“Mad” Mike Hughes is a one-man space agency: a self-taught rocket scientist. For the last few month or so he has been announcing his intention to launch himself into space atop his own steam-powered rocket for the express purpose of seeing for himself whether the earth is really round. But time and again the launch has had to be cancelled. First it was a technical glitch that aborted the launch (his very own O-ring problem), and now he finds himself locked in a legal battle with the authorities who have prevented him taking off from public land.
You do wonder if the authorities have something to hide.
I turn now to someone else who is not content to go along with everything he’s told, albeit someone from the world of literature, not the daily news, fake or otherwise.
Young Christopher is a teenager who is extremely good at mathematics, but extremely bad at guessing what people are thinking from their facial expressions, their tone of voice or even what they actually say, which is generally illogical. He cannot tell a lie, or maybe he just doesn’t see why he (or anyone else) should do so. Hence in any confrontation he is apt to answer with the literal truth. On top of this he has a low tolerance to bright lights or loud noises, such as someone shouting in his face. When overstressed and no longer able to withstand what is happening to him, he lies back, shuts his eyes and screams. Occasionally he lashes out. He does all this as a courtesy to his interlocutor, to give clear signs of how he is feeling. He wishes people would be equally considerate to him, instead of the perplexing, ambiguous or contradictory signals they project.
This is all part of a syndrome, which is sufficiently disabling to have earned him a diagnosis of autism and placed him in the category of special needs.
He is the narrator and hero of the novel: * The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon. It should be on everyone’s bucket list of books to read, even if you have to take it into the hospice with you. Though, by then, what it teaches you about human nature may come a trifle late to be to your advantage.
Christopher loves prime numbers, so he numbers his brief chapters in ascending primes. In Chapter 229 he recounts a recurring dream:
And I stand in the surf and it comes up and over my shoes. And I don’t go swimming in case there are sharks. And I stand and look at the horizon and I take out my long metal ruler and I hold it up against the line between the sea and the sky and I demonstrate that the line is a curve and the earth is round. And the way the surf comes up and over my shoes and then goes down again is in a rhythm, like music or drumming.
Now I collect simple confirmations (or refutations) of widely cherished beliefs, and I felt I really ought to try this out. So, collecting a camera tripod, my trusty steel ruler, plus an assortment of clamps, I made my way to my favourite Victorian shelter on the West Cliff seafront. There I settled down on a seat looking out over the sea to conduct what was sure to be a groundbreaking experiment.
I was disappointed. In all my experience of nature I have never seen a straighter line than the horizon. All I could rationally conclude from my experiment was that you shouldn’t believe everything you read in novels.
But one thing I had neglected to do – which I have since remedied – is estimate from published data how big the effect ought to be that I was hoping to see.
Suppose the (allegedly curved) horizon makes an arch over my steel ruler, of length 2*L, like this:
Figure 1. The geometry of the curved horizon.
Suppose the arch is supported by a single column, as shown in Figure 1.
From simple geometry, the height D of that column is given by:
D = R * (1 – cos arcsin L/R)
where R, the radius of the earth – at the equator (…it varies across the earth, so we have to choose somewhere) is given by:
R = 6378137 m
and the-half-length, L, of my steel ruler is given by:
L = 0.15 m
On my computer, the equation for D gives:
D = 1.4 nm
Now a nanometre (nm) is a billionth of a metre. A DNA molecule is between 2-12 nanometers wide. Far too small for me to have had any hope of detecting by eye. No wonder I couldn’t see the horizon making any arch with my steel ruler.
Commentators reckon that “Mad” Mike Hughes will need to ascend in his steam-rocket to a height of 100 km or 62 miles (the Kármán_line, which is where space officially begins) to see incontrovertible evidence that the earth is round. Others claim they’ve noticed a distinct curve to the horizon when looking out the window at 30,000 feet. But – y’know – that could just be an illusion due to the poor optics of an airliner window.
To be scrupulously fair to Mark Heddon, he didn’t write that Christopher had actually performed the experiment: merely that he had dreamed of doing so. It was only a thought experiment – a dream experiment you might even say. But I thirsted after harder science than that – and I continue to do so.
I may not share “Mad” Mike Hughes’s belief that the earth is flat. But I do share his belief that we take too much on trust. Especially from large government agencies like NASA, which have their own agendas. Whatever those are, they aren’t mine – and they aren’t yours.
Now life is too short for me to personally verify everything I’m invited to believe. Moreover many things of enormous consequence to me as an individual – life after death; global warming; Russian interference in my democracy; the real colour of Donald Trump’s hair – are far beyond my individual power to establish. But that doesn’t mean we should believe everything people tell us, or what we see in print, or on TV. We should seek to verify by our own observation at least one or two of the things we are told, just to declare ourselves to be independent agents, and not wholly in the palms of other peoples’ hands, for whom we may have little respect or regard.
In conclusion, I cordially wish “Mad” Mike Hughes a soft landing. And I must reiterate my warning against believing everything you read in novels.
* downloadable here in full.
…But please do buy it, if you mean to read it and not merely verify my reference.