The Earth is flat, again?

I would like to consider the curvature of the Earth. But not as a necessary by-product of general relativity—even Einstein struggled with the maths—rather as an image (courtesy of NASA).

Image result for first picture of earth from space

Striking, isn’t it? But, notice how you can’t see Europe? That’s not just a white-people problem, it’s a geometrical one. Because our home is spherical. The Universe itself is likely spherical. Spheroids are the default setting of the universe on the cosmological scale for reasons too numerous and sensible for me to get into on the Internet.

Yet #flatearthers (yes: flat-earthers) propose a different truth, evidenced by different images. The “issue” of our planets geometry was again made an issue of public salience by US rapper B.O.B who claims that Earth is a disc. Flat-earth (not capitalized because it is not a place) B.O.B is seeking to raise $200,000 (£150,000) on the GoFundMe crowd-funding website in order to send a satellite into orbit (because nobody has thought of that) with the imperative: ‘Show me the curve’. And yes. People are putting up cash.

“I’m starting this GoFundMe because I would like to send one, if not multiple satellites, as far into space as I can, or into orbit as I can, to find the curve… I’m looking for the curve.” — B.O.B

Cue a predominantly visual debate across the Internet—including social media, venerable news outlets, and even NASA themselves—in which mostly satellite images were circulated, evidencing the manifest and essential curvature of the Earth. Even NASA astronaut Scott Kelly weighed in with a video of one his numerous orbits around our blue marble.

#flatearthers responded with their own images (see below), mostly consisting of confusingly benign photographs taken from the surface of the planet illustrating the relative “flatness” of large bodies of water. A confused and paradoxical position. On one hand, seeing is not believing when the proposition does not conform to your staunch world view (pun unavoidable). On the other hand, seeing is totally believing in relation to “supporting” images. Water looks flat if you view it as a human on the micro-scale (comparative to macro Universe) and, if you ignore the slowly disappearing ship, seemingly sinking into the horizon, you might be forgiven for thinking the world flat—–if you know nothing about liquids, gravity, centripetal force or visual perception (never mind that if shrink yourself down farther, to the near atomic scale, and you’ll find a frothing panic-attack of motion and force).

 

But, as with my previous posts on “alternative facts” and “truthiness”, #flatearthers like B.O.B shouldn’t be seen as questioning the processes of scientific inquiry and empiricism. In fact, they employ empirical evidence as a counter argument against the findings of science and the accepted view of reality. What B.O.B proposes is fundamentally empirical in nature, a simple scientific method to test a simple hypothesis. The world is either flat or curved, let’s send up a satellite and see. It is not an irrational or unreasonable proposition. Nor is he the first to propose it.

What the vox populi finds irrational and unreasonable is the fact that #flatearthers do not trust in the results of previous experiments conducted by the likes of Copernicus, Gallileo, Magellan, Gagarin, Scott, and whoever is currently floating around in the International Space Centre. Thus, if the scientific method isn’t the problem, this argument is one concerning power; a secondary infection parasitic upon the pandemic of mistrust in the scientific community, an in the power and implicit rights of science (as a public) and the government to control and disseminate knowledge. This is, albeit a silly one, a challenge to power. Without certainty and trust in powerful institutions, #flatearthers and B.O.B feel that they must take science into their own hands.

The circulation of pictorial evidence on either side has little effect other than to polarize juxtaposed partisans, and merely galvanize support from within their own spheres of influence.

A scientist to the end, I say let’s hold off judgement until the results of their experiment land.

Note: Technically, the world is flat. It’s just warped by the fabric of space-time. Just as we travel in straight lines around the sun, forever falling into its gravitational well, so does the Earth curve around its own gravitational core. But let’s not run before we can walk.

 

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