Top 10 Ways to Know the Earth is Not Flat
Created on 19 August 2008
A few months ago I released an experiment video explaining how Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the Earth using the shadow of sticks. The method was performed almost two millenia ago, and produced quite accurate results (considering the ‘equipment’ used). But it was far from being the only (or first) method to understand our planet’s shape.
Humanity has known the Earth to be round for a few millenia and I’ve been meaning to refine that video and show more of these methods of how we figured out the world is not flat. I’ve had a few ideas on how to do that, but recently got an interesting incentive, when Phil Plait (The Bad Astronomer) wrote about a recently published BBC article about “The Flat Earth” society. Phil claims it’s ridiculous to even bother rebutting the flat earth society – and I tend to agree. But the history of our species’ intellectual pursuit is important and interesting, and it’s very much well worth writing about. You don’t need to denounce all science and knowledge and believe in a kooky conspiracy theory to enjoy some historical factoids about humanity’s quest for space.
Though I have researched this subject, I am quite certain there will be much more to be said about it – feel free to add more in the comments. If all goes well, this might actually be a good post to refer to whenever anyone wants to discuss a bit of ancient science and the source of cosmological thought.
On we go to the top 10 ways to know the Earth is unequivocally, absolutely, positively, 100% not flat:
(1) The Moon
Now that humanity knows quite positively that the Moon is not a piece of cheese or a playful god, the phenomena that accompany it (from its monthly cycles to lunar eclipses) are well-explained. It was quite a mystery to the ancient Greeks, though, and in their quest for knowledge, they came up with a few insightful observations that helped humanity figure out the shape of our planet.
Aristotle (who made quite a lot of observations about the spherical nature of the Earth) noticed that during lunar eclipses (when the Earth’s orbit places it directly between the Sun and the Moon, creating a shadow in the process), the shadow on the Moon’s surface is round. This shadow is the Earth’s, and it’s a great clue on the spherical shape of the Earth.
Since the earth is rotating (see the “Foucault Pendulum” experiment for a definite proof, if you are doubtful), the consistent oval-shadow it produces in each and every lunar eclipse proves that the earth is not only round but spherical – absolutely, utterly, beyond a shadow of a doubt not flat.
Refer to the following image from Wikipedia for more details on what happens during a lunar eclipse:
Click for the Original
(2) Ships and the Horizon
If you’ve been next to a port lately, or just strolled down a beach and stared off vacantly into the horizon, you might have, perhaps, noticed a very interesting phenomenon: approaching ships do not just “appear” out of the horizon (like they should have if the world was flat), but rather emerge from beneath the sea.
But – you say – ships do not submerge and rise up again as they approach our view (except in “Pirates of the Caribbean”, but we are hereby assuming that was a fictitious movie). The reason ships appear as if they “emerge from the waves” is because the world is not flat: it’s round.
Imagine an ant walking along the surface of an orange, into your field of view. If you look at the orange “head on”, you will see the ant’s body slowly rising up from the “horizon”, because of the curvature of the Orange. If you would do that experiment with a long road, the effect would have changed: The ant would have slowly ‘materialized’ into view, depending on how sharp your vision is.
(3) Varying Star Constellations
This observation was originally made by Aristotle (384-322 BCE), who declared the Earth was round judging from the different constellations one sees while moving away from the equator.
After returning from a trip to Egypt, Aristotle noted that “there are stars seen in Egypt and [...] Cyprus which are not seen in the northerly regions.” This phenomenon can only be explained with a round surface, and Aristotle continued and claimed that the sphere of the Earth is “of no great size, for otherwise the effect of so slight a change of place would not be quickly apparent.” (De caelo, 298a2-10)
The farther you go from the equator, the farther the ‘known’ constellations go towards the horizon, and are replaced by different stars. This would not have happened if the world was flat:
(4) Shadows and Sticks
If you stick a stick in the [sticky] ground, it will produce a shadow. The shadow moves as time passes (which is the principle for ancient Shadow Clocks). If the world had been flat, then two sticks in different locations would produce the same shadow:
But they don’t. This is because the earth is round, and not flat:
Eratosthenes (276-194 BCE) used this principle to calculate the circumference of the Earth quite accurately. To see this demonstrated, refer to my experiment video about Eratosthenes and the circumference of the earth – “The Earth’s curvature is tasty!“.
(5) Seeing Farther from Higher
Standing in a flat plateau, you look ahead of you towards the horizon. You strain your eyes, then take out your favorite binoculars and stare through them, as far as your eyes (with the help of the binocular lenses) can see.
Then, you climb up the closest tree – the higher the better, just be careful not to drop those binoculars and break their lenses. You then look again, strain your eyes, stare through the binoculars out to the horizon.
The higher up you are the farther you will see. Usually, we tend to relate this to Earthly obstacles, like the fact we have houses or other trees obstructing our vision on the ground, and climbing upwards we have a clear view, but that’s not the true reason. Even if you would have a completely clear plateau with no obstacles between you and the horizon, you would see much farther from greater height than you would on the ground.
This phenomena is caused by the curvature of the Earth as well, and would not happen if the Earth was flat:
(6) Ride a Plane
If you’ve ever taken a trip out of the country, specifically long-destination trips, you could notice two interesting facts about planes and the Earth:
- Planes can travel in a relatively straight line a very long time and not fall off any edges. They can also, theoretically (and some do, though with stops along the way), circle the earth.
Correction (Courtesy of Klaynos, from scienceforums.net): Apparently, planes can circle the Earth without stopping!
- If you look out the window on a trans-Atlantic flight, you can, most of the times, see the curvature of the earth in the horizon. The best view of the curvature used to be on the Concorde, but that plane’s long gone. I can’t wait seeing the pictures from the new plane by “Virgin Galactic” – the horizon should look absolutely curved, as it actually is from a distance.
(A picture of the curved horizon from a Concorde plane can be seen here).
(7) Look at Other Planets
The Earth is different from other planets, that much is true. After all, we have life, and we haven’t found any other planets with life (yet). However, there are certain characteristics all planets have, and it will be quite logical to assume that if all planets behave a certain way, or show certain characteristics – specifically if those planets are in different places or were created under different circumstances – our planet is the same.
In other words: If so many planets that were created in different locations and under different circumstances show the same property, it’s likely that our own planet has the same property as well. All of our observations show planets are spherical (and since we know how they’re created, it’s also obvious why they are taking this shape). Unless we have a very good reason to think otherwise (which we don’t), our planet is very likely the same.
In 1610, Galileo Galilei observed the moons of Jupiter rotating around it (click here to see a beautiful video reconstruction of his observations). He described them as small planets orbiting a larger planet – a description (and observation) that was very difficult for the church to accept as it followed a geocentric model where everything was supposed to revolve around the Earth. This observation also showed that the planets (Jupiter, Neptune, and later Venus was observed too) are all spherical, and all orbit the sun.
A flat planet (ours or any other planet) would be such an incredible observation that it would pretty much go against everything we know about how planets form and behave. It would not only change everything we know about planet formation, but also about star formation (as our sun would have to behave quite differently to accustom a “flat earth” theory), what we know of speeds and movements in space (like planets orbits, and the effects of gravity, etc). In short, we don’t just suspect that our planet is spherical. We know it.
(8) The Existence of Timezones
The time in New York, at the moment these words are written, is 12:00pm. The sun is in the middle of the sky (though it’s hard to see with the current cloud coverage). In Beijing, where Michael Phelps is likely getting ready for yet another gold medal, it’s 12:00am, midnight, and the sun is nowhere to be found.
In Adelaide, Australia, it is 1:30am. More than 13 hours ahead. There, the sunset is long gone – so much so, that it’s soon going to rise up again in the beginning of a new day. Here’s a list showing what time it is around the world when it is 12:00pm in New York city.
This can only be explained if the world is round, and rotating around its own axis. At a certain point when the sun is shining on one part of the Earth, the opposite side is dark, and vise versa. That allows for time differences and timezones, specifically ones that are larger than 12 hours.
Another point concerning timezones, the sun and flat/spherical Earth: If the sun was a “spotlight” (very directionally located so that light only shines on a specific location) and the world was flat, we would have seen the sun even if it didn’t shine on top of us (as you can see in the drawing below). The same way you can see the light coming out of a spotlight on a stage in the theater, even though you – the crowd – are in the dark. The only way to create two distinctly separate timezones, where there is complete darkness in one while there’s light in the other, is if the world is spherical.
(9) The Center of Gravity
There’s an interesting fact about mass: it attracts things to it. The force of attraction (gravity) between two objects depends on their mass and the distance between them. Simply said, gravity will pull toward the center of mass of the objects. To find the center of mass, you have to examine the object.
Consider a sphere. Since a sphere has a consistent shape, no matter where on it you stand, you have exactly the same amount of sphere under you. Imagine an ant (perhaps the same one from the previous point) walking around on a crystal ball. Assuming the crystal ball is polished, the ant’s only indication of movement would be the fact it’s moving its feet. The scenery (and shape of the surface) would not change at all.
Consider a flat plane. The center of mass of a flat plane is in its center (more or less – if you want to be more accurate, feel free to do the entire [shriek] integration [shriek] process), and the force of gravity will pull a person toward the middle of the plain. That means that if you stand on the edge of the plane, gravity will be pulling you toward the middle, not straight down like you usually experience.
I am quite positive that even for Australians an apple falls downwards, but if you have your doubts, I urge you to try it out – just make sure it’s nothing that can break or hurt you. Just in case gravity is consistent after all.
Further reading about the center of mass and about distribution of mass can be found here. And if you are brave enough to handle some equations (not involving integration), you can learn some more about Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation.
(10) Images from Space
In the past 60 years of the space exploration era of humanity’s history, we’ve launched satellites, probes and people to space. Some of them got back, some of them still float through the solar system (and almost beyond it) and transmit amazing images over to our receivers on Earth.
Here’s a list of some of the pictures we’ve seen from space throughout the years:
October 24, 1946: A group of scientists in the New Mexico desert saw the first grainy photo of the Earth. The photograph was taken from a height of 65 miles (104.6 kilometers) by a 35-millimeter motion picture camera riding on a V-2 missile.
August 14, 1959: First crude photo of the Earth from the Explorer VI satellite. The photo showed a sun-lit area of the Pacific ocean and cloud coverage. It was taken from about 17,000 miles (27,350 kilometers) above the surface.
(Image Courtesy of the NASA GRIN Website)
June 5, 1966: Astronaut Eugene Cernan took this amazing picture of Gemini 9 and the Earth during his EVA (Extravehicular Activity). The spacecraft itself and Cernan’s “umbilical” (the cord that keeps him connected to the spacecraft’s systems) are visible on top of a beautiful background of the Earth.
(Image Courtesy of the NASA GRIN Website)
August 23, 1966: First view of Earth from the Moon. This picture was taken by Lunar Orbiter I when the spacecraft was on its 16th orbit and was just about to pass behind the Moon. (Image Courtesy of the NASA GRIN Website)
December 29, 1966: A spectacular view of the rising Earth from the Moon, taken by the crew of Apollo 8 after coming out from the other side of the Moon, approximately 239,000 miles (384,000 kilometers) from Earth.
(Image Courtesy of the NASA GRIN Website)
December 1, 1968: Photo of Earth from Apollo 8. This photograph was taken by an 80-mm lense, at a point very close to the Moon.
(Image Courtesy of the NASA GRIN Website)
More pictures from the NASA Missions throughout the years can be found at NASA GRIN Website: http://grin.hq.nasa.gov/index.html
Brief List of Manned Missions to Space
In the past 60 years humanity’s quest for Space has produced hundreds of pictures, videos and audio records from more than just the United States. Some of these countries used to be enemies. Some still are. The amount of proofs, from opposing countries and ‘sides’, for the non-flatness of the Earth, if nothing else, should cast serious doubt on any possibility for the existance of “Global Conspiracy”. Here is an abbreviated list of some of the first missions to space:
- April 12, 1961 (USSR; Vostok-1): Yuri Gagarin, becomes first man in space.
- May 5, 1961 (USA; Mercury-3): Alan Shepard becomes first American in space.
- July 21, 1961 (USA; Mercury-4): Gus Grissom performs the second sub-orbital flight at an altitude of 126 miles (203 kilometers).
- August 6, 1961 (USSR; Vostok-2): Gherman Titov becomes the first man to spend an entire day in space.
- February 20, 1962 (USA; Mercury-6): John Glenn orbits the Earth at a distance of 100-162 miles (161-261 kilometers).
- May 24, 1962 (USA; Mercury-7): Scott Carpenter orbits the Earth three times.
- August 11, 1962 (USSR; Vostok-3): Andrian Nikolayev leads the first four-day flight, and first “group” flight with Vostok-4.
- August 12, 1962 (USSR; Vostok-4): Pavel Popovich mans the other half of the “group” flight with Vostok-4.
- October 3, 1962 (USA; Mercury-8): Walter Schirra orbits the Earth six times.
- May 15, 1963 (USA; Mercury-9): Gordon Cooper pilots the longest (and last) Mercury mission, lasting 34 hours in space.
- June 14, 1963 (USSR; Vostok-5): Valery Bykovsky is the first to stay 5 days in space.
- June 16, 1963 (USSR, Vostok-6): Valentina Tereshkova becomes the first woman in space, spending three days in orbit.
You can find a full list of the chronology of manned space missions at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research.
More Methods Throughout History
- Abu Rayhan Biruni (sometimes known as “The Father of Geodesy“), has managed to calculate the circumference of the Earth using complex triangulation equations. I couldn’t find the actual calculation, or the method, so I can’t judge it this as a relatively easy “DIY” way to do it, but it’s still worth mentioning. If anyone has any more information about the method used, do post in the comments.
- Bedford Level Experiment: At the Bedford river in Norfolk, England. The experiments were done initially in order to prove that the Earth is flat. Though the first results of this experiment seemed to agree with the flat-earth contention, later attempts to repeat this experiment agreed with the fact that the Earth is, in fact, spherical.
- A Bit of History: Neil Armstrong narrating this video of the Earth as viewed from the Apollo 11 Command Module on its way to the Moon.
Credits and Thanks
This is a very long post, but it was fun to write (and learn about!). There is some credit due to other people, and I am not one to hold out the cheers:
- Klaynos, from scienceforums, for his Physics mastery late at night.
- insane_alien from scienceforums, for directing me on the path of a good #9.
- Cap’n Refsmmat from scienceforums, for clarity issues, physics help, and saving you (the reader) some of my ramblings.
- Keren, for her editorial help and general (good) advice.
- Daniel and KerenG, for their mental and grammatical support.