Science is Built on the Shoulders of Giants —But Everyone Isn’t a Giant

Rhett Allain
5 min readNov 9, 2021
Photo: Rhett Allain.

Maybe that title isn’t the best — so let me just start off with an analogy.

Some people are catching a plane from Chicago to London. They get on the plane and everything is good. The plane takes off and starts heading in a Northeastern direction. After a short time, a passenger notices the direction.

Passenger 1:Hey, why are we going NE? I looked at a map and we should be going East. I think the airline is just trying to charge us extra by making the flight longer.

Passenger 2:YEAH! Also, I saw a video online (from this super famous podcaster) and he said that flying Northeast can cause fertility problems later in life.

Passenger 3:No one has fully tested what happens if you fly NE. I don’t want to go to London. I want to stay home. If you want to go, that’s your choice. For me, it’s my trip and my choice.”

Passenger 4:The airline is forcing us to fly Northeast. I think that is wrong. I believe in freedom.

OK, maybe you see what’s going on here. If you look at a map, it just seems like you should go mostly East to get to London. I mean, that makes sense. Right?

Based on image from NASA’s Terra satellite

OK, maybe you see the problem. This is a common projection of Earth’s surface onto a 2D representation. The Earth isn’t actually flat like this — instead both Chicago and London are on the surface of a sphere (mostly spherical). If you use an actual spherical Earth, the shortest path from Chicago to London looks like this:

Screen capture from Google Maps

So, let me summarize. If you just use basic plain logi (exc that makes sense to normal humans, you get the wrong answer. On top of that, the right answer seems wrong — but it isn’t.

Here is another (unfortunately real life) example. Recently Aaron Rodgers (quarterback for the Green Bay Packers) tested positive for COVID. Normally, that wouldn’t be a big deal — but Rodgers previously…

Rhett Allain

Physics faculty, science blogger of all things geek. Technical Consultant for CBS MacGyver and MythBusters. WIRED blogger.