Eratosthenes knew that at noon on the day of the summer solstice, the sun was observed to be directly overhead at Syene (modern-day Aswan): You could see it from the bottom of a deep well, and a sundial cast no shadow. Yet, to the north at Alexandria, a sundial cast a shadow even at the solstice midday, because the sun was not directly overhead there. Therefore, the Earth must be round — already conventionally believed by the astronomers of his day.
What’s more, if one assumed the sun to be sufficiently far away to be casting parallel rays at Syene and Alexandria, it would be possible to figure out the Earth’s circumference.
Archive for June 20th, 2012
I think there was a benefit, because the actual process of science was displayed. But your mileage varied, as always, depending on your source. There were a lot of good stories, in which you would find explanations of what was going on. Unfortunately, there were a lot of stories that sensationalized the events, and gave us Einstein Overturned/Relativity is Dead – type headlines and stories, despite the fact that nobody associated with the experiment made such claims (of which I am aware, at least). But that’s par for the course. You have good reporting, you have bad reporting, and you have headline editors. They care about circulation, not whether they are doing harm to physics.
There were also instances of people stepping beyond their expertise in trying to explain the results. People were awfully quick to blame GPS (but not one of the critiques I read came from within the timing community; we know how well you can do time transfer) and with that came some “problem solved” stories. That, too is probably par for the course.
I think the only real damage to any credibility was the discovery that an internal calibration/check of the local timing system hadn’t been done in a couple of years. That seemed sloppy. People at the top resigned. They took responsibility for the oversight.
Overall I’m much happier showing off science, warts and all, than allow a stereotype to perpetuate — the mistaken notion that every announced result is the final word and that scientists see themselves as infallible. We got to have a discussion about uncertainty and statistical significance that wasn’t framed by someone equating uncertainty with failed science. The effect on public perception? I don’t know. I suspect that this just reinforced their biases — if they didn’t trust science before, this is just one more reason not to. But, as the adage goes, there is no bad publicity. If it raised anyone’s interest in science, that’s got to be good.