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Carl Sagan and Bill Nye debunk flat Earth theory
Flat Earth theory has enjoyed staying power since at least the 19th century despite being patently untrue. Neil deGrasse Tyson, the late Carl Sagan, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and other big thinkers will show you how to disprove this bad idea, all without having to take a journey into space.
- Whether born from contrarian trolling or earnest skeptic beliefs, the "is the earth really round?" debate rages on.
- Science luminaries—including Bill Nye, the late Carl Sagan, and Neil deGrasse Tyson—can easily debunk this myth.
So, you've found yourself in debate with a flat EartherWILKES BARRE, PA - AUGUST 02: David Reinert holds a large 'Q' sign while waiting in line on to see President Donald J. Trump at his rally August 2, 2018 at the Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. 'Q' represents QAnon, a conspiracy theory group that has been seen at recent rallies. (Photo by Rick Loomis/Getty Images)
Maybe he's your conspiracy-loving uncle at Thanksgiving or that friend who will post anything on Facebook. Whatever the case, you imagine it'll be a quick conversation. You google some of the many, many, many awe-inspiring images that show a definitely spherical Earth from space. Easy breezy.
"Ah, not so fast," the flat earther responds. "Neither of us has ever been to space, so you can't prove those images are authentic. Maybe they've been doctored as part of some deep state plot. Fake news, I say."
You may be tempted to laugh off this portrayal as a strawman, but this is an actual argument made by the Flat Earth Society. According to its FAQs page, the society does not "lend much credibility to photographic evidence" as it "is too easily manipulated and altered." The same page also claims the most likely explanation for round-Earth propaganda is that space agencies are involved in a conspiracy, one that started during the Cold War's Space Race for political gain and continues today as a means of embezzlement.
Carl Sagan FTW
Carl Sagan, pictured, is definitely not making a hand gesture about what shape he thinks the planet is.
In an episode of Cosmos, Carl Sagan demonstrated how Greek mathematician Eratosthenes of Cyrene debunked flat-Earth theories more than two millennia ago. Have a look.
Eratosthenes's observations not only gave us proof of Earth's sphericity—furthering the insights of other Hellenistic thinkers such as Pythagoras and Aristotle—his calculations also gave us an incredibly accurate measurement of Earth's circumference. Today, we've improved upon that measurement, but only thanks to instruments slightly more advanced that a pillar and a well.
The best part is that Sagan's model can be reproduced for your debate. All it takes is poster board, two sticks, and a sunny day. With model in hand, you can show how a curved Earth is required for commonplace phenomenon to be as they are.
You could even replicate Eratosthenes' experiment. Sure, this one takes a little more effort—not to mention a pen pal from the Tropic of Cancer and some spare time during a Summer Solstice. But replication, a hallmark of quality science, is entirely possible. If you're feeling less inclined, you can simply double-check the math. (This video provides a more in-depth look at the equations.)
The case for a sinking ship
The flat Earth debate rages on with memes like this, creator anon.
But your flat Earther remains unconvinced by Sagan's "arts-and-crafts project." He needs more evidence before changing his mind. In that case, consider the sinking ship effect.
Here's how Michelle Thaller, assistant director for science communication at NASA, explained it to Big Think.
You'll notice that Thaller's description contains that hallmark of good science, replication. As she says, you can go to the ocean or a large lake and watch ships sail into the horizon. If the ships only get smaller yet contain the same proportions, you have a flat Earth. But if they "sink" over the horizon bit by bit, you're either dealing with a spherical Earth or some seriously suicidal sailors. ("To Aslan's Country, men!")
You can push this experiment further. Have a friend stand on the shore while you get to higher ground. If you and your friend watch the same ship, you'll notice that you can see the ship's mast for longer than your friend. The higher your elevation, the more of the ship you can see. That's because your extra height allows you to see farther over the Earth's curvature.
Are you currently landlocked? You can perform this height differential test on other objects sinking over the horizon. On a flat Earth, you would both see the object in full regardless of elevation, but higher observers always see more of the object thanks to their vantage point.
During one of Big Think's Tuesdays with Bill, Bill Nye added another layer to the sinking ship effect: "If you live on the East Coast, figure out why you can't see Spain from the East Coast or North America? […] What's the problem there? Then climb a tower or go to the top of a hill or a mountain, and you'll see a little farther, but you will not see to the other side of the Earth, places we know exist."
As Bill Nye suggests, if the Earth were flat one should be able to use a high-powered telescope to view Europe from the East Coast. Flat earthers could claim victory by setting up this experiment. But no flat Earther has ever done so, because Earth's sphericity hides Europe and North America from each other.
Is the debate worth the effort?
There are many, many more ways to determine the Earth is a sphere without a trip to space. There's the fact that Earth's shadow is always round during a lunar eclipse. There are the varying star constellations and the existence of time zones. Do we really need to bring up airplanes never discovering a global drop off?
Hellenistic thinkers discovered many of these reasons more than 2,000 years ago, yet flat Earthers have stubbornly soldiered on. Some have done so out of devotion to literal interpretations of religious texts, while others, like the aforementioned Flat Earth Society, simply believe that someone, somewhere is hiding something.
Live Science traces modern flat-Earth theories to Samuel Rowbotham and his alternative to the scientific method, the "Zetetic Method." In the mid-19th century, Rowbotham used Zetetic Astronomy to contend that the Earth was flat, the stars circled above us, and a wall of ice keeps the oceans from pouring over the edge. Flat Earthers continue to cite his work to this day.
Give this history, if your flat Earther is a true believer, it is unlikely that any of our explanations will change his mind. So maybe the question, how to win a debate with a flat Earther? isn't the one we should ask. Maybe we should be asking, should we debate them in the first place?
Astronaut Chris Hadfield doesn't think it is worth the effort. He worries that debating flat Earthers gives them an air of credibility they don't deserve.
"If somebody says the world is flat, it's patently untrue, so there's no point in engaging in conversation," Hadfield says. "[…]If someone has chosen to take the facts and be deliberately stupid about them then I think they've discounted themselves from rational conversation, so I don't bother."
Alfred Russel Wallace learned just how irrational such conversations can be. In 1870, he saw an announcement offering 500 pounds to anyone who could prove the Earth was round. He created a wonderfully simple experiment and did just that. John Hampden, the flat Earther offering up the prize, refused to pay and instead pursued an incessant campaign of harassment against Wallace that lasted 21 years.
On the other hand, if bad ideas infect the heads of influential people, they can spread with viral efficiency. As reported by NPR, many middle school teachers had to reteach the Earth's sphericity after NBA star Kyrie Irving espoused his belief in a flat Earth. Even then, many students continued to believe their teachers were a part of the round-Earther conspiracy.
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 20: Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson attends the IMAX exclusive experience for Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom at AMC Loews Lincoln Square IMAX on June 20, 2018 in New York City.
(Photo by Lars Niki/Getty Images for IMAX)
The only cure against bad ideas, one could argue, is to develop herd immunity through open debate and good facts. This seems to have been the impetuous for Neil DeGrasse Tyson to debate rapper B.o.B. over Twitter.
"For me, the fact that there is a rise of flat Earthers is evidence of two things," Tyson says. "One, we live in a country that protects free speech. And two, we live in a country with a failed educational system. Our system needs to train you not only what to know but how to think about information and knowledge and evidence. If you don't have that kind of training, you'll run around and believe anything."
Both arguments have their merits, and whether you choose to engage in debate or not is ultimately your choice. Should you choose to enter that fray, at least you'll have thinkers like Bill Nye, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Michelle Thaller, and, of course, Carl Sagan in your corner.
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Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
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In a recent study, researchers examined how Christian nationalism is affecting the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- A new study used survey data to examine the interplay between Christian nationalism and incautious behaviors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The researchers defined Christian nationalism as "an ideology that idealizes and advocates a fusion of American civic life with a particular type of Christian identity and culture."
- The results showed that Christian nationalism was the leading predictor that Americans engaged in incautious behavior.
A pastor at the chapel of the St. Josef Hospital on April 1, 2020 in Bochum, German
Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images<p>Christian nationalists, in general, believe the U.S. and God's will are tied together, and they want the government to embody conservative Christian values and symbols. As such, they also believe the nation's fate depends on how closely it adheres to Christianity.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Unsurprisingly then, in the midst of the COVID‐19 pandemic, conservative pastors prophesied God's protection over the nation, citing America's righteous support for President Trump and the prolife agenda," the researchers write.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Correspondingly, the link between Christian nationalism and God's influence on how COVID‐19 impacts America can be seen in proclamations about God's divine judgment for its immorality―with the logic being that God is using the pandemic to draw wayward America <em>back </em>to himself, which assumes the two belong together."</p><p>The logical conclusion to this kind of thinking: America can save itself not through cautionary measures, like mask-wearing, but through devotion to God. What's more, it stands to reason that Christian nationalists are less likely to trust the media and scientists, given that these sources are generally not concerned with promoting a conservative, religious view of the world.</p><p>(The researchers note that they're unaware of any research directly linking Christian nationalism to distrust of media sources, but that they're almost certain the two are connected.)</p>
Predicted values of Americans' frequency of incautious behaviors during the COVID‐19 pandemic across values of Christian nationalism
Perry et al.<p>In the new study, the researchers examined three waves of results from the Public and Discourse Ethics Survey. One wave of the survey was issued in May, and it asked respondents to rate how often they engaged in both incautious and precautionary behaviors.</p><p>Incautious behaviors included things like "ate inside a restaurant" and "went shopping for nonessential items," while precautionary behaviors included "washed my hands more often than typical" and "wore a mask in public."</p><p>To measure Christian nationalism, the researchers asked respondents to rate how strongly they agree with statements like "the federal government should advocate Christian values" and "the success of the United States is part of God's plan."</p><p>The results suggest that, compared to other groups, Christian nationalists are far less likely to wear masks, socially distance and take other precautionary measures amid the COVID-19 pandemic.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Christian nationalism was the leading predictor that Americans engaged in incautious behavior during the pandemic, and the second leading predictor that Americans avoided taking precautionary measures."</p><p>But that's not to say that religious beliefs are causing Americans to reject mask-wearing or social distancing. In fact, when the study accounted for Christian nationalist beliefs, the results showed that Americans with high levels of religiosity were likely to take precautionary measures for COVID-19.</p>
Limitations<p>Still, the researchers note that they're theorizing about the connections between Christian nationalism and COVID-19 behaviors, not documenting them directly. What's more, they suggest that certain experiences — such as having a family member that contracts COVID-19 — might change a Christian nationalist's behaviors during the pandemic.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Limitations notwithstanding, the implications of this study are important for understanding Americans' curious inability to quickly implement informed and reasonable strategies to overcome the threat of COVID‐19, an inability that has likely cost thousands of lives," they write.</p>
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