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Inspired by pancakes: Further findings on the flatness of Kansas

Saturday, August 29th, 2015

Joshua Campbell and his colleague Jerome E. Dobson, inspired by the article “Kansas is Flatter Than a Pancake,” did some research on their own. Campbell tells about it in his  Disruptive Geo blog:

The Flatness of U.S. States

It all started with delicious pancakes and a glorified misconception. In a 2003 article published in the Annals of Improbable Research (AIR), researchers claimed to scientifically prove that “Kansas is Flatter Than a Pancake” (Fonstad et al., 2003). The experiment compared the variation in surface elevation obtained from a laser scan of an IHOP pancake and an elevation transect across the State of Kansas. And while the researchers’ conclusion is technically correct…


Now, I can take a joke, and at the time thought the article was clever and funny. And while I still think it was clever, it began to bother me that the erroneous and persistent view that Kansas is flat, and therefore boring, would have negative economic consequences for the state. I grew up on the High Plains of southwestern Kansas…

As luck would have it, a few years after the AIR article I found an opportunity to work on this question of flatness and how to measure it. As part of my PhD coursework I was investigating the utility of open source geospatial software as a replacement for proprietary GIS and needed a topic that could actually test the processing power of the software. Combining my background in geomorphology and soil science with a large terrain modeling exercise using the open source stack offered the perfect opportunity to address the question of flatness. What emerged from that work was published last year (2014) in the Geographical Review as a paper coauthored with Dr. Jerry Dobson entitled “The Flatness of U.S. States” (Dobson and Campbell, 2014).

Here are citations for the two studies:
Dobson, J. E., & Campbell, J. S. (2014). The Flatness of U.S. States. Geographical Review, 104(1), 1–9.
Fonstad, M., Pugatch, W., & Vogt, B. (2003). Kansas is Flatter Than a Pancake. Annals of Improbable Research, 9(3), 16–17.

Kansans flattered by flatness vs Kansas flatness decriers

Wednesday, March 5th, 2014

Kansans have long been at war with each other over the goodness of the flatness of their state. Some are proud, some are not. The University of Kansas has now issued a press release that creates its own controversy, and then claims to settle that controversy. The press release denigrates a paper we (the Annals of Improbable Researchpublished in 2003 that points out, simply, that Kansas is flatter than a pancake. The university’s press release boasts a headline that is irrelevant to that 2003 finding:

Research: If you think Kansas is the flattest U.S. state, you’re plain wrong

dobson_jLAWRENCE — It’s time for some levelheaded talk about that ostensibly endless stretch of flatness some denigrate as “flyover country” and others respectfully call “Kansas.” The alleged monotony of the Sunflower State’s terrain is referenced about as often as “The Wizard of Oz” when Kansas pops up into conversation. “It’s truly engrained,” said Jerry Dobson [pictured here], professor of geography at the University of Kansas…

Dobson and Campbell took the measure of 48 states plus the District of Columbia and ranked them for flatness…. And — guess what? Kansas didn’t even crack the top five U.S. states for flatness….

The findings appear in the current issue of the Geographical Review… Dobson hopes the research will help dispel the myth that Kansas is so formidably flat.

The article we published, long ago, to wide acclaim (we even received a phone call from the state of Kansas’s director of tourism, who said he hoped the publicity would cause tourists to come see Kansas), is called “Kansas Is Flatter Than a Pancake“. Authors by Mark Fonstad (now at the University of Oregon), William Pugatch (at the Department of Geography, Texas State University, as was Mark Fonstad when they wrote the article) and Brandon Vogt (then at the Department of Geography, Arizona State University, now at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs) wrote:

While driving across the American Midwest, it is common to hear travelers remark, “This state is as flat as a pancake.” To the authors, this adage seems to qualitatively capture some characteristic of a topographic geodetic survey. This obvious question “how flat is a pancake” spurned our analytical interest, and we set out to find the ‘flatness’ of both a pancake and one particular state: Kansas….

We purchased a well-cooked pancake from a local restaurant, the International House of Pancakes, and prepared it for analysis by separating a 2-cm wide sample strip that had not had time to desiccate. We collected macro-pancake topography through digital image processing of a pancake image and ruler for scale calibration (see Figure 2)….




We measured a west-east profile across Kansas taken from merged 1:250,000 scale digital elevation model (DEM) data from the United States Geological Survey….


The topographic transects of both Kansas and a pancake at millimeter scale are both quite flat, but this first analysis showed that Kansas is clearly flatter (see Figure 4).


(Thanks to investigator Tim Radford for bringing this to our attention.)

BONUS [March 11, 2014]: “Science: Several U.S. States, Led by Florida, Are Flatter Than a Pancake

Kansas is Flatter than a Pancake (again and still)

Tuesday, February 12th, 2013

Today, which pancake authorities have proclaimed to be International Pancake Day, let’s look at the classic study “Kansas Is Flatter Than a Pancake“. We published it in volume 9, issue 3 of the magazine.

The article was written by Mark Fonstad and William Pugatch (of the Department of Geography, Texas State University, San Marcos, Texas) and Brandon Vogt (of the Department of Geography, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona).

Professor Fonstad has since moved to the University of Oregon. Professor Vogt is now at the University of Colorado.


Vi Hart’s visit to Möbius world

Saturday, May 12th, 2012

Vi Hart tells, in this video, about a visit to a Möbius world:

Interest in things Möbius runs in the Hart family. Vi Hart’s father, George Hart, invented the Möbius bagel.

Billiard balls versus the earth

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

“All balls must be composed of cast phenolic resin plastic and measure 2 ¼ (+.005) inches [5.715 cm (+ .127 mm)] in diameter and weigh 5 ½ to 6 oz [156 to 170 gms]. Balls should be unpolished, and should also not be waxed. Balls should be cleaned with a towel or cloth free of dirt and dust, and may also be washed with soap and water.”

That’s part of the official World Pool-Billiards Association specification for billiard balls. An analyst at the web site uses it in constructing a “Proof that the Earth is smoother than a billiard ball“. That proof says, in part:

… This means that balls with a diameter of 2.25 inches cannot have any imperfections (bumps or dents) greater than 0.005 inches. In other words, the bump or dent to diameter ratio cannot exceed 0.005/2.25 = 0.0022222

The Earth’s diameter is approximately 12,756.2 kilometres or 12,756,200 metres…. So, if a billiard ball were enlarged to the size of Earth, the maximum allowable bump (mountain) or dent (trench) would be 28,347 metres. Earth’s highest mountain, Mount Everest, is only 8,848 metres above sea level. Earth’s deepest trench, the Mariana Trench, is only about 11 kilometres below sea level. So if the Earth were scaled down to the size of a billiard ball, all its mountains and trenches would fall well within the WPA’s specifications for smoothness. [UPDATE: See the comments section for a possible correction.]

The Association’s very logo, reproduced here, seems to suggest as much:

[HT Cliff Pickover]

BONUS: Proof that Kansas Is Flatter Than a Pancake

Improbable Research