APS News


Don't Make Pancakes with Lumpy Dough

I have a comment with regard to the"Zero-Gravity" article in the October 2003 issue. I'm not certain of the applicability of the measure used by Fonstad, et. al., to human perceptions of flatness.

From the information given in your article, I deduce that a rough estimate of the flatness of a state (requiring zero hours of programming work) is given by 1- (maximum difference in elevation within the state)/(square root of state area). Let's move the selected state one spot to the west and apply that to Colorado.

My Road Atlas lists the highest point in Colorado at 14, 440 ft. The highest point in Kansas, just next to the Colorado line, is a little over 4000 ft., so that's a reasonable estimate of the elevation of the low point in Colorado. This makes the elevation difference just about 2 miles. The state area is 103,730 sq. mile, so the flatness estimate for Colorado is 1-2/sqrt(103730)= 0.995.

By that estimate, interpolating between the verbal descriptions given to the pancake and to Kansas, Colorado turns out to be "pretty damn flat". I'm sure that the Colorado Chamber of Commerce will be surprised to learn this.

Perhaps the pancake is a poor standard by which to judge flatness, or perhaps the dough used by IHOP that day was particularly lumpy. In any case, I suggest that a panel of experts be convened to ponder the question and recommend a response.

Fred Boynton
La Jolla, CA

Regarding October's Zero Gravity column, "Scientists Prove Kansas Flatter than a Pancake," my colleagues at Texas State and Arizona State are forgetting one very important factor that is integral to any experiment: multiple trials! They only tested one pancake from one IHOP restaurant. Even my high school physics students know how important multiple trials are. It is entirely possible that another pancake served at another restaurant would exhibit a different degree of "flatness."

Peggy Grow
Mooresville, IN

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