From the Earth to the Moon in 270 BC

The brain is wider than the sky,

For, put them side by side,

The one the other will include

With ease, and you beside.

Emily Dickinson

How did human beings first work out the distance from the Earth to the Moon?

Aristrarchus of Samos (310 BC – 230 BC) figured out a way to do so in terms of the radius of the Earth in 270 BC. Combined with Eratosthenes’ measurement of the radius of the Earth (c. 240 BC) it enabled people to calculate the actual distance to the Moon. The ancient Greeks used a measurement of distance called stadia (singular: stadium) but we will present the measurements here in terms of kilometres.

Magic with a shadow, not with mirrors

Aristarchus used the fact that the Moon passes through the Earth’s shadow during a total lunar eclipse, which happen once every two to three years on average.

What does a total lunar eclipse look like? Watch this amazing 33 second time lapse video from astrophotographer Bartosz Wojczyński. Note that Mr Wojczyński altered the exposure time of each shot to compensate for the reduced brightness of the Moon as it crossed into the shadow. For reference, the exposure time for the brightly lit Moon was 1/2500 second, and for the dim ‘Blood Moon’ (turned red by sunlight refracted by the Earth’s atmosphere) it was 6 seconds.

The video is sped up so that 1 second of video represents 8 minutes of real time. In the video, the Moon is in shadow for 24 seconds which equates to 8 x 24 = 192 minutes or 3 hours 12 minutes. We will use this later to model Aristarchus’ original calculation.

It’s always Aristarchus before the dawn…

Aristarchus began with the assumption that the Earth of radius r creates a cylinder of shadow that is 2r wide as shown in the diagram below.

The Moon orbits the Earth on a roughly circular path of radius R so it cover a total distance of 2πR. This means that its average speed over its whole journey is 2πR/T where T is the orbital period of the Moon, which is 27.3 days or 27.3 x 24 = 655.2 hours.

The average speed of the Moon as it passes through the Earth’s shadow is 2r / t where t is the time for a lunar eclipse (3 hours 12 minutes, in our example).

The average speed of the speed of the Moon is the same in both instances so we can write:

We can simplify by cancelling out the common factor of two:

Then we can rearrange to make R the subject:

Putting in values for t = 3 hours 12 minutes or 3.2 hours, T = 655.2 hours and Eratosthenes’ value for the radius of the Earth r = 6371 km (which was established a few years later):

So now they do it with mirrors…

Aristarchus’ value is just a shade over 7% too large compared with the modern value of the Earth-Moon distance of 384 400 km, but is impressive for a first approximation carried out in antiquity!

The modern value is measured in part by directing laser beams on to special reflectors left on the Moon’s surface by the Apollo astronauts and also the automated Lunokhod missions. Under ideal conditions, this method can measure the Earth-Moon distance to the nearest millimetre.

Quibbles, Caveats and Apologies

Aristarchus’ estimate was too large in part because of his assumption that Earth’s shadow was a cylinder with a uniform diameter. The Sun is an extended light source so Earth’s shadow forms a cone as shown below.

The value of t is smaller than it would if the shadow was 2r wide, leading to a too-large value of R using Aristarchus’ method.

Also, the plane of the Moon’s orbit is tilted with respect to the plane of the Earth’s orbit. This means that the path of the Moon during an eclipse might not pass through the ‘thickest’ part of the shadow. Aristarchus used the average time t calculated from a number of lunar eclipses.

When timing the lunar eclipse shown in Mr Wojczyński’s excellent video, I started the clock when the leading edge of the Moon entered the shadow, but I confess that I ‘cheated’ a little bit by not stopping the clock when the leading edge of the Moon left the shadow — the error is entirely mine and was deliberate in order to arrive at a reasonable value of R for pedagogic impact.

UPDATE: You could also watch this stunning visualisation of a lunar eclipse from Andrew McCarthy where the shadow of the Earth is tracked rather than the Moon.

This is part 2 of a series exploring how humans ‘measured the size of the sky’.

Part 1: How Eratosthenes measured the size of the Earth

Part 3: How Aristarchus measured the distance from the Earth to the Sun

Measuring the radius of the Earth in 240 BC

The brain is wider than the sky,
For, put them side by side,
The one the other will include
With ease, and you beside.

Emily Dickinson, ‘The Brain’

Most science teachers find that ‘Space’ is one of the most enduringly fascinating topics for many students: the sense of wonder engendered as our home planet becomes lost in the empty vastness of the Solar System, which then becomes lost in the trackless star-studded immensity of the Milky Way galaxy, is a joy to behold.

But a common question asked by students is: How do we know all this? How do we know the distance to the nearest star to the Sun is 4 light-years? Or how do we know the distance to the Sun? Or the Moon?

I admit, with embarrassment, that I used to answer with a casual and unintentionally-dismissive ‘Oh well, scientists have measured them!’ which (though true) must have sounded more like a confession of faith rather than a sober recounting of empirical fact. Which, to be fair, it probably was; simply because I had not yet made the effort to find out how these measurements were first taken.

The technological resources available to our ancestors would seem primitive and rudimentary to our eyes but, coupled with the deep well of human ingenuity that I like to think is a hallmark of our species, it proved not just ‘world-beating’ but ‘universe-beating’.

I hope you enjoy this whistle stop tour of this little-visited corner of the scientific hinterland, and choose to share some these stories with your students. It is good to know that the brain is indeed ‘wider than the sky’.

I have presented this in a style and format suitable for sharing and discussing with KS3/KS4 students (11-16 year olds).

Mad dogs and Eratosthenes go out in the midday Sun…

To begin at the beginning: the first reliable measurement of the size of the Earth was made in 240 BC and it all began (at least in this re-telling) with the fact that Eratosthenes liked talking to tourists. (‘Err-at-oss-THen-ees’ with the ‘TH’ said as in ‘thermometer’ — never forget that students of all ages often welcome help in learning how to pronounce unfamiliar words)

Alexandria (in present day Egypt) was a thriving city and a tourist magnet. Eratosthenes made a point of speaking to as many visitors as he could. Their stories, taken with a pinch of salt, were an invaluable source of information about the wider world. Eratosthenes was chief librarian of the Library of Alexandria, regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the World at the time, and considered it his duty to collect, catalogue and classify as much information as he could.

One visitor, present in Alexandria on the longest day of the year (June 21st by our calendar), mentioned something in passing to Eratosthenes that the Librarian found hard to forget: ‘You know,’ said the visitor, ‘at noon on this day, in my home town there are no shadows.’

How could that be? pondered Eratosthenes. There was only one explanation: the Sun was directly overhead at noon on that day in Syene (the tourist’s home town, now known as Aswan).

The same was not true of Alexandria. At noon, there was a small but noticeable shadow. Eratosthenes measured the angle of the shadow at midday on the longest day. It was seven degrees.

No shadows at Syene, but a 7 degree shadow at Alexandria at the exact same time. Again, there was only one explanation: Alexandria was ’tilted’ by 7 degrees with respect to Syene.

Seven degrees of separation

The sphericity of the Earth had been recognised by astronomers from c. 500 BC so this difference was no surprise to Eratosthenes, but what he realised that since he was comparing the length of shadows at two places on the Earth’s surface at the same time then the 7o wasn’t just the angle of the shadow: 7o was the angle subtended at the centre of the Earth by radial lines drawn from both locations.

Eratosthenes paid a person to pace out the distance between Alexandria and Syene. (This was not such an odd request as it sounds to our ears: in the ancient world there were professionals called bematists who were trained to measure distances by counting their steps.)

It took the bematist nearly a month to walk that distance and it turned out to be 5000 stadia or 780 km by our measurements.

Eratosthenes then used a simple ratio method to calculate the circumference of the Earth, C:


The modern value for the radius of the Earth is 6371 km.

Ifs and buts…

There is still some debate as to the actual length of one Greek stadium but Eratosthenes’ measurement is generally agreed to within 1-2% of the modern value.

Sadly, none of the copies of the book where Eratosthenes explained his method called On the measure of the earth have survived from antiquity so the version presented here is a simplified one outlined by Cleomedes in a later book. For further details, readers are directed to the excellent Wikipedia article on Eratosthenes.

Astronomer Carl Sagan also memorably explained this method in his 1980 TV documentary series Cosmos.

You might want to read…

This is part of a series exploring how humans ‘measured the size of the sky’:

Part 2: How Aristarchus measured the distance between the Earth and the Moon

Part 3: How Aristarchus measured the distance between the Earth and the Sun

Binding energy: the pool table analogy

Nuclear binding energy and binding energy per nucleon are difficult concepts for A-level physics students to grasp. I have found the ‘pool table analogy’ that follows helpful for students to wrap their heads around these concepts.


Since mass and energy are not independent entities, their separate conservation principles are properly a single one — the principle of conservation of mass-energy. Mass can be created or destroyed , but when this happens, an equivalent amount of energy simultaneously vanishes or comes into being, and vice versa. Mass and energy are different aspects of the same thing.

Beiser 1987: 29

E = mc2

There, I’ve said it. This is the first time I have directly referred to this equation since starting this blog in 2013. I suppose I have been more concerned with the ‘andallthat‘-ness side of things rather than E=mc2. Well, no more! E=mc2 will form the very centre of this post. (And about time too!)

The E is for ‘rest energy’: that is to say, the energy an object of mass m has simply by virtue of being. It is half the energy that would be liberated if it met its antimatter doppelganger and particles and antiparticles annihilated each other. A scientist in a popular novel sternly advised a person witnessing an annihilation event to ‘Shield your eyes!’ because of the flash of electromagnetic radiation that would be produced.

Well, you could if you wanted to, but it wouldn’t do much good since the radiation would be in the form of gamma rays which are to human eyes what the sound waves from a silent dog whistle are to human ears: beyond the frequency range that we can detect.

The main problem is likely to be the amount of energy released since the conversion factor is c2: that is to say, the velocity of light squared. For perspective, it is estimated that the atomic bomb detonated over Hiroshima achieved its devastation by directly converting only 0.0007 kg of matter into energy. (That would be 0.002% of the 38.5 kg of enriched uranium in the bomb.)

Matter contains a lot of energy locked away as ‘rest energy’. But these processes which liberate rest energy are mercifully rare, aren’t they?

No, they’re not. As Arthur Beiser put it in his classic Concepts of Modern Physics:

In fact, processes in which rest energy is liberated are very familiar. It is simply that we do not usually think of them in such terms. In every chemical reaction that evolves energy, a certain amount of matter disappears, but the lost mass is so small a fraction of the total mass of the reacting substances that it is imperceptible. Hence the ‘law’ of conservation of mass in chemistry.

Beiser 1987: 29

Building a helium atom

The constituents of a helium nucleus have a greater mass when separated than they do when they’re joined together.

Here, I’ll prove it to you:

The change in mass due to the loss of energy as the constituents come together is appreciable as a significant fraction of its original mass. Although 0.0293/4.0319*100% = 0.7% may not seem like a lot, it’s enough of a difference to keep the Sun shining.

The loss of energy is called the binding energy and for a helium atom it corresponds to a release of 27 MeV (mega electron volts) or 4.4 x 10-12 joules. Since there are four nucleons (particles that make up a nucleus) then the binding energy per nucleon (which is a guide to the stability of the new nucleus) is some 7 MeV.

But why must systems lose energy in order to become more stable?

The Pool Table Analogy for binding energy

Imagine four balls on a pool table as shown.

The balls have the freedom to move anywhere on the table in their ‘unbound’ configuration.

However, what if they were knocked into the corner pocket?

To enter the ‘bound’ configuration they must lose energy: in the case of the pool balls we are talking about gravitational potential energy, a matter of some 0.30 J per ball or a total energy loss of 4 x 0.30 = 1.2 joules.

The binding energy of a pool table ‘helium nucleus’ is thus some 1.2 joules while the ‘binding energy per nucleon’ is 0.30 J. In other words, we would have to supply 1.2 J of energy to the ‘helium nucleus’ to break the forces binding the particles together so they can move freely apart from each other.

Just as a real helium nucleus, the pool table system becomes more stable when some of its constituents lose energy and less stable when they gain energy.


Beiser, A. (1987). Concepts of modern physics. McGraw-Hill Companies.

Visualising How Transformers Work

‘Transformers’ is one of the trickier topics to teach for GCSE Physics and GCSE Combined Science.

I am not going to dive into the scientific principles underlying electromagnetic induction here (although you could read this post if you wanted to), but just give a brief overview suitable for a GCSE-level understanding of:

  • The basic principle of a transformer; and
  • How step down and step up transformers work.

One of the PowerPoints I have used for teaching transformers is here. This is best viewed in presenter mode to access the animations.

The basic principle of a transformer

A GIF showing the basic principle of a transformer.
(BTW This can be copied and pasted into a presentation if you wish,)

The primary and secondary coils of a transformer are electrically isolated from each other. There is no charge flow between them.

The coils are also electrically isolated from the core that links them. The material of the core — iron — is chosen not for its electrical properties but rather for its magnetic properties. Iron is roughly 100 times more permeable (or transparent) to magnetic fields than air.

The coils of a transformer are linked, but they are linked magnetically rather than electrically. This is most noticeable when alternating current is supplied to the primary coil (green on the diagram above).

The current flowing in the primary coil sets up a magnetic field as shown by the purple lines on the diagram. Since the current is an alternating current it periodically changes size and direction 50 times per second (in the UK at least; other countries may use different frequencies). This means that the magnetic field also changes size and direction at a frequency of 50 hertz.

The magnetic field lines from the primary coil periodically intersect the secondary coil (red on the diagram). This changes the magnetic flux through the secondary coil and produces an alternating potential difference across its ends. This effect is called electromagnetic induction and was discovered by Michael Faraday in 1831.

Energy is transmitted — magnetically, not electrically — from the primary coil to the secondary coil.

As a matter of fact, a transformer core is carefully engineered so to limit the flow of electrical current. The changing magnetic field can induce circular patterns of current flow (called eddy currents) within the material of the core. These are usually bad news as they heat up the core and make the transformer less efficient. (Eddy currents are good news, however, when they are created in the base of a saucepan on an induction hob.)

Stepping Down

One of the great things about transformers is that they can transform any alternating potential difference. For example, a step down transformer will reduce the potential difference.

A GIF showing the basic principle of a step down transformer.
(BTW This can be copied and pasted into a presentation if you wish,)

The secondary coil (red) has half the number of turns of the primary coil (green). This halves the amount of electromagnetic induction happening which produces a reduced output voltage: you put in 10 V but get out 5 V.

And why would you want to do this? One reason might be to step down the potential difference to a safer level. The output potential difference can be adjusted by altering the ratio of secondary turns to primary turns.

One other reason might be to boost the current output: for a perfectly efficient transformer (a reasonable assumption as their efficiencies are typically 90% or better) the output power will equal the input power. We can calculate this using the familiar P=VI formula (you can call this the ‘pervy equation’ if you wish to make it more memorable for your students).

Thus: Vp Ip = Vs Is so if Vs is reduced then Is must be increased. This is a consequence of the Principle of Conservation of Energy.

Stepping up

A GIF showing the basic principle of a step up transformer.
(BTW This can be copied and pasted into a presentation if you wish,)

There are more turns on the secondary coil (red) than the primary (green) for a step up transformer. This means that there is an increased amount of electromagnetic induction at the secondary leading to an increased output potential difference.

Remember that the universe rarely gives us something for nothing as a result of that damned inconvenient Principle of Conservation of Energy. Since Vp Ip = Vs Is so if the output Vs is increased then Is must be reduced.

If the potential difference is stepped up then the current is stepped down, and vice versa.

Last nail in the coffin of the formula triangle…

Although many have tried, you cannot construct a formula triangle to help students with transformer calculations.

Now is your chance to introduce students to a far more sensible and versatile procedure like FIFA (more details on the PowerPoint linked to above)

A Gnome-inal Value for ‘g’

The Gnome Experiment Kit from precision scale manufacturers Kern and Sohn.

. . . setting storms and billows at defiance, and visiting the remotest parts of the terraqueous globe.

Samuel Johnson, The Rambler, 17 April 1750

That an object in free fall will accelerate towards the centre of our terraqueous globe at a rate of 9.81 metres per second per second is, at best, only a partial and parochial truth. It is 9.81 metres per second per second in the United Kingdom, yes; but the value of both acceleration due to free fall and the gravitational field strength vary from place to place across the globe (and in the SI System of measurement, the two quantities are numerically equal and dimensionally equivalent).

For example, according to Hirt et al. (2013) the lowest value for g on the Earth’s surface is atop Mount Huascarán in Peru where g = 9.7639 m s-2 and the highest is at the surface of the Arctic Ocean where g = 9.8337 m s-2.

Why does g vary?

There are three factors which can affect the local value of g.

Firstly, the distribution of mass within the volume of the Earth. The Earth is not of uniform density and volumes of rock within the crust of especially high or low density could affect g at the surface. The density of the rocks comprising the Earth’s crust varies between 2.6 – 2.9 g/cm3 (according to Jones 2007). This is a variation of 10% but the crust only comprises about 1.6% of the Earth’s mass since the density of material in the mantle and core is far higher so the variation in g due this factor is probably of the order of 0.2%.

Secondly, the Earth is not a perfect sphere but rather an oblate spheroid that bulges at the equator so that the equatorial radius is 6378 km but the polar radius is 6357 km. This is a variation of 0.33% but since the gravitational force is proportional to 1/r2 let’s assume that this accounts for a possible variation of the order of 0.7% in the value of g.

Thirdly, the acceleration due to the rotation of the Earth. We will look in detail at the theory underlying this in a moment, but from our rough and ready calculations above, it would seem that this is the major factor accounting for any variation in g: that is to say, g is a minimum at the equator and a maximum at the poles because of the Earth’s rotation.

The Gnome Experiment

In 2012, precision scale manufacturers Kern and Sohn used this well-known variation in the value of g to embark on a highly successful advertising campaign they called the ‘Gnome Experiment’ (see link 1 and link 2).

Whatever units their lying LCD displays show, electronic scales don’t measure mass or even weight: they actually measure the reaction force the scales exert on the item in their top pan. The reading will be affected if the scales are accelerating.

In diagram A, the apple is not accelerating so the resultant upward force on the apple is exactly 0.981 N. The scales show a reading of 0.981/9.81 = 0.100 000 kg = 100.000 g (assuming, of course, that they are calibrated for use in the UK).

In diagram B, the apple and scales are in an elevator that is accelerating upward at 1.00 metres per second per second. The resultant upward force must therefore be larger than the downward weight as shown in the free body diagram. The scales show a reading of 1.081/9.81 – 0.110 194 kg = 110.194 g.

In diagram C, the the apple and scales are in an elevator that is accelerating downwards at 1.00 metres per second per second. The resultant upward force must therefore be smaller than the downward weight as shown in the free body diagram. The scales show a reading of 0.881/9.81 – 0.089 806 kg = 89.806 g.

Never mind the weight, feel the acceleration

Now let’s look at the situation the Kern gnome mentioned above. The gnome was measured to have a ‘mass’ (or ‘reaction force’ calibrated in grams, really) of 309.82 g at the South Pole.

Showing this situation on a diagram:

Looking at the free body diagram for Kern the Gnome at the equator, we see that his reaction force must be less than his weight in order to produce the required centripetal acceleration towards the centre of the Earth. Assuming the scales are calibrated for the UK this would predict a reading on the scales of 3.029/9.81= 0.30875 kg = 308.75 g.

The actual value recorded at the equator during the Gnome Experiment was 307.86 g, a discrepancy of 0.3% which would suggest a contribution from one or both of the first two factors affecting g as discussed at the beginning of this post.

Although the work of Hirt et al. (2013) may seem the definitive scientific word on the gravitational environment close to the Earth’s surface, there is great value in taking measurements that are perhaps more directly understandable to check our comprehension: and that I think explains the emotional resonance that many felt in response to the Kern Gnome Experiment. There is a role for the ‘artificer’ as well as the ‘philosopher’ in the scientific enterprise on which humanity has embarked, but perhaps Samuel Johnson put it more eloquently:

The philosopher may very justly be delighted with the extent of his views, the artificer with the readiness of his hands; but let the one remember, that, without mechanical performances, refined speculation is an empty dream, and the other, that, without theoretical reasoning, dexterity is little more than a brute instinct.

Samuel Johnson, The Rambler, 17 April 1750


Hirt, C., Claessens, S., Fecher, T., Kuhn, M., Pail, R., & Rexer, M. (2013). New ultrahigh‐resolution picture of Earth’s gravity fieldGeophysical research letters40(16), 4279-4283.

Jones, F. (2007). Geophysics Foundations: Physical Properties: Density. University of British Columbia website, accessed on 2/5/21.