomy)
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