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Physicist Michio Kaku on Whether the Earth Is Flat (Spoiler! It’s Not)

We spoke to physicist Michio Kaku after attending the Flat Earth Conference in Frisco. He confirmed what we sort of suspected ... the Earth is not flat.EXPAND
We spoke to physicist Michio Kaku after attending the Flat Earth Conference in Frisco. He confirmed what we sort of suspected ... the Earth is not flat.
courtesy City College of New York

The flat Earth community loves to take shots at some of the scientific world's biggest names, from Galileo Galilei to Neil DeGrasse Tyson, because ... well, because the Earth isn't flat and having people prove that it isn't is really damaging to their case.

So we decided to call one of the names the flat Earth community brought up during the Flat Earth International Conference in Frisco to answer their claims and shed some perspective on the movement. One of the most famous and respected names on the list actually responded.

Theoretical physicist, author, television host and City College of New York Professor Michio Kaku is perhaps one of modern science's greatest contributors and champions. He co-founded the string theory subset called string field theory (SFT), providing the one-inch-long equation that could explain all the universe's physical laws. Kaku helped create the calculations first sought by physicist Albert Einstein, who believed he "could read the mind of God," Kaku said on an episode of the PBS science series NOVA.

We talked to Kaku about some of the claims and theories from last month's conference, the relationship and nature of science and religion and what the flat Earth community and other conspiracies are contributing to discussions about science.

[The flat Earthers] mentioned you in the opening press conference.

Why did they do that?

They gave us a bunch of talking points and I can read the quote to you. Under the subject line, "Realize you don't actually have a working map or model either," it says "Big Bang Cosmology is rapidly going bankrupt. Major scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Michio Kaku admit to being '96% stupid' and 'off by 10 to the 120th power when it comes to our understanding of the Cosmos.'"

And they also included a quote from you from an interview you did for the documentary The Principle: "Usually in science, if we're off by a factor of 2 or a factor of 10, we call that horrible. We say, something's wrong with the theory. We're off by a factor of 10! However, in cosmology, we're off by a factor of 10 to the 120th. That is one with 100 and 20 zeroes after it. This is the largest mismatch between theory and experiment in the history of science."

Yeah, they took it out of context. The number 10 to the 120th is a mismatch, but it's not a Copernican mismatch. It's a mismatch to the quantum theory and the instant of the big bang. We're 13.8 billion years after the big bang, so we don't have to worry about that mismatch.

And I assume if one of them was part of this conversation, they would say, "Well, big bang is just a theory. Gravity is just a theory." The crux of the flat Earth theory is based on the word 'theory' being loosely interpreted on their end.

Yeah, right. In some sense, the flat Earth people are actually doing a service in a bizarre way. You see, where do correct ideas come from? Correct ideas do not come from a vacuum. They come from, you know, experiments but also interactions with incorrect ideas. So with the interaction between correct ideas and incorrect ideas a higher truth emerges. If there was no talk about flat Earth at all, let's say the movement did not exist at all ... People do wonder about this, you know in the back of people's mind on a Sunday afternoon walking down the street, they do wonder about the fact that maybe the Earth is flat. People do think about these things, but they don't say it and there’s no one there to rebut it. So this gets it in the open basically.

I mean, of course, they're wrong, but I think that's where correct ideas come from. So the fact that people are talking about it, I think, is a good thing because people in the back of their minds do have this suspicion. They don't want to say it, but people in the back of their minds probably do have this suspicion. “Well, the Earth is flat. It looks pretty flat to me.”

What is science? Science is the difference between appearance and essence. If appearance and essence were the same thing, there would be no necessity for science. We need science precisely because there's a mismatch between appearance and essence. In other words, what you see is not what you get in the real world. Right? Your first impressions are not necessarily correct. The correct idea comes out because of experiments and interactions with different points of view. So if the flat Earth people didn't say anything at all, people would still harbor these feelings that maybe the Earth is flat, but they don't want to talk about it. Now it’s in the open and we can talk about how do we know the Earth is round. So I think it raises the level of discussion from simply saying that the Earth is flat to well, let's look at the proof with the experimental evidence, and that I think is a good thing.

Once it does come out and you know people are not just expressing these beliefs that the Earth is flat, but that we should teach it in schools and more people should go to this way of thinking — how do you keep the legend from becoming fact, or is that not really a concern?

Well, I personally do not think it's much of a concern because every time you take an airplane trip, you can see the curvature of the Earth. You don't have to be a genius to figure it out. You just take an airplane trip and there it is, my God, look. You can see that the Earth is curved.

So I think that, one, a lot of people in the flat Earth movement are tongue-in-cheek. They're doing it just to thumb their nose at the establishment. Nyah, nyah, nyah. They don't really believe that the Earth is flat because otherwise the space program would collapse, telecommunications, the internet, they would all collapse. They want to make a name for themselves. It is kind of tongue-in-cheek for a lot of them.

Now the hardcore, they may think that the Earth is flat because they want to challenge the orthodoxy, not because they have experimental evidence. You just get a TV camera and stick it onto a balloon and watch it in your backyard. You could even do the experiment yourself without taking a plane trip. And you know, sailors knew that the Earth was round because ships go below the horizon and they come back up. So we have lots of empirical evidence that even humans can appreciate without having to have a rocket.

How would you talk to someone who is very adamant about this and kind of throws all the things you say back and say it's a lie, it’s a conspiracy or wrong?

Well, I would have to see what evidence they have. Do you have an example of some of the evidence that they use?

Take the horizon example, for instance, one of the things that you can see with your eyes. Their claim is if you use a high-powered camera and zoom in on the object that the curve goes away.

It has to go away when you look at it from a small distance.

But they're saying that's evidence. If you look at it with just your naked eye, it looks like it's going over the curve of the Earth or city or whatever, but if you zoom in with a camera, that proves that your vision is tricking you.

[Laughs] So you're saying don't believe what you see, in other words. Usually they say believe what you see, where it looks flat therefore it must be flat. Now you're still saying the opposite. Don't believe what you see is when you see the curvature. Your eyes are playing tricks on you. Well, you can't have it both ways. Either eyesight is good or eyesight is not good.

They’re saying that you need something more powerful than your eye to see that the Earth is flat.

Yeah, well, you know, it's correct that if you have a high-power telescope, you’re only looking at a fraction of the horizon. So a fraction of the horizon is going to be flat, right?

I've had this conversation. I was on a podcast with one of the people who sent me an email, and I'm not a scientist but even my whiskey-soaked mind can say, well, you know a camera and your eyes are two different perspectives but it still comes back to “no, it's this.” Have you had this kind of conversation with someone and how did you handle it?

Well, the answer is no, but I teach astronomy and on the first day of class, I ask people why do we have summer. Is it because the Earth is too close to the sun during summertime and usually you know over half the class says yeah, that's why we have summer is because the Earth is too close to the sun and too far from the sun in winter time. And then I say well, look at Australia. When it's summertime in Australia, what is it on the other side of the Earth? It's simultaneously the opposite season, right? I would have to see the experiment that they use to go head-to-head, because if they say that a camera cannot pick up the horizon of the Earth because of a telescopic lens, I can say that's always true. That’s universally true for any curve. Any curve looked at microscopically is flat. It could be a zigzag. It could be a mountain range. Anything on a small scale turns out to be flat.

Anyway, my point is, it's a good thing that people are putting it in the open. It's a good thing that people are coming up with experiments, because science is based on things that are testable and reproducible. OK, so anything in science is up for grabs. If you can have one experiment that disproves relativity, then the theory is wrong. It's always open for debate. You can test a theory every single time. It has to work or else it is not science. And here is a situation where they're submitting experiments that can be tested. And I think you know test for test, that's a good thing because that’s how science is done.

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For example, flying saucers, right? Some people believe in flying saucers. It's a religion for some people and you can't count it out, right? And the fact that it's in the open, I think it's a good thing because then we can talk about the possibility of life and the universe, how did life get started on the Earth and is there life on other planets and stuff like that.

So you start off with an incorrect idea or an outlandish idea and then from that you can extract valuable scientific lessons, because correct ideas come from interaction with incorrect ideas. So in that sense, I think it’s a good thing. Of course, it’s silly, and like I said, most people in the movement, I think, do it just for the hell of it just to thumb their nose at the establishment and don't really believe it because you know it's kind of fun to always be the rebel. So that's where most of them come from. A few of the die-hards, I think we'll have to go head-to-head with the experiment if you really challenge them on a scientific basis and that's where they're weak. That's why they have to come up with all sorts of analogies showing that on a small scale, everything looks flat. Well, yeah, that's just common sense. On a small scale, everything is flat.

I don't know how familiar you are with this movement, but from what I've seen they basically do the scientific method in reverse. I don't know how big a component but I would say a noticeable component comes from religious doctrine that they believe the Earth is flat.

I like the quote from Galileo. Galileo once said that the purpose of science is to determine how the heavens go. The purpose of religion is to determine how to go to heaven. So that science is about natural law, how the universe goes. Religion is about how to go to heaven. That is ethics, how to be a good person. The problem occurs when people from a scientific point of view begin to pontificate about ethics and how people should behave and also we get into trouble where people who are religious try to pontificate about natural law. That's where you get into trouble.

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