Tuesday, January 5, 2016

From the Fringe: Flat Earth

The internet has evolved into a fantastic source of entertainment and, if you really want it, education. While scrounging the fringes of it, I stumbled upon this a few weeks ago: the Flat Earth. To my amazement and perhaps embarrassment this topic kept me busy for a while, absorbing me from that moment. It is a notion that is so far removed from the established set of basic truths, for lack of a better word, that mentioning it to someone often results in them physically recoiling and questioning your sanity. The topic went viral, on a modest scale, early 2015, after Mark Sargent published his "Clues" on YouTube, a series of 12 short videos on the Flat Earth. Google Trends, Flat Earth:
Each of Sargent's clues presented a thought provoking idea, planting a seed into the curious and open minded viewer, urging him or her to question beliefs. And that is a key word here. Because what do we really know about the size and shape of Earth?

The concept of the spherical Earth dates back to ancient times. It all started with speculation by Greek philosophers, later mathematicians entered the fray. Greek astronomer Eratosthenes is credited for being the first to measure the circumference of the Earth, around 240 BC, using the shadow of the Sun and trigonometry. For the calculation to work though, Eratosthenes had to make an assumption about the distance of the Sun, which needed to be very, very far away (the sun rays need to be parallel for the math to work).
Sailors meanwhile observed that ships at the horizon seemed to disappear, from the lower part up, indicative of curvature one could argue. Later Magellans circumnavigation was seen as the first practical evidence of a globe. It is not proof however, circumnavigation is not restricted to a sphere. When you are brave (or stupid...) enough to bring up the topic of a Flat Earth, normally people would mention NASA and other space agencies next. And that is where i started my journey in earnest, convinced that it would be incredibly easy to debunk Flat Earth theorists. Trying to find a complete picture of Earth from space should not be difficult.

The moon missions, several outer space probes or one of the countless satellites could provide me with a complete picture. Well it appears that most pictures you can find on the internet are composites, partials, from the 70s, from very far away or manipulated in one way or the other. One time lapse even shows a globe, spinning, with completely stationary clouds.
You could argue that it is not at all necessary to provide a video or detailed picture of the entire Earth since the globe concept is deeply embedded in our set of unshakable beliefs and does not need (re-)confirming. So why bother in the first place? Time wasted. Still a high resolution video of the spinning ball Earth would be one of my priorities if i was to sent a rocket into space. Just because it would be a first, sort of. Which is frankly unbelievable, in 2016.
Diving deeper into the subject I started reading about Antarctica, essential in the Flat Earth theory. On the most common Flat Earth map it forms the outer ring of the disc shaped Earth. One thing that struck me immediately was the size of the continent, it is positively huge. Added to that it seems to be a completely unique part of the world, the coldest (year average temperature on the plateau: -49°C), driest and windiest place on Earth. Conditions can easily be described as hostile.
And thanks to the Antarctic treaty, signed in 1959, effective since 1961, the area is basically off limits to anyone but science. Amazing realisation: more than 9% of the Earths landmass is not used right now.
This is where admiral Richard E. Byrd enters the scene. Byrd was an explorer and adventurer pur sang, who first ventured into the Antarctic in 1928. Other expeditions were undertaken, but most interesting is operation High Jump (1946), later followed by operation Deep Freeze (1955), in which Byrd was less personally involved.
High Jump and Deep Freeze were basically military operations. When Byrd was a guest in a television show he mentioned Antarctica's resource richness and strategic importance. With that in mind the Antarctic treaty does not make much sense, especially considering the timeframe. Environmentalism as we know today did not exist yet. A gallon of fuel was 30 cents (and you could drive your car for about 12 miles on that), consumerism was on the up and the world seemed to be a nuclear testing ground. Perhaps a catastrophic Antarctica claim war was anticipated and wisely avoided. Other than that the treaty is an obscure oddity, from an economic perspective. And we all know money makes the world go round.

What about the earlier mentioned sailors who saw ships disappear on the horizon? This can possibly be explained by the workings of perspective and the vanishing point. When modern powerful optics are used, a disappeared ship comes into full view again, which should not be possible if the ship was invisible due to curvature. Another theme you will come accross many times is the measurable drop due to curvature from a viewpoint, which works out to be 8 inch per mile squared (apparently). With this in mind certain objects such as buildings should not be visible from distance x, because of this drop.

Talking about perspective, i don't think it is possible at all to view the curvature of the earth from relative low altitudes. What is puzzling though is that the horizon is maintained at eye level, regardless of altitude. This is frequently demonstrated by footage from weatherballoons. Note that the cameras on these usually have a fisheye lens which can warp the scene, introducing curvature.
During my research i also found a coast-to-coast radio show were one of the more prominent Flat Earth supporters was to debate the issue with a scientist, a astrophysics professor. The tone of this debate, if you can call it that, surprised me. It appeared more like a trap to me with the Flat Earth supporter being interrupted constantly, while his mike was apparently set to a lower volume. Surely the professor should have been able to destroy this guy without resorting to tricks? Finally, syndicated scientist and entertainer Neil Degrass Tyson recently confirmed that the Earth is in fact not a sphere. What? No, it is pear shaped, apparently. What?!
With this post i will end my research in the matter although i will probably keep following certain Youtube channels. So what did I get out of all this? A strong desire to visit Antarctica (you can book cruises along the west coast) and a renewed conviction that it is vital to keep an open mind, stay curious and question everything. Thanks for reading, see you next time.

Selected Links:
Mark Sargent

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