A wry view of life for the world-weary

Motivated By Curiosity And A Desire For Truth – Part Six


There is something curiously (pun intended) appealing about literalism, the state of mind that brooks no deviation from the meaning in front of you. There is no need for curious speculation or theorising – all the hard graft of noodling around a concept has been done for you. In many ways, fundamentalism is easy-street for the brain.

We take so much for granted in our diurnal existence and make comments without hesitating to ponder on whether there is any truth in them. In particular, we pep up our speech with similes, rarely taking the time to examine whether the comparators are apt. Thank heavens, though, there are members of the scientific community who have the time to help us on our way.

To illustrate this point I came across some research conducted by Messrs Fonstad, Pugatch and Vogt of the Geography Departments of Texas State and Arizona State Universities. We often use the phrase, such and such is as flat as a pancake – rarely, it seems to me in a positive context – but we rarely stop to consider whether that is actually true. Our brave researchers sought to demonstrate whether the mid-Western state of Kansas is really as flat as a pancake as is popularly suggested.

To conduct the experiment the researchers bought themselves a well-cooked pancake and took from it a 2 centimetre sample strip which had not had time to dry out. Using digital image processing they took a digitised image of the pancake’s cross-sectional surface.

Kansas was a bit trickier but the intrepid team accessed data from a digital elevation model compiled by the United States Geographical Survey and from that measured a west-east profile across Kansas. Using a geographic information system they were able to extract surface transects and flatness estimates from the digital elevation model data for both the pancake and for Kansas.

The next step was to compare the two but before doing that they assigned a value of 1.0000 to perfect flatness. Calculating the flatness of the transects of the two comparators they found that the flatness value for the pancake was 0.957 – pretty flat but not the epitome of flatness – whereas the corresponding value for Kansas was 0.997. So Kansas is flatter than a pancake.

What would be helpful is if this research was extended to other jurisdictions so that, if we take 0.957 as the value for the flatness of a pancake, we can establish which territory has an equivalent value. Then we could develop a simile which would satisfy the literalists, the scientists and the curious alike.

On a vaguely related topic philosophers and idlers have wondered which came first, the chicken or the egg. The only way to settle this thorny problem is to conduct an experiment and this is exactly what Alice Shirrell Kaswell did. Taking a chicken and an egg, appropriately wrapped and documented, to her local post office in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At 9.40 am on the Monday both packages were accepted by the post office and were sent on their merry way to a Post Office adjacent to Penn Station in the Big Apple.

Both consignments didn’t arrive until the Wednesday but the chicken arrived in the morning (at 10.31) whereas the egg didn’t appear until the evening (9.37pm). So there we have it, empirically the chicken came before the egg.

Isn’t science wonderful?!

If you enjoyed this why not check out Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone. Available now. Just follow any of the links


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