There’s a great little story making the rounds about a singer named B.o.B who is telling his fans the earth is flat and the backlash from Neil deGrasse Tyson and others. It’s a great story because it shows the degrees to which people will give credence to a popular figure in areas where he or she is not credible.
Let me try to explain by going on a little journey in time.
Where is that time travel hat of mine … it was in the upstairs closet … no … wait … here it is under the kitchen sink. How did it get there? Oh well, never mind. Pop it on the old noggin, spin around three times, wooo-woo-flashing-lights-special-effects, and KABLOOM.
Here I am in Ancient Greece watching a balding fellow taking measurements on the shadow of a little triangle set in a rock.
“Whatcha doing?” I ask.
“Measuring the circumference of the earth,” he replies (in Ancient Greek but luckily my time travel hat is also a universal translator).
“Really?” I reply.
“Yep,” he says. “By measuring the shadow here and also at Syene on the same day at the same time I can calculate it based on the distance between Alexandria and Syene and difference in the cast of the shadow. About 252,000 stadia (my hat tells me that’s 46,620 kilometers).”
“Da-damn,” I reply. “That’s some smart ass poop. Well, gotta be going.” I don’t want to tell him his calculation is off by about 16%, it’s pretty good work he’s done. He just doesn’t know the earth isn’t a sphere but bulges in the middle and that the distance between the two cities is a bit off. I put my hat back on … and well, you know.
Still in Ancient Greece but this time looking at a man with a full complement of curly hair drawing very pretty maps.
“Watcha doing?” I ask.
“Drawing a map of the world,” he replies.
“Cool, where did you get the information to determine how big it is?”
“Well, there was this fellow, Eratosthenes, he did some calculations with sun and shadows but I’ve traveled all over the world and I think just by looking at things I’m a better judge of how big it is than all that silly math. What better judge than our own eyes?”
“Hmm,” I say. “That’s one way to look at it.”
Back on with the hat.
KABLOOM (getting a little dizzy now).
Now I’m in Middle Ages Italy looking at a fellow drawing really nice maps.
“Whatcha doing?” I ask.
“I’m making a map of the world,” he replies.
“Cool, you’re a really good artist. These are amazing. How did you determine its size?”
“There was this fellow who drew nice maps back in Ancient Greece and I’m using his model.”
“Why not the math fellow’s models?”
“He didn’t draw maps, just calculated the size using math. Better to go with the guy who traveled the world and was a good artist!”
“Got it,” I reply with a sigh and slip the hat upon my head once again.
KABLOOM. (Feeling a bit nauseous at this point)
Wow, I’m on the deck of ship. Short interlude of vomiting.
Stagger over to the captain, “Watcha doing?”
“We’re sailing to India for trade. Money to be made you know.”
“It doesn’t look like you’ve got enough stores to make it that far,” I say with a raised eyebrow.
“According to these very pretty maps the world is about 30,000 kilometers in circumference.”
“Have you done the math?”
“Why do that? Look how pretty the maps are.”
“Right,” I say, take a breath, and don my hat once again.
Here I sit in front of my computer at the end of my extremely simplified tale of why Columbus thought he could sail around the world when the distance was much more than he realized.
I hope you’ve learned something.