In ancient times, the people of the busy town of Cleonae (near Corinth) had special watchers, appointed for and paid for by the state, who stayed vigilant at all times: the hail guards. These brave souls watched and waited for storms to approach so they could take immediate and decisive action.
And what kind of action did they take? According to Seneca, who found the entire thing ludicrous, it wasn’t to make themselves safer. They didn’t run and put up a bunch of protective gear, or cover the crops. Nope. Instead they hurried to the temple to offer an appropriate sacrifice, usually a chicken or a lamb. Seneca, who was writing during the same time this all happened, wondered if the people really believed that that all the gods wanted was a little blood. Provide them some now and the storm goes away? Really?
“Are you laughing at this?” Seneca continues, “Here is something to make you laugh even more.” He goes on to explain that if there wasn’t a lamb or chicken available, the people would prick their fingers and allow that bit of blood to be the sacrifice. How did the hail magically ascertain the value of a man’s blood? Why would a hailstorm be as willing to turn away from the fields from a finger prick as it would from a more expensive chicken or lamb? More to the point, why are we paying for this?
Most modern people think that the ancients thought of their gods as all-powerful people who lived in the sky. And while there was a lot of that, there was also a lot of agnosticism, cynicism, and skepticism. Most learned men felt that the gods were just extended metaphors for stuff we don’t know — the same as people today. The common man wasn’t as interested in making cosmic choices for the future of his soul. He was just covering his bases. Hey, maybe those priests were on to something. The priest is sthe smartest man we know. He can read and write. Who has his knowledge? After all, hail had happened in the past, and it killed a lot of people. Isn’t it better just to play it safe?
Finishing up a cool book on the weather this past week, it looks to me like if you want an honest look at how science and religion work in the heart of man, weather events are custom-made for it. Let’s continue with our hail example.
Time moved on, and new religions took the place of old ones. In AD 800, Charlemagne constructed tall “prayer poles” in the fields as safeguards from the hail. Attached to each one was a small strip of parchment with a prayer to protect from hail. It’s unknown what the prayers were. Perhaps they were hail Marys?
But of course the enlightenment changed all of that. It’s a good thing we have reasonable men of science, like the mineralogist who in the late 1800s observed that since hail was caused by the buildup of ice particles, the injection of a smaller condensation nuclei could either turn it to rain or make the resulting hail much smaller.
Enter the hail gun. Large weapons created for shooting smoke rings into clouds.
These guns are science, that is, they use established scientific principles to control the weather. Can’t argue with science now, can we? No reasonable person could. Maybe some luddite wackos, but not reasonable, modern men.
More to the point, they worked. Put a hail gun in a field and you were almost guaranteed not to see hail. At least not hail like you used to. Of course, the odds of getting a hailstorm are pretty low to begin with, but that was not deemed important. What was important was that a loss of crops to a bad hailstorm was unacceptable. Couldn’t hurt, could it? Better to take action and be safe. Today we call this “the precautionary principle”
And hail guns became very popular. By 1900 over seven thousand hail guns had been sold and placed in Northern Italy alone. Everywhere you looked, people were putting up hail guns and being pleased with the results. It was generally accepted that using explosives to attack storm clouds in various ways was the most scientific and logical way to minimize hail damage. And who could argue? Even today, we know that some form of storm modification is possible. Just not a military assault.
Not that there weren’t people who had doubts even back then. Turns out the “safe bet” wasn’t so safe after all. In Venice and Brescia during one year alone, seven people were killed by hail guns and 78 people were injured. Plus there was that pesky problem of whether or not all of this was actually stopping hail.
Enter more scientists, who took a look at the guns. In Venice, 222 hail cannons were all set off to see what effect they had on an approaching storm. I bet that was a pretty loud test! In 1906, another 200+ cannons were launched at an approaching storm in Aulagne. Researchers even went so far as to explode a series of one-ton bombs — all with no discernible results. How would you tell if it was working or not?
Of course, once something is established, it stays established. Scientists who still believed in the effectiveness of hail guns modified their design. More noise, more rockets, different kinds of dispersals. Noise-only guns were created.
But, you might think, after it became obvious that this had limited value the practice was discontinued, right? After all, science and reason always win out, right?
As late as 2005 China was using rockets to “soften” hail. India still has many hail guns in operation. A internet search for hail guns shows all kinds of percussive contraptions created to attack storm clouds as they approach. As far as I know, hundreds if not thousands of hail guns are still being used.
The problem? The principle of hail guns was sound — changing the dynamics of hail creation should change the hail. Hailstones form around particulate matter. Therefore, changing the particulate matter should change the hail. None of this is extreme or crazy.
It was the application that didn’t work out. The reproducible experiment part of science, which is why the reproducible part is so important. It’s very easy to argue generic principles, very difficult to reduce them to practice in an unexplored dynamic system.
Part of growing up, I think, is beginning to realize that people who lived a long time ago acted and thought just the same as you do today. We look back on ancients as being primitive, but here’s Seneca lambasting this town — and the state! — for paying for a bunch of nonsense just to appease superstition. We might look at these hail gun guys as being superstitious or backwards, but they’re not, no more than any of us are. They’re simply using creative speculation — the heart of religion and science — to guess things that might work. The scientists who proposed this weren’t “wrong” — we just don’t know. There are a lot of things that we are not as sure about as we would like. Instead of denouncing things some things as false, and saying others are true and beyond debate, we have to live with fuzziness. Hey, you want to buy a hail gun, have fun with it. But I’m with Seneca: should the rest of us have to pay for it? I don’t think so.
Remember, science does not progress in a linear fashion.
For all I know, somebody somewhere has perfected the hail cannon, but I doubt it. The energies involved are too vast and the current mechanisms feeble. An average storm cloud towers over five miles into the sky, holding millions of tons of water. A few hundred pounds of chemical explosives aren’t going to do much, I think. And noise? What are some cannons compared to the thunder that’s already there as part of the storm? But more importantly, what do I know? I’m just guessing a different way. This problem seems to me one that will hinge on technique. Perhaps a reproducible experiment can be fashioned — scattering silver nitrate ahead of advancing cold fronts maybe?. If so, hail guns could make a big comeback. Wouldn’t that be neat?