When I first heard that rapper B.o.B apparently believes the Earth is flat, I sighed the weary sigh of a science writer facing down an anti-science culture. Evolution, climate change, vaccines, and now #FlatEarth? “Are you kidding me?” I thought. Will Americans insist on rejecting everything that 100 percent of scientists agree on? Aside from B.o.B’s delightful diss track aimed at Neil deGrasse Tyson (and Tyson’s equally delightful response), this latest dustup just felt like more of the same. But then I clicked through and read B.o.B’s original arguments, and they stirred my very soul.
No, he did not convince me that the Earth is flat, you dopes. You and I both know it’s round. NASA knows it’s round. It’s round. Ok? The Earth is round. But let’s take at look some samples from B.o.B’s #FlatEarth tweetstorm.
The cities in the background are approx. 16miles apart... where is the curve ? please explain this pic.twitter.com/YCJVBdOWX7— B.o.B (@bobatl) January 25, 2016
No matter how high in elevation you are... the horizon is always eye level ... sorry cadets... I didn't wanna believe it either.— B.o.B (@bobatl) January 25, 2016
y'all be like... "you're not high enough to see the curve...keep going" pic.twitter.com/dzgYpIIao3— B.o.B (@bobatl) January 25, 2016
You can regurgitate force fed information all day... still doesn't change physics.— B.o.B (@bobatl) January 25, 2016
Take a look especially at the tweet that started it all: “The cities in the background are approx. 16 miles apart … where is the curve? please explain this.” There’s something touchingly genuine about this to me, some deep seated desire to work through confusion and toward truth. This isn’t a man who never learned science, or who has some fundamentalist objection to examining empirical evidence about the world. This is a man who has looked at the world around him and decided that mainstream science isn’t doing a good job at explaining what he sees. So he’s collecting evidence, seeking out literature by well-versed “experts,” and working out a better theory on his own.
This is the hallmark of people I’ve come to think of as outsider physicists. You might know them by other names: loons, kooks, crackpots. Most scientists and science writers consider them a nuisance, as they often clog up our inboxes and even (shudder) voicemails with their wacky theories, desperate for validation. I occasionally get those emails, and I almost always ignore them. But years ago, the physicist-turned-science-writer Margaret Wertheim decided to pay attention to the fringe theories that came her way. “The Big Bang theory accepted by a majority of scientists constitutes the greatest blunder and misinterpretation in the history of cosmology.” The universe is a “12 lobed Raspberry in a dodecahedral configuration.” And oh so many more. Some had an internal logic she could follow. Others made no sense at all. But as she wrote in her 2011 book Physics on the Fringe, their architects all shared a sense that physics had veered woefully off-track somewhere around the time it started relying on differential equations to describe invisible phenomenon, from magnetic fields to Higgs bosons.