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Is Kansas Really "Flatter than a Pancake"?

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. 

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Big Questions
Why Does the Queen Have Two Birthdays?
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CHRIS JACKSON, AFP/Getty Images

On April 21, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will turn 92 years old. To mark the occasion, there are usually a series of gun salutes around London: a 41 gun salute in Hyde Park, a 21 gun salute in Windsor Great Park, and a 62 gun salute at the Tower of London. For the most part, the monarch celebrates her big day privately. But on June 9, 2018, Her Majesty will parade through London as part of an opulent birthday celebration known as Trooping the Colour.

Queen Elizabeth, like many British monarchs before her, has two birthdays: the actual anniversary of the day she was born, and a separate day that is labeled her "official" birthday (usually the second Saturday in June). Why? Because April 21 is usually too cold for a proper parade.

The tradition started in 1748, with King George II, who had the misfortune of being born in chilly November. Rather than have his subjects risk catching colds, he combined his birthday celebration with the Trooping the Colour.

The parade itself had been part of British culture for almost a century by that time. At first it was strictly a military event, at which regiments displayed their flags—or "colours"—so that soldiers could familiarize themselves. But George was known as a formidable general after having led troops at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743, so the military celebration seemed a fitting occasion onto which to graft his warm-weather birthday. Edward VII, who also had a November birthday, was the first to standardize the June Trooping the Colour and launched a tradition of a monarchical review of the troops that drew crowds of onlookers.

Even now, the date of the "official" birthday varies year to year. For the first seven years of her reign, Elizabeth II held her official birthday on a Thursday but has since switched over to Saturdays. And while the date is tied to the Trooping the Colour in the UK, Commonwealth nations around the world have their own criteria, which generally involve recognizing it as a public holiday.

Australia started recognizing an official birthday back in 1788, and all the provinces (save one) observe the Queen's Birthday on the second Monday in June, with Western Australia holding its celebrations on the last Monday of September or the first Monday of October.

In Canada, the official birthday has been set to align with the actual birth date of Queen Victoria—May 24, 1819—since 1845, and as such they celebrate so-called Victoria Day on May 24 or the Monday before.

In New Zealand, it's the first Monday in June, and in the Falkland Islands the actual day of the Queen's birth is celebrated publicly.

All in all, just another reason it's great to be Queen.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Is the Meaning Behind "420"?
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Whether or not you’re a marijuana enthusiast, you’re probably aware that today is an unofficial holiday for those who are. April 20—4/20—is a day when pot smokers around the world come together to, well, smoke pot. Others use the day to push for legalization, holding marches and rallies.

But why the code 420? There are a lot of theories as to why that particular number was chosen, but most of them are wrong. You may have heard that 420 is police code for possession, or maybe it’s the penal code for marijuana use. Both are false. There is a California Senate Bill 420 that refers to the use of medical marijuana, but the bill was named for the code, not the other way around.

As far as anyone can tell, the phrase started with a bunch of high school students. Back in 1971, a group of kids at San Rafael High School in San Rafael, California, got in the habit of meeting at 4:20 to smoke after school. When they’d see each other in the hallways during the day, their shorthand was “420 Louis,” meaning, “Let’s meet at the Louis Pasteur statue at 4:20 to smoke.”

Somehow, the phrase caught on—and when the Grateful Dead eventually picked it up, "420" spread through the greater community like wildfire. What began as a silly code passed between classes is now a worldwide event for smokers and legalization activists everywhere—not a bad accomplishment for a bunch of high school stoners.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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