Friday, August 26, 2005

Did people land on the moon?

I thought this was another one of those American science controversies that didn't really affect public opinion here in Australia. But I was wrong!
Last night I went to a public lecture by Ken Skeldon, a professor at the University of Glasgow (and he had a cute Scots accent too -- bonus) about "Debunking the Moon Hoax". I estimate there were 100 people in the lecture theatre, and 12 put up their hands to say they were there because they thought that NASA had not sent people to the moon and made up the whole thing just so they could pretend that they beat the goddam commies.
I'm all for scepticism, but there's a difference between scepticism and plain old ignorance. Skeldon briefly adressed the major claims of those who don't believe NASA ever got a person onto the lunar surface (I already knew most of these arguments thanks to the bad astronomer's debunkery). All of the supposed evidence that hoax believers come up with is pretty easy to argue against, using basic science and logic (and you can do experiments in your own back yard that corroborate the truth). Sometimes they even contradict themselves!
One of the claims that hoax believers make is that video footage of the lunar rovers doesn't show them kicking up clouds of dust from the tyres, as you would expect in a very dusty place like the moon -- except that the moon has no atmosphere to sustain dust clouds. Derr! The buggy does throw dust up from its wheels, and the dust traces a beautiful arc through the vacuum and falls back to the ground. Prof. Skeldon mentioned that he showed the footage to high school science students who were able to use their knowledge of physics to calculate the moon's gravity from the shape of the dust curves, and they came up with the correct answer: the moon's gravity is 1/6 of the earth's. That would be hard to replicate in a studio in Area 51.
Skeldon also said that in a few years' time we will have telescopes with enough resolution to see the debris of the landers on the moon, and possibly even the controversial flag. Of course, true hoax believers will probably claim that NASA is faking these shots as well, except that one of the telescopes is Japanese. Judging by a friend's recent experience of being spat on by Japanese schoolchildren at the Hiroshima memorial because they assumed he was American, I don't think the Japanese are going to resile from a chance to prove the US wrong if they can. So maybe the idea that humans didn't go to the moon will be a short-lived phenomenon, once proof is available.
But then again...

P.S. Skeldon also said that there is a fairly strong rumour going around that the next planned visit to the moon will involve landing the first woman on the moon. You go, girlfriend!

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