How Everything Works
How Everything Works How Everything Works

Question 1006

How does one prove that the earth is round?
There are many possibilities, so I'll suggest an intriguing method that is familiar to surveyors. While the overly simple technique I suggest isn't particularly practical, it is closely related to surveying techniques that are practical.

Take a very long string, say about 20 miles long, and attach one end of the string to a post. Now draw the string taut and walk all the way around the post while holding on to the other end of the string. If you measure the distance you walked while completing one full trip around the post, you would expect it to be related to the length of the string by a factor of 2 times pi because you learn in grade school that the circumference of a circle is 2 times pi times the radius of that circle. However, that relationship is only true if you're working on a flat surface. Since the earth is curved, the circumference of the circle around which you walk will be somewhat less than 2 times pi times the radius of the circle. That result is enough to prove that you're on a curved surface.

You can see this effect by performing the experiment I just suggested on the surface of a basketball. Take a short length of string and use it, together with a pin and a pencil, to draw a circle on the surface of the ball. If you measure the circumference of that circle and compare it to 2 times pi times the length of the string, the circle's circumference will be a bit shorter than expected. As with the earth, the basketball is a curved surface. The larger the circle you try to draw in this manner, the greater the discrepancy between 2 times pi times the radius and the actual circumference of the circle.


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