The Science Behind Why the Earth Isn't Flat

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On March 24, 2018, flat-earther Mike Hughes set out prove that the Earth is shaped like a Frisbee. The plan: Strap himself to a homemade steam-powered rocket and launch 52 miles into sky above California’s Mojave Desert, where he'd see Earth's shape with his own eyes.

It didn't matter that astronauts like John Glenn and Neil Armstrong had been to space and verified that the Earth is round; Hughes didn't believe them. According to The Washington Post, Hughes thought they were "merely paid actors performing in front of a computer-generated image of a round globe."

The attempt, ultimately, was a flop. He fell back to Earth with minor injuries after reaching 1875 feet—not even as high as the tip of One World Trade Center. For the cost of his rocket stunt ($20,000), Hughes could have easily flown around the world on a commercial airliner at 35,000 feet.

 

Hughes isn't alone in his misguided belief: Remarkably, thousands of years after the ancient Greeks proved our planet is a sphere, the flat-Earth movement seems to be gaining momentum. "Theories" abound on YouTube, and the flat-Earth Facebook page has some 194,000 followers.

Of course, the Earth isn't flat. It's a sphere. There is zero doubt about this fact in the real, round world. To say the evidence is overwhelming is an understatement.

HOT SPINNING BODIES

Not every celestial body is a sphere, but round objects are common in the universe: In addition to Earth and all other known large planets, stars and bigger moons are also ball-shaped. These objects, and billions of others, have the same shape because of gravity, which pulls everything toward everything else.

All of that pulling makes an object as compact as it can be, and nothing is more compact than a sphere. Say, for example, you have a sphere of modeling clay that is exactly 10 inches in diameter. No part of the mass is more than 5 inches from the center. That's not the case with any other shape—some part of the material will be more than 5 inches from the center of the mass. A sphere is the smallest option.

Today the Earth is mostly solid with a liquid outer core, but when the planet was forming, some 4.5 billion years ago, it was very hot and behaved like more like a fluid—and was subject to the squishing effects of gravity.

And yet, the Earth isn't a perfect sphere; it bulges slightly at the equator. "Over a long time-scale, the Earth acts like a highly viscous fluid," says Surendra Adhikari, a geophysicist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The Earth has been spinning since it was formed, and "if you have a spinning fluid, it will bulge out due to centrifugal forces." You can see evidence for this at the equator, where the Earth's diameter is 7926 miles—27 miles larger than at the poles (7899 miles). The difference is tiny—just one-third of 1 percent.

THE SHADOW KNOWS

The ancient Greeks figured out that Earth was a sphere 2300 years ago by observing the planet's curved shadow during a lunar eclipse, when the Earth passes between the Sun and the Moon. Some flat-Earth believers claim the world is shaped like a disk, perhaps with a wall of ice along the outer rim. (Why no one has ever seen this supposed wall, let alone crashed into it, remains unexplained.)

Wouldn't a disk-shaped Earth also cast a round shadow? Well, it would depend on the orientation of the disk. If sunlight just happened to hit the disk face-on, it would have a round shadow. But if light hit the disk edge-on, the shadow would be a thin, straight line. And if the light fell at an oblique angle, the shadow would be a football–shaped ellipse. We know the Earth is spinning, so it can't present one side toward the Sun time after time. What we observe during lunar eclipses is that the planet's shadow is always round, so its shape has to be spherical.

The ancient Greeks also knew Earth's size, which they determined using the Earth's shape. In the 2nd century BCE, a thinker named Eratosthenes read that on a certain day, the people of Syene, in southern Egypt, reported seeing the Sun directly overhead at noon. 

But in Alexandria, in northern Egypt, on that same day at the same time, Eratosthenes had observed the Sun being several degrees away from overhead. If the Earth were flat, that would be impossible: The Sun would have to be the same height in the sky for observers everywhere, at each moment in time. By measuring the size of this angle, and knowing the distance between the two cities, Eratosthenes was able to calculate the Earth's diameter, coming up with a value within about 15 percent of the modern figure.

And when Columbus set sail from Spain in 1492, the question wasn't "Would he fall off the edge of the world?"—educated people knew the Earth was round—but rather, how long a westward voyage from Europe to Asia would take, and whether any new continents might be found along the way.

During the Age of Exploration, European sailors noticed that, as they sailed south, "new" constellations came into view—stars that could never be seen from their home latitudes. If the world were flat, the same constellations would be visible from everywhere on the Earth's surface.

Finally, in 1522, Ferdinand Magellan's crew became the first people to circle the globe. Like Columbus, Magellan also set off from Spain, in 1519, heading west—and kept generally going west for the next three years. The expedition wound up back at the starting point (though without Magellan, who was killed during a battle in the Philippines).

And speaking of ships and seafaring: One only needs to watch a tall ship sailing away from port to see that its hull disappears before the top of its mast. That happens because the ship is traveling along a curved surface; if the Earth were flat, the ship would just appear smaller and smaller, without any part of it slipping below the horizon.

THE EVIDENCE IS ALL AROUND (AND ALL ROUND)

But you don't need a ship to verify the Earth's shape. When the Sun is rising in, say, Moscow, it's setting in Los Angeles; when it's the middle of the night in New Delhi, the Sun is shining high in the sky in Chicago. These differences occur because the globe is constantly spinning, completing one revolution per day. If the Earth were flat, it would be daytime everywhere at once, followed by nighttime everywhere at once.

You also experience the Earth's roundness every time you take a long-distance flight. Jetliners fly along the shortest path between any two cities. "We use flight paths that are calculated on the basis of the Earth being round," Adhikari says. Imagine a flight from New York to Sydney: It would typically head northwest, toward Alaska, then southwest toward Australia. On the map provided in your airline's in-flight magazine, that might look like a peculiar path. But wrap a piece of string around a globe, and you'll see that it’s the shortest possible route.

"If the Earth were flat," Adhikari says, "the trajectory would be completely different." How different depends on which way the globe is sliced into a flattened map, but if it looked like it does on a Mercator-projection map, it might head east and pass over Africa.

Engineers and architects also take the Earth's curvature into account when building large structures. A good example is the towers that support long suspension bridges such as the Verrazano Narrows bridge in New York City. Its towers are slightly out of parallel with each other, the tops being more than 1.5 inches further apart than their bases. If the Earth were flat, the bottom of the towers would be separated by the exact same distance as the top of the towers; the planet's curvature forces the tops of the towers apart.

And for the last half-century, we've had eyewitness and photographic proof of the Earth's shape. In December 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 left Earth for the Moon. When they looked out of the Command Module windows, they saw a blue-and-white marble suspended against the blackness of space. On Christmas Eve, lunar module pilot William Anders snapped the famous "Earthrise" photograph. It gave us an awe-inspiring perspective of our round planet that was unprecedented in human history—but it wasn't a surprise to anyone.

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