Mythbusting the conspiracy theories

23 July 2019

Interview with 

Ken Skeldon, Wellcome Genome Campus

FULL-MOON

Photograph of a full moon, viewed from the Earth

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When people come to you with questions about whether or not the Moon landings happened, how do you tackle the topic? What’s the best way to show them that we did in fact land on the Moon. Adam Murphy spoke to Ken Skeldon from the Wellcome Genome Campus in Cambridge  who once took part in such an endeavour, teaching school kids about lunar science, using the simplest of tools...

Ken - So at that time it was quite widespread. I mean there was a survey that put the number of Americans that believed these conspiracy theories at one in five at one point. As a scientific community we felt there was a bit of responsibility to try and bring some rationale to the discussions that were going on and that's what really provoked our activities in that field to try and just bring some quite basic science that people could do at home to try and explain away some of the conspiracy theories.

Adam - And what kind of science did you show them?

Ken -  So it depended on what particular element of the conspiracy theories people were talking about. Some people will draw attention to the non parallel shadows on the lunar surface. The argument there being that there must have been a nearby light source. In other words they were in a studio set. But in actual fact, you know, if you take a photograph out your living room window of two lamp posts with the sun casting shadows, you will find that you get non parallel shadows. So that is just a very simple consequence of a three dimensional scene being projected onto two dimensional photograph. So there's actually nothing in that, but when it's presented as part of a series of so-called “anomalies” then it becomes quite a convincing argument for people to in essence be taken in by.

When you look at the photographs of the astronauts on the moon's surface, you tend to think of it as night because it's a black sky, but actually it was a lunar morning with a sun there and you can see is obviously a sun there because you get very very sharp shadows. And that sun illuminating the lunar surface makes a very powerful light source that is coming from the lunar surface itself. And that means that it's almost impossible for an astronaut not to be lit. So they’re lit very brightly from the sun directly but they're also lit from the lunar surface itself. And when people thought about that, you think “oh okay, so I can see maybe why we can see detail in astronaut’s suits even when apparently they're standing with their back to the sun”, that kind of thing. These kinds of experiments that you could play out yourselves with torches and pieces of paper and miniature model astronauts went down well with what school audiences but also with public audiences that they could try out these things and maybe think about it in a different way.

Adam - What are the simplest proofs that we did in fact go to the moon?

Ken - There's a few things I mean there were retro reflectors left there so that people could do laser ranging experiments and ever since the moon landings we've been measuring very accurately distance between the earth and the moon using these retro reflectors. The astronauts brought back 400 kilograms of moon rocks and they've been analyzed by scientists all over the world. But there's also very simple things you can do I mean we did a little experiment with the footage itself and we essentially tagged the astronauts as they were jumping up and down on the lunar surface. And you know the frame rate of the film and you can actually work out what the gravity is in the environment that they we're in. And the answer came out to be exactly a sixth of the earth's gravity which is what the lunar gravity is.

Adam - When you try to convince people of this, what kind of things do you have to keep in mind to not push them further away?

Ken - The danger is that you're kind of responding to the hoax conspiracy theories in a defensive way. And that was never the intention, it was simply to present some alternative explanations and then let people make up their own minds. So when we did the talk -  and we toured around the world with this -  we would always start the conversation by saying “well how many people believe that the conspiracy theories, there might be something in them?” And I would do the same thing at the end. And in some cases you would get less hands going up and in some situations you might get more hands going up, but we felt that at least we'd had the ability to present some science and let people make a more informed decision.

For example, something very simple that a Glasgow sports scientist pointed out, if you look at Neil Armstrong's knees when he lands on the lunar surface for the first time, they don't bend. And in actual fact if you were faking this and you were doing it say on Earth and then slowing down the footage, that would be a very easy mistake to make. That you would get bending knees. So there are interesting things that we picked up along the way that other people had spotted as well.

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