Most of North America Is a Bit Light in the Loafers | Buzz Blog

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Most of North America Is a Bit Light in the Loafers

Posted By on April 7, 2011, 11:11 PM

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Europeans often criticize Americans for being too heavy. And, yeah, I must admit we're mostly a bunch of fat-asses over here. --- Although sometimes the ongoing European critique becomes slightly strained particularly when such celebrated individuals as Dawn French (a fabulous British comic) and Gérard Depardieu (a marvelous French actor) achieve prominence across the pond that is every bit as prominent as their prominent physiques.

I'm just saying, fat people are everywhere -- not only in the United States, but yes, even in England and France. And talent is not inversely proportional to waist size. Girth does not preclude worth. The slyly humiliating axiom that "everything is bigger in America" contains a tinge of envy, no? (And, anyway, around these parts, we limit that particular truism to Texas.)

But there's interesting news from the European Space Agency: We in the U.S. weigh less than our European counterparts. Of course, this "weight" is only in the Newtonian physical sense of mass times acceleration; it doesn't mean we look good wearing Italian designer clothes. (We assuredly don't.)

Now, as it turns out, the Earth isn't uniformly dense, and so the force of gravity is stronger in some places than it is in others. That is, if Isaac Newton is struck by a falling apple while sitting under a tree in Oxford, it might give him less of a headache than an identical apple under an identical tree in Timbuktu.

The ESA's low-orbit, high-tech Gravity Field and Steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) satellite measures "true gravity" from place to place over our planet's surface [1]. Data collected thus far have yielded an interesting visual model called a "geoid," resembling a horribly misshapen Earth, using indented regions to represent areas of low gravity (and, naturally, elevated regions to show where gravity is higher). The BBC has a fun, interactive, color-coded view of this model.

Using a slider control located beneath the geoid image, we can rotate the globe to show how gravitational acceleration varies around the world. (Unlike "Europe/Africa," we living in the Canada/U.S./Mexico longitudes don't merit our own special label on the slider -- but you'll find us slightly to the right of the position marked "Chile/Andes.") Almost all of North America is colored blue, meaning we're living under light and sprightly low-grav conditions, compared to heavy, leaden yellow- and red-coded areas such as Europe. (In fact, the Great Lakes region and much of the West Coast, with their dark-blue shading, seem to be practically weightless.)

So, rejoice, Americans! We may be fat, but, thanks to the vagaries of Earth's gravitation, we carry it better.

1. This is a very cool project -- and also a very expensive one. The ESA's justification for spending a gazillion euro on a physics experiment during a worldwide economic crisis has something to do with ocean currents and, oh yeah, global climate change. Call me cynical, but I think the European Union and participating member states that contribute to the ESA's multi-billion-euro budget would never have ponied up the dough if there weren't some economic gain to be had from a greater understanding of the Earth's gravitational field.

For instance, what if European physicists have a super-secret plan for harnessing energy based on the potential difference of mass-gravity between two geographical points? If they succeed, it will place the E.U. kilometers ahead in the renewable-energy race. Those of us in the U.S. will be bowing down to our new European energy overlords. So, why isn't NASA in on the game?

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