Is the Earth Flat?

Some people are still arguing about whether the Earth is round or flat.

 

I once did an experiment to try to prove that the Earth is round. The date was Sunday, 8th May 2016. My experiment failed, as I’ll relate in due course.

 

Here’s the idea. You visit a high hill, adjacent to flat country. You go there on a day when the visibility is perfect. You take your camera, and if you have them some decent binoculars.

 

You walk (slowly!) up the hill, and once you’re clear of any buildings between you and the plain, you measure how far you can see. Not to church steeples, but to objects close to the ground – like cows. You do it at several different heights above the plain. Then you plot how far you can see against how far you are up the hill.

 

Now if the Earth was flat, how far you can see wouldn’t depend on how high you are up the hill. With perfect, unobstructed visibility, you could see a cow 5 or even 10 miles away across the plain as soon as you could see one 1 mile away.

 

If the Earth was round, on the other hand, you’d expect to be able to see further the higher you are up the hill. I’ll leave out the trigonometry, but you’d expect the distance you can see to be very close to proportional to the square root of how far you are up the hill. Otherwise put, if you’re four times as far up the hill, you should be able to see twice as far.

 

Anyway, the hill I picked for my experiment is called the Worcestershire Beacon. Its top is almost 1,400 feet above sea level; and about 1,200 feet above the plain to the east, which includes the spa town of Malvern.

 

It was a beautiful walk. The east side of the hill is steep, so I climbed it from the north. And as I went down the easy south side, gradually losing altitude, I took many photos of the plain.

 

Imagine my chagrin, then, when I found on reaching the pub at the bottom of the track (the Wyche Inn – I recommend it), that my camera had run out of memory. And that all my photos had disappeared into the great byte sink in the sky.

 

But what if my photos had come out? Would I have been able to present incontrovertible evidence, even if only to those whose eyes are far better than mine, that the Earth is round?

 

No. For all I set out to do was to adduce evidence to verify one prediction of the hypothesis that the Earth is round. Namely, that how far you can see over a level plain is proportional to the square root of how high up you are above that plain. I didn’t even manage to do that. And let’s not even think about whether in some places the planet might be “locally round,” and in others not.

 

Science, when it advances, advances one failed experiment at a time.

Comments

opher goodwin Added Feb 13, 2018 - 2:06pm
Neil - what happened to that guy who was going up into the stratosphere to check it out? He believed the earth was flat.
Out at sea it is possible to see the arc of the horizon from the top of a big ship. From a plane it is obvious.
I don't know where these flat earthers think all the water is coming from that keeps flowing over the edge. Perhaps one of them is thinking of drilling through to the other side and dropping out.
Having been round the globe a few times I'm pretty sure I would have seen an edge if there had have been one.
Ian Thorpe Added Feb 13, 2018 - 3:02pm
I had a flat - earther on the team once (you meet some interesting people working in I.T.) but the flat earth society regenerates more frequently than Dr. Who and at that time it was mainly a bunch of mathematicians who liked to conduct thought experiments to prove mathematically or methematically perhaps, they were all off their heads on something, that the earth is indeed flat.
He and I had some interesting discussions including one in which I put it to him (both of us being I.T. guys,) that it was feasible the earth is a physical sphere but a logical plane. The reasoning behind this is that the Zoroastrian creation myth in the Avesta described, the nameless one, The Ancient of Days according to William Blake, uttered his catchphrase, "Jah" - I am - and he then created reality by driving an axle through the centre of the planet and then 'squaring the circle,' so that the sphere could be viewed as flat slices. Blake's famous picture explains well what was going on.
By flattening the earth the 'great light' had made it possible to map our world.
It's a toss up between Zoroastrianism and Hinduism as to which gave us the foundations of modern mathematics and science. Viewed from the right perspective they myths of both tell us far more about the development of early civilisations that the Abrahamic scriptures.
Tom C. Purcell Added Feb 13, 2018 - 4:13pm
What about telescopy, astronomy, the constellations and such?  I don't understand how the flat-earth theory reconciles this.  I'm open minded to the theory only, I'm having trouble being moved at all.
Tom C. Purcell Added Feb 13, 2018 - 4:16pm
And the effect of gravity on light, among other luminescent-like effects have a distortion effect, don't they?  Bear with my relative ignorance this is not my area of expertise.
Leroy Added Feb 13, 2018 - 7:52pm
VSauce had an interesting video on a Flat Earth.  The earth is, of course, round, or is it?
A. Jones Added Feb 13, 2018 - 11:40pm
And the effect of gravity on light
 
That was discovered by a Jewish physicist named Einstein. Are you sure you can trust it, Purcell? It might just be propaganda spread through textbooks published by a High Cabal of Jewish Co-Conspirators and Their Co-Religionists for the Sake of Confounding the Pure Aryan Mind. You have a Pure Aryan Mind, right? So maybe you've been led astray by nefarious "Jewish Science" (as Hitler used to call it).
Neil Lock Added Feb 14, 2018 - 3:41am
Opher: You can certainly get an impression of curvature when you look down from a plane - particularly over the sea. But to do my experiment that way, you'd need to be able to work out how far you can see - not easy when what you're looking at is featureless - and you'd also need to be in the cockpit and so able to read the altimeter.
 
I, too, haven't managed to see the edge of the world. Though I did once arrive in San Francisco two hours before I had left Sydney!
Neil Lock Added Feb 14, 2018 - 3:52am
Ian: Yes, the Hindus gave us the zero. But most of the rest of our mathematics is rooted in ancient Greece. It's possible that their ideas came from the Zoroastrians, as the Persian Empire was established at around the same time as Pythagoras is generally reckoned to have lived.
Neil Lock Added Feb 14, 2018 - 3:56am
Tom: I wasn't trying to promote the flat earth idea. I agree with you (and Opher too!) that there are all kinds of things we see, which the flat earth idea doesn't explain. I was simply using the flat earth as a "null hypothesis," against which to test my hypothesis that the earth is (at least locally) like the surface of a sphere.
opher goodwin Added Feb 14, 2018 - 5:17am
I think Terry Pratchett had the answer. We're riding along through space on the back of a giant turtle.
Doug Plumb Added Feb 14, 2018 - 5:39am
Unfortunately there is no way of actually knowing by doing research in an establishment approved library. We know that in another ten years or so everyone will have forgotten that 9-11 was an inside job and all the reference materials will point to Osama bin Laden. Everyone will believe Osama did it, just like everyone now believes the holocaust really happened and that we dropped nukes on Japan. I don't know if anyone really questioned that but it would be easy and cheap to fake.
  I thought of doing a ballistic experiment - use a heavy slow moving object. Fling upwards and see where it lands vs what the equations say. To build something to fling something like this would put me in Guantanimo. No one wants to go to a place where our sick governments torture and kill people to obtain false confessions, like in the Nuremberg trials.
  I don't know enough about astronomy to make the determination by tracing star and planet movement with a telescope.
  I only know one thing for sure: Never ever believe anything you see on TV or read in the papers. Most of the stuff on the web, like martians invading, flat earth stuff, etc is likely put there by CIA to keep everyone distracted from what the banks do and keep them distracted from talking about electronic money and their plans with that. Maybe we would have monetary reform in place by now if it wasn't for all the noise.
  Lawfully USA is a republic. Morally it is a propaganda state. Same as everywhere else.
Doug Plumb Added Feb 14, 2018 - 6:14am
A good illustration of propaganda
Stone-Eater Added Feb 14, 2018 - 8:12am
Yep. The earth is flat, and it's been stabilized by Warg the eternal emperor of concrete posts.
Dino Manalis Added Feb 14, 2018 - 8:26am
 The Earth is round and it's been proven, that's settled, you silly goose!
opher goodwin Added Feb 14, 2018 - 10:30am
Doug - the Earth definitely is flat. It rides on the back of a giant turtle. The holocaust was a film set run by Disney. The whole world is run on a Jewish conspiracy. 9/11 was also a Disney production. Bin Laden was a newspaper salesman in Cairo. God sees everything and has a big book to write it all down. By believing in Jesus we will go to heaven.
I know all this is true because I didn't see it on TV or read about it in the media.
opher goodwin Added Feb 14, 2018 - 10:30am
Dino - listen to Doug - don't get taken in by propaganda!
Dave Volek Added Feb 14, 2018 - 11:08am
Neil
I think one the AGW deniers used the logic that if one example proves the theory wrong, then it is wrong.
 
Your experiment just proved that the world is not round.
 
I have been to the UK once and took the Atlantic route. It seems I guessed right. I know for sure now that I can't take the Pacific route.
Leroy Added Feb 14, 2018 - 11:51am
"Doug - the Earth definitely is flat. It rides on the back of a giant turtle. The holocaust was a film set run by Disney. The whole world is run on a Jewish conspiracy. 9/11 was also a Disney production. Bin Laden was a newspaper salesman..."
 
That's a fine example of Poe's Law.  Many people will take you seriously.  What is Poe's Law: "(A) their extremes, parody of extremism and sincere extremism are difficult to distinguish."  Many of the Flat-Earthers fall into this category.  We shouldn't take them seriously.  But, we should get a good laugh out of it, as I did from you, Opher.  I wrote a parody of Trump.  Many people took it seriously.
Neil Lock Added Feb 14, 2018 - 1:00pm
Opher: No, the flat earth isn't supported by a turtle. It's a tortoise; at least, that's what my teachers taught us :-)
 
Dave: My experiment failed to prove that the world is round. That's very different from proving that it isn't round!
Doug Plumb Added Feb 14, 2018 - 8:57pm
Opher isn't kidding. I know everyone thinks he is but he says what he says because he is a communist, not a clown.
Michael B. Added Feb 14, 2018 - 11:59pm
Nothing on this fucking planet is flat, as anyone trying to level an analytical balance, a CNC machine, or a pool table will readily attest to, lol.
Neil Lock Added Feb 15, 2018 - 5:21am
Ben Bryant: Welcome to WriterBeat!
 
Michael B: I know what you mean about levelling pool tables. The real problem, though, is those damned magnets that repel your balls and push them away from the pockets!
Phil Greenough Added Feb 15, 2018 - 5:21am
"Some people are still arguing about whether the Earth is round or flat."
 
Kindly name one person engaged in this argument.  
opher goodwin Added Feb 15, 2018 - 6:48am
Phil - Doug.
opher goodwin Added Feb 15, 2018 - 6:50am
Doug - I'm a communist clown. I believe all clowns should be equal. We're taking over the world. We've already got a clown installed as President.
opher goodwin Added Feb 15, 2018 - 6:50am
Leroy - LOL.
Neil Lock Added Feb 15, 2018 - 9:11am
Opher: I think you may have drunk too much Coco!
opher goodwin Added Feb 15, 2018 - 10:00am
Neil - LOL - life's a farce.
Doug Plumb Added Feb 15, 2018 - 10:53am
I'm not interested in flat earth theories.
opher goodwin Added Feb 15, 2018 - 12:13pm
Doug - you surprise me.
Phil Greenough Added Feb 16, 2018 - 8:54am
The point of my question wasn’t for you to identify a single person that might believe the Earth isn't round, it’s to point out that there is no debate occurring.  Even if you look back in history across multiple cultures and eras, despite not understanding a lot about the universe, the people still largely accepted it as fact that the Earth was round.  Maybe there were a few more flat-Earthers out there than there are today, but nothing to suggest a grand debate on the matter was happening.  
Neil Lock Added Feb 16, 2018 - 10:46am
Phil: Ah yes, no debate occurring. But what does that mean?
 
There was no debate back in the early 20th century about whether eugenics was a good idea or not. All the establishment supported it, until Hitler put it into practice. Nor is there any debate, at least among the establishment and their media, about whether "climate change" is real, is caused by humans and will be catastrophic if not stopped. (By means of taxes and policies that increase the power of that establishment, of course...) But that's a story for another day.
 
I consider my (failed) attempt to prove that the earth is round to be, not just a fun experience, but worth relating to others who may feel, like me, that it's worth looking at ideas that may seem silly, even if only to prove them wrong.
Neil Lock Added Feb 16, 2018 - 10:53am
By the way: When I planned this experiment, I had a vague idea of the size of the horizon effect, but (due to laziness) I hadn't run the numbers. Since I wrote this article, I've done just that. And there was a fundamental flaw in my experiment! Any half decent physicist or mathematician should be able to tell me what I did wrong...
Edgeucation Newmedia Added Feb 16, 2018 - 4:03pm
Is a bear Catholic? Does the Pope crap in the woods?
CRM 114 Added Feb 16, 2018 - 6:35pm
The weather in Malvern on that day was  10 km / 6 miles visibility.
Wrong day to do that experiment.
Go to the coast, say Cardiff or Avonmouth. Note how when ships disappear over the horizon, the bottom of the ship disappears first. This is proof the Earth is not flat. If you visit various UK ports, you will note ships disappear like this in every direction. Conclusion: the Earth is curved in an approximately spherical way.
Thomas Napers Added Feb 17, 2018 - 3:59am
“Nor is there any debate, at least among the establishment and their media, about whether "climate change" is real, is caused by humans and will be catastrophic if not stopped. (By means of taxes and policies that increase the power of that establishment, of course...) But that's a story for another day.”
 
I think we both know that this entire article was a back door means to belittling the opinion of those that don’t agree with you about global warming. The Earth is round because any number of scientific studies can prove it with 100% certainty. We also know that the climate is always in a state of flux, we don’t know the degree at which humans have caused the Earth to warm, if any degree at all. When we can’t prove something with 100% certainty, it’s important scientist continue to search, rather that shut-down research by bullying and shaming dissenters. But that’s a story for another day.
Neil Lock Added Feb 17, 2018 - 4:13am
CRM 114: You're close with your suggestion as to what I did wrong, but not in the gold.
Neil Lock Added Feb 17, 2018 - 4:17am
Thomas: we don’t know the degree at which humans have caused the Earth to warm, if any degree at all. Absolutely right. I chose to use the climate change example because I was talking to Phil, who has written a headpost about climate change on this very site, and is (almost?) as skeptical about the matter as I am.
Thomas Napers Added Feb 17, 2018 - 4:21am
I think you're being dishonest.  I think the climate change discussion is what this article is all about.  
Dr. Rupert Green Added Feb 17, 2018 - 4:54am
@BEN. "These comments are as interesting as the article. I can't tell who's kidding and who's not."
 
That is an interesting element of WB-- it forces you to be critical thinkers, it bemuses and amuses you, and it can have you ready to throw a hammer in the computer screen to slam the avatars of offending MFs.   It is great! If it has you perplexed, then you must be a flat earther seeking information to make an informed decision about changing a BS belief.
Neil Lock Added Feb 17, 2018 - 9:22am
Dr. Rupert: I agree with you, WriterBeat is great. And you're absolutely right that WB makes you (and me) think about different kinds of ideas, and appreciate (critically or not) the views of different kinds of people.
 
I suspect, though, that there are a few here (not you, Dr. Rupert!) who fail to appreciate the English sense of humo(u)r.
Dr. Rupert Green Added Feb 17, 2018 - 9:44am
@ Neil, some here are either wound too tight or too engage in choking the chicken to appreciate mirth and frivolity in deft use of "gramma."
 
OK. Ben. Now you are a free thinker.
Mark Hunter Added Feb 17, 2018 - 2:55pm
Neil, have you considered that your camera was sabotaged by a flat-earther? Another conspiracy!
Benjamin Goldstein Added Feb 17, 2018 - 5:42pm
Neil:
Yes, the Hindus gave us the zero. But most of the rest of our mathematics is rooted in ancient Greece. It's possible that their ideas came from the Zoroastrians, as the Persian Empire was established at around the same time as Pythagoras is generally reckoned to have lived.  
 
Nooohooo. The Muslims invented all the shit during their Golden Age of Islam. Of course, that's rubbish, but people believe it! But I must say the bullocks that Ian Thorpe spreads is even weirder than the usual "Muslims taught us to fly" rubbish.
Neil Lock Added Feb 18, 2018 - 5:45am
Mark: Thanks for the suggestion!
 
Benjamin: I think your theory can't be right, because Pythagoras lived more than 1,000 years before Mohammed! A flat earth is one thing; time travel is quite another...
Benjamin Goldstein Added Feb 18, 2018 - 6:11am
Muslims are so great. They also did time travel. Hindus and some pagans in the bushes of Samoa helped them ;-).
Neil Lock Added Feb 18, 2018 - 12:50pm
OK, at last I’m going to tell y’all what I got wrong with the design of my experiment. CRM 114 was thinking along the right lines. But to understand fully what I got wrong, we’ll need a little mathematics.
 
If the Earth is a sphere of radius R, and you look out from a hill of height h above a flat plain, then in perfect visibility how far you can see across the plain (to objects on the ground) – I’ll call that d – is determined by the small side of a right-angled triangle, whose vertices are the centre of the Earth, you and the cow (or whatever) that is at the limit of your vision. According to the Gospel of Saint Pythagoras (and who will controvert it here?), the longest side (R+h) is related to the other two by (d^2)+(R^2)=(R+h)^2. Because h is very small compared with R, that’s pretty much the same as saying that (d^2)=2*h*R. That’s where the square root rule comes from.
 
But let’s work some numbers. The circumference of the Earth is 40,000 kilometres. (That was the original definition of the kilometre!) We have to divide that by 2*pi to get the radius R; a little less than 6,400 kilometres. The Worcestershire Beacon’s height h above the plain (which I gave as 1,200 feet) is around 365 metres. Plugging in the numbers and taking the square root, d comes out at about 68 kilometres.
 
To see that far does, indeed, require unusually good visibility. But on the day I did the experiment, the visibility was exceptionally good. That wasn’t the problem. But now consider: Way less than 68 kilometres east of the top of that peak, there’s another range of hills. In fact, the flat plain is only about 10 miles (16 kilometres) wide.
 
To understand what I got wrong, start by asking the question: How far would I have been able to see if I had simply been standing on a vast “flat” plain on a round Earth? If my eyes are 1.5 metres above the ground (I’m much the same height as Opher :-), then how far can I see to objects on the ground? That comes out to about 4.4 kilometres.
 
So if I quadruple my eye height above the ground to 6 metres, I should be able to see objects at up to around 8.8 kilometres. But that’s only if there are no buildings in the way. If I quadruple my eye height again, to 24 metres, I can see... all the way to the next range of hills! And the data from there is useless to my flat-earth experiment.
         
So, I wasted my energy that day. Still, I enjoyed a great walk.
Mark Hunter Added Feb 18, 2018 - 11:42pm
I always appreciate a great walk. It's something to do while the headache medicine kicks in after trying to do the math.