Many of my colleagues in the astronomy world are shocked and appalled by the recent “flat Earth” upsurge. We send each other links to websites “proving” that Earth is shaped like a pancake, meaning flat. Those sites include letters from readers who express gratitude for being given the “truth.”
But every amateur stargazer knows our world is a sphere. Since all the planets and moons seen through telescopes are balls, it would mean that ours alone is different. We’d need some special physical reason a single pancake formed in space, when gravity makes all blobs contract into balls: the only shape whose surface is equidistant from its center. It’s the geometric solid with the smallest surface area. Only the tiniest objects, like some asteroids and comets, have too little gravity to do the job.
I’ve previously written about how easy it is to determine Earth’s shape without trusting the government, astronaut testimony or spacecraft images. Method A: During the next sunset, phone some California friends and ask them to look out the window and tell you how high up is the Sun. They’ll report the Sun to be halfway up the sky. But at that same moment it’s on the horizon as seen from here. This obviously means that Earth cannot be flat.
Method B involves being in calm water, like in the Hudson or a large lake. Hold your breath and lower your eyes to just an inch or two above the surface. You’ll see the far shoreline vanish behind Earth’s curve! That’s right: A mile or two is enough to block the far side of the river or lake behind our planet’s curvature. It’s dramatic, and very cool.
Unfortunately, other aspects of nature are less logical. Take below-ground temperature. All of us with wells know that the water comes up at very nearly 52 degrees Fahrenheit. Nowadays, when we’re running garden hoses a lot, or filling a hot tub, we measure the cold water to be 52 or 53 degrees. This is true whether our well is 40 feet or 400 feet deep. It suggests a chilly interior to Earth.
But lava and volcanoes argue otherwise. And studies show that the temperature impressively rises around 80 degrees for every mile deeper you go. The culprit is heat from the radioactive decay of uranium and other unstable elements. My point is that water temperatures contradict what people experience in deep mines. So the simple issue of our planet’s inner temperature was not easy to deduce before the era of modern science.
Sometimes science and logic fail us altogether. For example, if we shoot an electron toward a phosphor-coated sheet of glass – like an ordinary TV screen before the flat-screen era – its arrival will be vividly marked with a glowing dot. However, we might first bounce it off a kind of mirror, so that it can arrive at the detector by taking either of two paths. Call them Route A and Route B. Well, other electron detectors along the way show that before smashing into the TV screen, the electron has not taken either Path A or Path B. It also has not divided itself and taken both paths, nor has it arrived by taking neither path by somehow avoiding the entire setup.
Those are the only choices our logic can entertain. If the rational world is to be trusted, the electron must have experienced one of those four possibilities, as there are no others. Yet the electron nonetheless did “something else”: something other than A, B, both or neither.
Physicists are now used to this. They even have a name for such illogical behavior: of objects conducting themselves outside any of the choices imposed by common sense. They say that the electron was in a state of superposition – that is, it was free to exercise all possibilities, even if the choices are mutually exclusive.
So we can’t always trust logic. This means that deep questions about the Big Bang, death, the reality of time, the nature of consciousness, whether all events are random and many others must allow a lot of wiggle room. It is here where strict rationalists cut others no slack, but where metaphysicians say that such mysteries are resolvable only through “enlightenment” (meaning non-logical) direct experiences.
So the bottom line may be that science does not have the last word, after all. Nonetheless, through it all, Earth will remain spherical.