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Reality and Fantasy

3 June 2007

Reality Deniers?

I’m amazed to find people in various web forms who promote their own “theory” of physics and maintain that the mainstream theories are wrong. Besides the obvious nutcases who think they know more than all the great scientists who have worked hard on this for the last hundred years, is a more subtle breed.

At first, I just assumed some people simply didn’t understand it yet, and needed simpler, better, or just different explanations. In other subjects such as math or programming topics, I know that there might be some particular point of misunderstanding that, once cleared up, allows the teacher and student to communicate again.

But recently I learned that there are some people who simply refuse to accept what is being presented. For example, person X posts messages stating that time is absolute and universal, somewhat in the Newtonian sense, and thinks that strange effects are measurement artifacts. Explaining it again doesn’t help; he just refuses to believe it.

It does happen in pure math, too, I later found out. For example, here is an argument, going on for almost 1900 posts now, concerning whether .999… repeating does or does not equal 1. Argument? Amazing.

Who Can You Trust?

I saw someone post a question on a website concerning Special Relativity. It was a serious question, and appeared that he had never read up on that stuff before but had some interesting insights. I like to think those are the ones who will understand it, once pointed in the right direction.

The first five answers posted were all from cranks! Some were incomprehensible free verse and not prose at all, but others were simply wrong answers posted by people who feel that the orthodox view is incorrect and have their own reality. Given that these toy realities actually make more sense for simple problems than the real universe does, a real answer might seem more like the psychotic replies, except for better spelling and grammar!

Without knowing something about it in the first place, how can the newbe know to dismiss the wrong answers? Or better yet, to know that that web site was not the place to find serious answers. It’s the same with a Google search or when browsing through the bookstore or even when watching the Discovery Channel. If you don’t already know the stuff, how do you know which presentations are nonsense and which are authorative?

Just the Facts

I want to address the “reality deniers” who might still be persuaded with this different approach, and also address the curious who want to know something about extreme physics without learning all the math. That is, I will present some examples of “what really happens”. If you really think some of the weird stuff is due to measurement artefacts or just a way of interpreting things, this might help you to see that many of the bizzare explanations are actually fundamental truths. If you want to select good materials for further reading, this might help you sort out the obviously wrong stuff, and also prevent you from going down the road of denial yourself.

The Earth is Round

That may seem like an over-obvious one, but it will help you see how they all seem once you know them. Denying it just seems silly! Yet there are people who firmly believe that the Earth is flat.

The round Earth is with us in popular culture. We have globes on our desktops for decoration, photos from weather satellites, and any number of real or fictional illustrations of how planets appear from a distance. Middle-class people can fly over long enough distances to perceive the curvature, and notice how the shortest route from New York to London passes surprisingly far north.

People with no scientific background or curiosity on such matters simply accept that “up” and “down” are relative, with people on the other side of the world pointing their heads in the opposite direction. Yet in a previous age, this would have been enough cause to ridicule the notion of a round Earth. If such observations had been made, people would refuse to believe it and steadfastly maintain that it is just not so. They might argue that the observation is not direct enough, or find some other way to contrive around it, or simply ignore it. This is directly analogous to how people today refuse to believe that time is relative.

In ancient times, there was evidence for a round Earth that knowledgeable and creative people could make sense of. For example, the ships sail over the horizon; the shadow angle at noon varies by location; the lunar eclipse appearance; the appearance of the stars is reversed summer/winter in the old and new worlds; totally different stars are visible in northern and southern hemispheres; the behavior of the sun above the arctic circle. Such a person would have to simply accept that “up” and “down” are relative without knowing any underlying mechanism for it, which is the exact opposite of deciding that “up” and “down” are absolute and refusing to entertain any theory which states otherwise.

More advanced thinkers might realize the interconnectedness of the issues. Given that “down” points to the center of the Earth from any side, and that sand and rock falls “down”, that explains why the Earth must be spherical. The relative nature of “down” means that the existence of another side of the world with people experiencing an opposing “down” is inevitable. It becomes as intuitive as our natural acceptance that a bowl of water will settle flat.

Up is Relative

Consider a two-dimensional slice through the Earth on a great circle, to keep discussion and diagrams simple. That gives us one horizontal direction, with the understanding that another horizontal direction is exactly the same but seperate.

15°ring plane

But another part of the Earth that’s a few thousand miles away will see a different meaning. He would normally draw it the same way, and each is correct. But if we get into a situation were we want to compare the two reference frames, and show how one relates to the other, it gets strange. If people in both reference frames want to compare observations on something they can both see, such as the moon or a spacecraft encounter with a comet, this will be necessary as we will see momentarily.

Now the far-away people have an idea of “up” that is different from your own. This is evident in that the kid’s slide works even though it does not appear to be down-hill to you, and the swing is hanging at an angle that does not correspond to your vertical, which you can see if you compared it to your own plumb-bob. These two scenes are thousands of miles apart, but there is no reason in principle why someone can’t compare them the same as if they were side-by-side as shown here. You need to use a tool other than a plumb-bob since it will change as you move! Use a gyroscope or an observation of Saturn’s ring plane perhaps.


If the boy flying the kite and the man playing with his son at the park both look at something that they can both see, the difference will become clear. The ring plane of Saturn is handy, seen in the upper-right of the sketches. Suppose also that the two observers can communicate instantly with each other and discuss their observations. In a previous age, that would be hard to imagine and might itself draw attacks from critics. But today, we have telephones and the concept is not a problem.

Observer 1 (with the kite) notes that Saturn is tilted about 15° to the right. However, observer 2 (on the playground) will insist that it is tilted about 15° to the left. The reason is obvious when you understand that each observer has a different meaning for “up”.

Now imagine someone who insists that the Earth is flat. He will say that someone could take a plumb bob, note that it is vertical, walk to the other location, and note that at all times it remained vertical. Therefore, he concludes, it could not have changed. Trying to convince that “reality denier” just why his plumb bob experiment proved nothing of the sort will be an exercise in frustration.

More telling is what happens with the Saturn example: Most likely the “reality denier” will simply ignore it. If you point it out to him, even if he replies to you, you will find that he still spouts the same flat-Earth nonsense with the same tired examples, as if your conversation never happened. This is one of the main ways you can spot such a “reality denier”. A scientist, on the other hand, will refine a theory or dismiss it altogether when new data comes along. Scientific ideas must withstand every attack and remain standing. A delusional nut’s idea will be static and exist in a vacuum, unchanged even when problems are brought to his attention.

The other thing that can happen is that the flat-Earth proponent will come up with some convoluted way to account for the observation of Saturn. That can itself be nutty, or seem sound, depending on how much the listener knows. If you were trying to determine which proponent (flat-Earth or round-Earth) knew what he was talking about, this would be much more difficult than the tell-tale blinders.

Usually, the “reality denier” will have some explanations for a few things, and ignore the existence of everything not on his list. So, if you continue following the argument and the round-Earth proponent talks about Lunar eclipses and Foucalt pendulums and sailing ships, you’ll note that the flat-Earth proponent reverts to the first behavior.


With increasing technology, people can observe larger areas of the world and the deviation from flat becomes noticeable. People will accept that the Earth is a sphere and that “up” is relative on Earth and nonexistent in space, even when they don’t understand why or have any knowledge of the details.

That opens the possibility that someone can learn about Newton’s laws of gravity if so inclined.

But again, there is that person who seems not to be able to learn it no matter how many times or in how many ways it is explained; and on further examination it turns out that he refuses to believe that the Earth is round in the first place. That is who I call a “reality denier”.