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Three Atmospheric Scientists Explain Phil Collins’ ‘In the Air Tonight’

It’s called nitrogen, Phil

The amazing drum break in Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” will never stop surprising. It shocked music fans in 1981 when it was first released. It shocked moviegoers in 2009 when Mike Tyson air-drummed it in The Hangover. And just a few days ago, it shocked a couple of twin brothers the first time they heard it as part of a reaction video for their YouTube channel, which quickly went viral and started trending pretty much everywhere you can trend. 

And just like that, “In the Air Tonight” is finding a whole new generation of fans — with good reason too, as it’s still fucking fire. But what is it about anyway? Is there something actually in the air (oh, Lord)? If so, what? Betrayal? Pain? A pack of lies? Or just some plain ol’ barometric pressure (oh, Lord)? 

Besides, Phil Collins, of course, there’s really only one group of people who would truly know: atmospheric scientists.

On What Kind of Weather We Can Feel Coming in the Air

Simon Gear, South African weatherman and climatologist: You can smell a thunderstorm coming, can’t you? You can also feel that change in the pressure when a big storm is coming. Here in Johannesburg, we have particularly big thunderstorms in the summer, and that change in feeling is one of my very favorite things about the weather here. Weirdly enough, that feeling is caused by a buildup of negative ions in the air and apparently that impacts your neural system, which actually causes you to feel more positive about life. 

Adam Burniston, meteorologist for WKYT in Lexington, Kentucky: Whenever I think of feeling the weather, I always think of a storm coming in. As you get closer to a storm, you get that wind and the cooler air. People even refer to smelling a storm coming in. That feeling is a few things. The wind you feel is wind rushing out of a storm, even ahead of a storm. The smell that people associate with storms relates to rising humidity. What happens is, that rising humidity opens up your airways a bit more, which allows you to smell the earthiness that the storm is bringing to the area.

Katie Nickolaou, meteorologist in Sioux City, Iowa, and creator of the Fandom Forecast: Humans can pretty much feel any kind of change in the weather. We have high-pressure systems and low-pressure systems, and when you have high pressure, it’s pushing down harder on you. That relieves joint aches, and people feel happy. It’s generally associated with sunny weather. As for when you start to get those joint aches or maybe a headache, that’s when there is a low-pressure system nearby. 

On What’s in the Air Around Us

Gear: For starters, too much carbon dioxide. If we can do something about that, our future will be a lot better. Aside from that, 78 percent of the air is nitrogen, which is very boring and completely inert. We think we breathe oxygen, but most of it’s nitrogen — and I suppose a couple of mosquitos as well.

Nickolaou: There are lots of molecules in the air and bits of oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide and water vapor. All that creates what we breathe. 

Burniston: There is a lot of stuff in the air around us. There are microscopic dust particles in the air for one, and that’s what rain forms on, these microscopic particles.

On Which Atmospheric Event They’ve Been Waiting All Their Lives to See

Gear: There are a few things I’ve never seen. I’ve never seen a hurricane or a tornado. Both are on my bucket list. I’m 1,000 miles inland, so we don’t get hurricanes, and tornadoes are very rare here. I’d like to experience a hurricane, and I’d like to see a tornado from a distance.

Burniston: There’s a lot of good ones, but the big one that a meteorologist would probably say is seeing a tornado in person. One summer in college, we took a storm-chasing class, which was used to build our skills for forecasting severe weather. On that trip, we saw seven tornadoes in one day in Colorado from a supercell out in the Great Plains. It’s tough to tell how far you are from something in the Great Plains, but we got about 8 to 10 miles from it. We were in a safe, far away position, but it’s something else to see a tornado in person rather than to just see videos and pictures of it. It’s a whole other feeling.

Nickolaou: Hands down, it’s a tornado. I’ve been in two tornadoes, but I’d not seen one until this past year. When I was little, I was in one when it was at night and we parked under an overpass. By the way, never park under an overpass in a tornado because it acts as a wind tunnel and creates a better chance of sucking you out. Also, it acts as a debris tunnel, so you’ll have bits of wood, nails, metal shrapnel and all that kind of stuff pounding you. It’s actually one of the worst places to be during a tornado. The other tornado I was in, I was somewhere much safer — my basement. 

As for the one I saw — well, technically, there were three on the ground at once — it was so worth the wait. It’s funny, when you study the weather, you find you aren’t as afraid of it anymore. For a tornado, you can see one a mile away and know where it’s moving and feel absolutely no fear, whereas someone else could be 10 miles away and feel like they’re going to die. But again, if you know more about it, the safer you feel. That said, you definitely have to tow the line between feeling safe and being cocky. 

On Collins’ Creepy-as-Fuck Music Video

Gear: The song itself is very weird and creepy, so I guess the video suits it. 

Nickolaou: That video has major stalker vibes.

On That Thunderous Drum Break (And Thunder More Generally)

Gear: That drum beat is one of those things where you feel your energy rise from it. I remember having that cassette tape when I was 17 and how that segment gave me gooseflesh.

Burniston: It’s such a great song, obviously a classic. Growing up, I was a percussionist, so we always jammed out to the drum solo in the middle. As for actual thunder, thunder is the sound of lightning, of course. If you’re closer to the lightning, you’ll get that loud “crack” sound, but if you’re further away, you’ll get that more distant rumble. 

Nickolaou: Thunder is a result of lightning, and lightning is hotter than the surface of the sun. You see the light right away because light travels faster than sound, which is why the sound is delayed and often unexpected, kind of like the drum riff that appears so late in the song. 

If I’m being honest, I’d never heard the full song before, though I had heard the drum riff in so, so many videos. My favorite is of a deer tripping over a kiddie slide, so I can’t help but picture that deer whenever I hear it.

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