Is Kansas Really "Flatter than a Pancake"?

iStock / Lady-Photo
iStock / Lady-Photo

In a survey conducted by the American Geographical Society, almost a third of all respondents said that Kansas was the flattest state. Some people even call it “flatter than a pancake.” But what does science have to say about that?

The first, and only, study that we know of that directly compared the Sunflower State to a pancake was done by a trio of geographers in 2003. For their tongue-in-cheek analysis, they acquired a pancake from IHOP, cut out a sample slice and made a topographic profile of it using a laser microscope (assuring us that they would “not be daunted by the ‘No Food or Drink’ sign posted in the microscopy room”). They then compared their pancake to an east-west profile of Kansas taken from a 1:250,000 scale digital model of the state’s elevation data, and calculated flatness estimates for each. 

A flatness value of 1.000 would indicate “perfect, platonic flatness.” The pancake was scored as 0.957, which the researchers said is “pretty flat, but far from perfectly flat.” The value for Kansas, meanwhile was ~0.9997, or “damn flat,” as they said. 

“Simply put, our results show that Kansas is considerably flatter than a pancake,” the team concluded. 

But that’s not the whole story. When the playful study first came out in the Annals of Improbable Research, Lee Allison, then the Director of the Kansas Geological Survey, quipped that “everything on Earth is flatter than the pancake as they measured it.” 

Clarifying Allison’s retort in a paper from earlier this year, geographers Jerome Dobson and Joshua Campbell explain it like this:

“The pancake measured in the article was 130 millimeters, and its surface relief was 2 millimeters. Apply that ratio to the east-west dimension of Kansas, approximately 644 kilometers, and the state would need a mountain (2/130 x 664,000 meters) 9,908 meters tall in order not to be flatter than a pancake. Since the highest mountain in the world is 8,848 meters tall, every state in the U.S. is flatter than a pancake.”

So, go ahead and rejoice, Kansans. Your state’s not alone in being flatter than a flapjack. But breakfast food comparisons aside, which state is the flattest? Dobson and Campbell’s research has more good news for Kansas: it’s not even in the top five. 

For their study, The Flatness of U.S. States, the pair developed a measure of human-scale perception of flatness by creating an algorithm that approximated what a person of average height would see if they were standing in a given spot and turning around in a circle, taking in 16 different views in a revolution. Then they took elevation data for the country from NASA’s Shuttle Radar Topography Mission, divided the contiguous U.S. (sorry, Alaska and Hawaii, but they already figured you wouldn’t be the flattest) into 90-meter cells and ran the algorithm to get a flatness score for each cell (calculated by the number of views in the cell that appeared flat: 0-4 flat views was considered “not flat”; 5-8 flat views, flat; 9-12, flatter and 13-16, flattest). Each state was then measured in terms of percentage of land that was not flat, flat, flatter and flattest, and then ranked. 

The state with the most land in the flat, flatter and flattest categories is, perhaps surprisingly, Florida. Illinois, North Dakota, Louisiana, Minnesota, Delaware, Kansas, Texas, Nevada and Indiana round out the top ten.

Kansas isn’t as flat as we think it is when we stand there and look around, and Florida is flatter looking than most people probably give it credit for. It raises interesting questions for future research, the scientists say: “What drives human perceptions of flatness? Do Florida’s dense forests mask its flatness? Does standing water influence human perception of flatness?”

For now, you might ask if flatness and perception of it matters much. Dobson and Campbell think so. First, they say, “business, academic, and other recruiting, for instance, are hampered by negative attitudes about the perceived flatness” of the Midwest, and revealing Kansas for as not-flat as it is can combat that stereotype (I can see the billboards now, “Welcome to Kansas: Not as Flat as Delaware!”). A second benefit to having a measure of nationwide flatness is that it can help in finding good homes for wind turbines, highways or other infrastructure that requires flat land. 

Why is North Always Up on Maps?

iStock/Princessdlaf
iStock/Princessdlaf

Geophysicists recently updated the World Magnetic Model—navigational data used for everything from cell phones to satellites—and found that magnetic north, a spot once located in Arctic Canada, is moving quickly toward Siberia. But even this discovery doesn't quite explain why maps always feature north at the top.

There’s nothing inherently upward about north. Some early Egyptian maps put south on top, while in medieval Europe, Christian cartographers tended to give that distinction to east, since you had to turn that way to face Jerusalem. Others placed east on top because of the rising Sun (that’s why we orient ourselves). And early American settlers sometimes used maps with west on top, because that was the direction they were often heading.

If anyone deserves the blame for today’s northward bias, it’s Claudius Ptolemy. In the 2nd century, he wrote the influential Geographia, which featured a “global” map with north on top. No one’s positive why he positioned it that way, but it may be that the Library of Alexandria—where he did his research—simply didn’t have much information on the Southern Hemisphere. During the Renaissance, Ptolemy’s work was revived. By then, the phenomenon of magnetic north had been discovered, making his layout even more appealing to mapmakers.

The magnetic north pole, however, was not located until 1831. On an otherwise disastrous expedition to Arctic, British explorer James Clark Ross discovered the pole—the spot where a compass needle on a horizontal axis points straight down—on the west coast of Canada's Boothia peninsula. "I must leave it to others to imagine the elation of mind with which we found ourselves now at length arrived at this great object of our ambition," Ross recalled. "Nothing now remained for us but to return home and be happy for the rest of our days."

This story was originally published in 2014.

11 Totally Redundant Place Names

The Milky Way galaxy
The Milky Way galaxy
iStock.com/Nick_Pandevonium

East of Lancashire, England lies Pendle Hill, known for its historical association with witch trials, scientific discoveries about air pressure, and religious visions that led to the founding of the Quaker movement. It is also known for having a tautological name. A tautological name has two parts that are redundant, or synonymous. Tautological place names usually come about when more than one language goes into the name. The Pendle in Pendle Hill is derived from Pen-hyll, a combination of the Cumbric word for "hill" and the Old English word for "hill." So Pendle Hill is really "Hill Hill Hill." Here are 11 other redundant place names:

1. Lake Tahoe ("Lake Lake")

This scenic body of water on the Nevada/California border gets its name from a loose pronunciation of dá’aw, a word from the Native American language Washo that means "lake."

2. La Brea Tar Pits ("The Tar Tar Pits")

The animal bones displayed at this California attraction were preserved in la brea, Spanish for the tar.

3. Milky Way Galaxy ("Milky Way Milky")

The general astronomical term galaxy comes from the word the ancient Greeks used to describe the band of light they could see in the night sky, galaxias or "milky."

4. Minnehaha Falls ("Waterfall Falls")

The name for this Minnesota waterfall does not, as the legend has it, mean "laughing water." It comes from the Dakota word for waterfall.

5. Sahara Desert ("Deserts Desert")

The name for this giant expanse of North Africa comes from çaḥrā, the Arabic word for deserts.

6. El Camino Way ("The Way Way")

There's a street in Palo Alto, California called El Camino Way, or "The Way Way." If you drive down it in your Chevy El Camino you will be driving your way down The Way Way in The Way.

7. Avenue Road

The city of Toronto can't claim the foreign language excuse for this tautological street name.

8. Street Road

Nor can this name in Pennsylvania be blamed on foreign language issues.

9. Mississippi River ("Big River River")

Our favorite spelling word is derived from an Ojibwe or Algonquin word for "big river."

10. Faroe Islands ("Sheep Islands Islands")

Faroe comes from the Faroese word Føroyar, literally meaning "sheep islands."

11. East Timor ("East East")

Whether you say East Timor or Timor Leste, it still means "East East." Timor comes from the Indonesian/Malay timur, for "east." One could argue that the name isn't really tautological, however, since Timor is the name for the easternmost island in a chain of islands, and East Timor is the eastern half of that island. So it's a repeated word, but referring to more than one thing.

A version of this list first ran in 2013.

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