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It’s a round world after all

January 11, 2010 at 09:59 AM


How do you know the world is round?

It seems obvious that it is, but that may only be due to the fact we are taught that from childhood and have likely seen pictures of Earth from space.

Yes, it is round. There actually is a group, however, known as the Flat Earth Society, that says otherwise. Their mission statement contends that Christopher Columbus used “hundreds of mirrors and a few burlap sacks” to create an illusion that he had sailed around the globe and landed in the West Indies. Of course, we realize Columbus did actually stop short in his intention of rounding the world, by bumping into a previously unknown island off a continent unknown to his part of the world (the Americas weren’t “new” to the Vikings, and certainly not to the people living here).

Despite the critics, I contend the Earth is indeed round.

The globe in my study sure looks spherical. Besides, a flat map of the world makes Greenland much too large, though I haven’t been there to see for myself.

Recently my wife and I had an opportunity to visit relatives in Florida. Being from Pennsylvania, a far northern state, Florida is always a welcome winter destination. It is here that I enjoy “looking up” at the stars and marveling at the roundness of our world. You thought I’d say it was because of the warm, sunny climate, didn’t you? Well, that is very nice, too. It’s great being able to see the stars in the winter without having to don my parka and scarf!

The constellations from Florida are noticeably shifted. The North Star stands a full 15 degrees lower than the vantage point from Pennsylvania. That means the Big Dipper actually partly sets below the horizon. Orion, which stands about half way up as seen in Pennsylvania, is nearly three-quarters the way up in the sky. The constellation Orion seems to rise right on its side, rather than at more of an angle. In the west, it was startling to see the crescent moon’s orientation. It was pointing straight down, with its sharp cusps pointing upward.

Most interesting, however, is the sight of stars low in the south that are hidden from view from up north. As you travel south, around the curve of the planet, a whole new section of the sky rises in the south, just as the North Star dips down behind you.

Most notable was the brilliant star Canopus, the second brightest star in the night sky, second only to gloriously bright Sirius. Canopus and Sirius are visible in the night sky simultaneously. Canopus is the brightest star (the “lucida”) in the constellation Carina, the Ship’s Keel, and Sirius is the premier gem of Canis Major the Big Dog. To the upper right of Sirius stands Orion, with its brilliant display of stars marked most famously by its “belt” of three.

Over to the right of Canopus and a little lower is the bright star Achernar, also not seen in the mid-northern latitudes. Unfortunately I did not detect Achernar, which may have been hidden by the light pollution, horizon haze as well as trees low on the horizon. A few years ago, similarly low in the southern Floridian sky, I managed to detect Alpha Centauri, the closet star system to the Sun. Although very bright, binoculars were required to see it, due to its extremely low angle to the horizon.

There are many other ways to notice the roundness of Earth. At a lunar eclipse, you will see that the shadow of Earth is distinctly round as it covers the moon. Departing ocean ships may be seen to gradually disappear at the very “edge.” Any clear night you can easily see dozens of manmade Earth satellites, crossing the sky. Careful watch from night to night and even in one night will show the same satellite returning. Have a loved one on the other side of the country? Call your loved one and ask him or her to step outside and tell you where the sun or the stars or moon are positioned, compared to what you see. Assuming the sky is clear in both places, you will at once realize the curvature of the planet.

Send your comments and questions to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Have a great New Year.

Keep looking up!

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