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Making a Molehill Out of Mount Everest

When I was growing up, there were perhaps only three facts of geography I knew for sure: the equator was exactly 25,000 miles long, heaven was located just above the Van Allen radiation belt, and Mount Everest was the highest mountain in the world. These were scientific facts of the first order, known to all parochial school children, and inculcated through repetition and regular use of the chart and pointer by Sister Mary Geography. It is a sign of the faithless age in which we live that no o

By | May 18, 1987

When I was growing up, there were perhaps only three facts of geography I knew for sure:
  1. the equator was exactly 25,000 miles long,
  2. heaven was located just above the Van Allen radiation belt, and
  3. Mount Everest was the highest mountain in the world.
These were scientific facts of the first order, known to all parochial school children, and inculcated through repetition and regular use of the chart and pointer by Sister Mary Geography.

It is a sign of the faithless age in which we live that no one will really commit himself on precisely how long the equator is, and that contemporary theologians tend to blush at the notion of an astrophysical heaven. And now, science has dashed the last of my childhood geographical truths: Mount Everest may have fallen from its lofty heights.

Using laser beams, satellite linkups and other high-tech items, a team of American scientists has concluded that K-2, a Himalayan peak in northern Kashmir near the China border, may be 36 feet taller than Old Reliable. That makes it at least 29,064 feet (and possibly as much as 29,228 feet) above sea level. Everest, according to conventional measurements, is a mere 29,028 feet.

It seems to have been a simple enough scientific endeavor—your usual dull day in the lab. According to the New York Times (March 7, 1987, p.9), George Wallerstein, a professor of astronomy at the University of Washington (U.S.A.), and associates merely climbed K-2 to a height of 13,000 feet lugging a 75-pound instrument used for receiving signals from a U.S. Navy navigation satellite. They then used laser beams to determine two known base lines and standard triangulation techniques to estimate the distance to the top of the mountain. Mere child's play.

Somehow, it just doesn't seem fair. Everest has fired the imagination of generations and has become symbolic of the near-unattainable human quest. It has figured in poetry, fiction, drama and motion pictures. Webster's even defines "everest" as "the highest point; climax, apex." What will the new definition be, "formerly highest point?" It doesn't seem right to hand the prize to a mountain that doesn't even have a proper name. K-2, indeed!

But hold on! The same team admits that if Everest is measured in the same way, it may prove to be taller than previously thought. So perhaps we don't know as much as we might.

Indeed, all this leaves me wondering exactly what other "facts" of nature we really know for sure. Will an intrepid team of scientists armed with laser beams one day penetrate the jungle, Indiana Jones-style, and find that the Amazon River (4,000 miles long, according to National Geographic) is really longer than the Nile River (4,160 miles)? Or worse, that the Nile River really flows south as it's supposed to, not north? ("Sorry," the low-tech sages will say. "Our mistake. Got a bit turned round in all that foliage"). What would Sister Mary Geography say?

The primacy of the Sahara Desert (at 3.5 million square miles) seems secure and the Pacific Ocean's claims to be the largest (64.2 million square miles) and deepest (almost 13,000 feet on average) body of water should be unassailable. But the Mariana Trench (35,810 feet) may find itself challenged by the Tonga Trench (35,423 feet) as the deepest ocean spot. I'm backing Tonga.

And, frankly, I'm all in favor of the Caspian Sea's getting knocked off the perch as the largest lake (143,224 square miles). It's too big to be competing with the other lakes; it should be considered a small sea. Probably just more Soviet disinformation.

I know that as we refine our techniques for investigating the world around us, we gain enormously in precision and add to our storehouse of knowledge. But along the way a few cherished notions will get turned into molehills. It all has me feeling as low as the Dead Sea. Or is it Death Valley?

Byrne, who always missed the honor roll because of geography courses, is on the staff of THE SCIENTIST.

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