Debunking Map Myth #4: The earth is round

Ok, ok, unless you are a member of the “Flat Earth Society” (or a geographer), you might think I’ve gone insane right now?

Well, the earth isn’t round if you by round mean a “sphere“, which Wikipedia defines as:

[…] a perfectly round geometrical and circular object in three-dimensional space that resembles the shape of a completely round ball

So, what is the earth then? Actually, the Earth is a misshapen blob of matter that if matched to a mathematically defined shape would be an “ellipsoid“, i.e. the three-dimensional variant of an ellipse, or a lightly squeezed sphere if you like.

So, dependent of how mathematical you need to be the earth is either an ellipsoid, and these ellipsoids can be defined in several ways, as we discussed when debunking myth #1. These ellipsoids are defined by the parameters semi-major axis, a and semi-minor axis, b, from which you can deduce the flattening, f. The flattening occurs due to the fact that the earth spins.

This ellipsoid is what the GPS-systems use to determine your position, and forms the basis of latitude/longitudes.

But, the more interesting case is perhaps the “misshapen blob of matter”, called the Geoid, that is:

[…]the shape that the surface of the oceans would take under the influence of Earth’s gravitation and rotation alone, in the absence of other influences such as winds and tides.

To determine the actual shape of the geoid, geodesists rely on gravitational measurements from satellites, and by knowing the actual geoid height at a known location you can get a rather accurate idea of your “height above sea level” from a GPS (which really only measures the “ellipsoid height”. These calculations are rather complex, but given decent data they are simple enough that I’ve managed to write a Fortran program which does compute it.

So, there you have it, the earth isn’t round: it’s either ellipsoidal or misshapen, dependent on what you intend to use it for (and for the purpose of myth #5, it’s certainly not ellipsoidal!)

(And by the way, people in the middle ages did not think the earth was flat either!)

2 thoughts on “Debunking Map Myth #4: The earth is round

  1. David Ammouial

    Also, the Earth has a plastic rather than solid consistency, which not only means that its shape changes, but also that the physics rules applied to it (especially when rotating) are more complex that you’d expect.

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