Saturday, October 8, 2011

It probably snowed in 1492

I “knew” it would snow. I may have been a bit fuzzy on the prospect of the first snow occurring the first weekend in October, but I “knew” it would snow eventually. I couple this to the fantastic belief that the very solid surface I'm standing on is actually a rather insignificant speck of matter flying unaided through a vacuum-like void called “space”. This planet wobbles as it spins around a continually ongoing nuclear explosion, and that wobble causes seasons. All these increasingly astronomical explanations couple to provide a belief system that my belief in allows me to “know” that it will snow. Some people call that belief of mine “faith”.

One very common definition of faith that I'm given is: “Faith is belief in something without evidence”

This is often extended by degrees to: “Faith is belief in something without enough evidence”, or: “Faith is belief in something without direct evidence”, or even further to: “Faith is belief that the evidence is true”

My operational definition of faith is: “Faith is belief in something despite evidence to the contrary”.

I sometimes extend my definition (especially for my deist friends) to: “Faith is the knowledge that something exists when all the evidence cannot refute it's non existence”. I like to meditate on the double negative in the extended version; it is not a good definition to use late at night or in trivial conversations.

I have been abused by belief in things whose evidence was faulty; mostly faulty evidence purposefully provided by other people. I don't think my disillusionment in these cases was a crisis of faith; it was a crisis of trust. Sometimes I have had faith in trust. Sometimes I have hung onto the notion of trust long after the “evidence to the contrary” has almost buried me.

This early snow will not bury me. Though it has caught every leaf on every plant by surprise. The Ginkos had not even turned yellow, and now they are white. I “know” this early snow will melt before the leaves turn, but the leaves will turn and fall, and new deeper snows will fall and cover them.

I would like to have a way to tell what is going on in another person's mind; preferably a way that did not involve a power drill. Instead I have a faith like something that will not scrape off my shoe. I have a faith that leaves a scent once everything is gone. Simple words will send me. When the words are gone the memory of them will send me still.

The snow is mostly gone now. It fell while melting, and attained at least two inches of stable depth before it stopped falling, and the melting became dominant. Now there is rain, and the snow is vanishing even faster. It will snow again. It will probably snow again before November.

It is the wobble of the earth which does it. This wobble takes a year, which is much too slow for my 30 minute attention span, and so I have no direct evidence for it. I live close to the great Bonneville salt flats so I have seen the curvature of the earth over dry land. There are few places on earth to do that. I can say that I know the earth is not flat without the use of scare quotes.

A couple hundred years BC a man called Eratosthenes of Cyrene proved that the earth was spherical, and even calculated the circumference of the planet. He observed the sun's reflections at the bottom of wells in the cities of Aswan (which sits on the tropic of cancer) and Alexandria (which is quite a bit north of Aswan). On the summer solstice the sun's reflection was in the center of the Aswan well, and not in the center of the Alexandrian well. Measuring the amount of off- centeredness of the summer solstice sun in the Alexandrian well he calculated that the sun was 1/50th of a circle off of being directly overhead. He then hired someone to pace off the distance between Aswan and Alexandria, which turned out to be about 800 kilometers (about 500 miles). Multiplying 800 by 50 gives 40,000 for the circumference of the earth. The current value (measured using all sorts of fancy high-tech gadgets) for the circumference of the earth is 40,075.16 kilometers.  Eratosthenes was off by 75.16 kilometers (almost 47 miles). 

On Monday the USA celebrates Columbus day. I learned in primary school that he proved the earth was round. He did it in 1492.



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