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Steven Goldfarb | University of Michigan |

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The Problem with B.o.B. – Science and the flat earth


Rap musician, B.o.B. (Image: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for BMI)

Is the world flat?

That question was posed by popular rap musician B.o.B. on his Twitter account this past week, prompting angry, but comical video and rap responses by popular science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson and his musician nephew.

What do we really know?

A few thousand years ago, Greek philosophers and Phoenician explorers began to cast doubt on the flat-earth model. They noted differences in star visibility and the sun’s trajectory that depended on the observer’s location, leading them to propose the earth was a sphere. Convinced by this data, as well as the roundness of earth’s shadow cast on the moon during a lunar eclipse, the Greek astronomer Eratosthenes went a step further to estimate the earth’s circumference in 240 BCE. Using trigonometry and shadows cast during the solstice, he came to within a few percent of the actual value. Not bad.

Eratosthenes method for measuring the size of the earth

Image: National Geodetic Survey NOAA, Public Domain.

Evidence backing the round-earth model grew through time and was sufficient five centuries ago to convince sailors they would not fall off earth’s edges. Magellan was the first we know of to circumnavigate the globe and to live to tell about it. Even more convincing were the famous earthrise photos sent down from lunar orbit a few hundred years later. The evidence is overwhelming. So, what’s up with B.o.B.?

Yesterday evening, I had the privilege to discuss the science of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN with a group of 13 and 14 year-olds from Seward, Alaska, USA. They connected via the ATLAS Virtual Visit system to see the experiment and to ask questions about our research. As usual, there were a lot of excellent questions, and fellow CMS physicist, Dave Barney, and I did our best to answer them all.  Then we got to:

“How do you understand things you can’t see?”

Only youth can ask a question so profound.

This started me thinking about our friend B.o.B., and it occurred to me that his skepticism is not so different from that of the student nor even of the scientists at CERN who hunted for the Higgs boson.

More than fifty years ago, an idea was formed by a group of theorists, including François Englert, Robert Brout, and Peter Higgs, essentially describing how fundamental particles attain mass. The proposed mechanism requires the existence of a pervasive, non-directional (we call it scalar) force field and its associated particle, now known as the Higgs boson. It became central to a new theory, called the Standard Model, used by physicists to describe the fundamental particles that make up matter and the forces that act upon them.


Earthrise from moon, shot by astronauts orbiting in Apollo 8 capsule. Image: NASA

The Standard Model, much like the round-earth model, proved itself over time. Just as sailors bet their lives that the earth was a sphere before seeing photos from space, physicists included the Higgs field in their theory and were able to make accurate predictions of the existence (and even the mass) of new particles before seeing images of the Higgs boson. But, we still asked:

Does the Higgs boson exist?

Yes, the empirical evidence was convincing, but just like Magellan, the astronauts, and B.o.B., we scientists wanted our photos. These finally came in 2012, in the form of high-energy proton collisions in the ATLAS and CMS detectors at CERN. Yes, there is something reassuring in seeing it with our own eyes (or detectors).

So, what’s the problem with B.o.B.? If scientists, explorers, and students have the right to be skeptical, why not a musician?

I don’t think Neil deGrasse Tyson is complaining that B.o.B. posed a question. Skepticism is key to the scientific process and questions should be asked. It is far better to ask questions than it is to blindly believe the authoritative figures who present “facts”. If you have doubts, by all means, ask!

Higgs Boson, ATLAS, Physics Events

Candidate Higgs boson decay to 2 photons. Image: ATLAS Experiment © 2011 CERN, CC-BY-SA-4.0

But, B.o.B. went further. He presented a theory (in this case, a very old one) as fact. And he did this without any serious evidence to back it up. This is irresponsible for anyone, but especially for someone who is seen as an authoritative figure by his fans, and moreover for someone who has the means and ability to know better.

We can take comfort in the fact that science is based on uncovering the truth and that truth ultimately reveals itself. But human progress depends on our ability to build upon well-established bricks of knowledge. Sure, we should check the solidity of those bricks from time to time, but let’s not waste effort trying to break them for no good reason.

As a physicist, I am often challenged by friends and family to explain the relevance of our work. So, when the opportunity came last fall to speak at TEDxTUM in Munich, I happily responded to that very question with a simple answer: We have no choice. Human survival depends on basic research. Without our drive to explore and to understand the world, our species would not still be here. We would have starved, been eaten, or died of disease, a long time ago. Hence the threat of B.o.B.

And B.o.B. is not alone.

Powerful people who would like to be world leaders are acting similarly or worse, attacking evidence-based science for the sake of political gain. And while a flat-earth conspiracy might be innocuous or even silly, those who deny important measurements, such as those of climate change, threaten our survival much more directly.

So, when scientists react to B.o.B. with words, images, or even song, they are not just defending their turf, they are expressing primal instincts. They are defending our species. And when individuals like B.o.B. threaten human survival, I suggest they watch their back. They might just get pushed off the edge of the earth.

A question of survival: Why we hunted the Higgs. (Video: TEDxTUM)

  • Carl Zetie

    “Magellan was the first we know of to circumnavigate the globe and to live to
    tell about it.” At the risk of being overly pedantic, Magellan neither circumnavigated the globe nor lived to tell about it. He died in the Philippines. 16 months later, the one surviving ship of his fleet (Victoria) returned to Spain under the command of Elcano.

    Intriguingly the first person to circumnavigate the globe may well have been Magellan’s slave Enrique. He was enslaved in Malacca, was brought back to Spain by Magellan, and later sailed with him on his expedition to serve as interpreter. The historical record shows that he came within at least 2500km of making it home, but it’s not known whether he made it all the way.

  • If the Earth were flat, geosynchronous and polar satellite orbits together would disclose so. Near field gee vs. altitude gradient would be zero (“infinite” plane) not 1/r^2, and field divergence with altitude would be hard by zero. WGS84 geoid and Vandenberg Air Force base launches landing at Kwajalein Atoll. Foucault pendulum. Remote imaging by distant satellites to the inner and outer solar system and Lagrange points. Calculate the material strength necessary to maintain an Earth-massed and -extended pancake against crushing. Centrifugal force versus radius from the pancake’s center and edge fragmentation plus fragments’ trajectories; acute and cumulative effects of lunar tides’ periodic quadrupolar distortions

    If the Earth were flat it could be mapped onto a flat piece of paper without distortion. No flat map represents the Earth’s surface without distortion, cutting, or folding, hence Great Circle routes sea and air.

    Africa’s monotonic technological progress since the Middle Ages is directly traceable to its peoples’ proud cultural heritage and profound understandings therein wrought in the large. “climate change” as an anthropic process is Luddite hogswill, political chicanery, and planet-scale centralized theft of services. (i.e., the same thing).

  • Laurence Cox

    I recommend David Wootton’s “The Invention of Science” (Allen Lane, 2015). This includes a very good discussion about how perceptions of the shape of the Earth changed from the ancient world through to the end of the seventeenth century.