When the Orbit is Wobbly

These are strange times. Uncertain and unpredictable. Conspiracy theories gain a foothold as people are off-guard and succeptable to left field ramblings and explanations.  The Earth being flat is not a new belief being pushed, it even has a society of believers, but this is a time of anti-science and rejecting what does not align with your own viewpoints.

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The spherically shaped Earth is not totally solid, there is this thing called the oceans, that blue stuff as seen from space. There is the atmosphere and molten core, things that will figure into our story.  Scientists have known for centuries that the Earth, titled on it axis, has a slight wobble as it rotates.  It’s like having a bit of a buzz which leaves you slightly unsteady, just enough to give you a faint tilt on your own axis.

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The Earth’s wobble even has a name. The Chandler Wobble is a real thing, though the cause of the slight planetary tremor is unknown. Wind, ocean pressure, molten core layers and gravitational impact of other nearby bodies in space are theorized.  I have my own suspicion it has something to do with motion of the Karma wheel.  Always moving. Or the cause could be the official Congressional hamster wheel.

Patient: ‘I have a ringing in my ears.’

Doctor: ‘Don’t answer!

Meanwhile, I mentioned spherical shape of the Earth. A spherical shape makes a pretty rotation, smooth, if you overlook the wobble.  Imagine some other shape. How would it rotate to turn day into night, or move through the seasons.  Granted, wouldn’t it be great to have San Diego weather year-round, but that’s not the reality.  Like fitting into a bathing suit, shape does matter.

Wobbly things. Mostly we think of objects like a top, when it spins, it has that sashay movement like Joan Crawford and Bette Davis with huge, square shoulders and big lacquered hair, competing for the biggest entrance to a crowded room.

Maybe it works for Joan and Bette who had style, but wobbling can be unseemly, like the Elaine dance. Imagine describing the spin of the Earth as a Seinfeld character. If the Earth ever moves like Elaine, we’re screwed. So you better do something you’ve always wanted to do but your sense of restraint stopped you, because the planet will be so embarrassed that earthquakes, tsunamis and tectonic plate shifting in revolt will ruin your day.  And every day going forward.

So, from a purist’s standpoint, the Earth’s wobble is like the wheel on the grocery cart, annoying, but not lethal. It squeaks a bit and makes turning difficult. The Earth’s wobble is something only annoying to scientists, it’s like a dog whistle.

If the Earth was flat, humor me now, where does gravity come from? Things do not fall up or hang in the air. Wouldn’t it be cool if you spill a glass of beer and it is suspended in mid-air! Like at the international space station, where the liquid is a series of globules and you could suck them out of the air. I love science.

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So, what does a flat Earth look like? One idea is the Earth has some depth (so you don’t fall into space when you are planting trees), but it goes on in each direction to infinity. This does not explain how if you get in an airplane and fly in a straight line that you will eventually return to the same point. It could be that the person who shows up is not really you. Like a twin that you never knew about. The one your mother always liked better. Tom Smothers was onto something.

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Another notion is the Earth is round like a vinyl record album. A 33 & 1/3 album, not some goofy 78.  So, being like a record album, it can go round and round, like an orbit. The big problem is that this group of theorists can’t decide if the album is more like Pink Floyd or ABBA. You can understand why their meetings get contentious at times.

So who was Seth Carlo Chandler? He was a mathematician and astronomer, who did most of his work in the second half of the 1800s. He was still in high school when he began his career working for astronomer Benjamin Gould with the United States Coast Survey program and followed Gould to Argentina when he headed up an observatory there. Chandler’s job was computations, solving problems and finding things that should be there. The Earth’s variation had already been predicted, but Chandler was able to explain and use math to account for it. He used math to compute the wobble, identified new stars, but couldn’t find Waldo. Still, there is a crater on the Moon named for him.

Some night, if I have a bit of a wobble, perhaps I’ll look skyward to the Moon, and wonder what shape I’m looking at. Is the cheese round or sliced?


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