Why is the Earth Flat?

Marcelo Viana, director-general of the Institute of Pure and Applied Mathematics, published this week a good article in the Folha de São Paulo, Under the title “Who has an allergy to mathematics?”, he reported curious cases of this “allergy”, to avoid using a more appropriate word:

In the 1980s, the A&W company launched a new hamburger to compete with the popular block, from McDonalds. The Quarter Pounder weighs 1/4 pound (about 110 grams), and the campaign for the new sandwich emphasized that for the same price it contained 1/3 pound of meat. It was a huge failure, because many people thought that 1/3 is less than 1/4, since 3 is less than 4. Why pay the same for less meat?

A&W and their publicists thought long and hard and came up with a genius solution: they replaced the A&W 1/3 with the new A&W 3/9, which weighs 3/9 of a pound. We know that 3/9 is the same as 1/3, of course, but to many buyers it seemed much more, since 3 and 9 are larger numbers….

The Miller company launched Miller64 beer, which has only 64 calories, to compete with the leader in the super light beer segment, Bud Light Next 80, which has 80 calories.

But market research showed that a good number of potential customers thought that 64 is more than 80, so the new beer would actually be heavier than the other one!

Miller’s solution was original and clever: they hired mathematician Ken Ono from the University of Virginia to clarify the issue. ‘I work in number theory, I specialize in partition congruences, modular forms, and the Riemann Hypothesis. And I guarantee that 64 is less than 80.’

‘We proved it, 64 is less than 80!’, the commercial concluded enthusiastically.

This article gave me one of the explanations, or perhaps the explanation, of why the round Earth became flat. Now, if in elementary questions of mathematics, the general public does not know that 1/3 is greater than ¼, or that the third part of a whole, 0.333…. is greater than 0.25, the fourth part of that whole, what can we say? What kind of world are we in? Worse yet, which already enters the realm of the terribly comical, if people don’t know that the number 64 is smaller than the number 80, what can we say?

But this reality is very close to us, today, all over Brazil.  I will tell you now – in the sense of telling, narrating – about a case that happened to me. This week I stood in one of the vaccination lines against covid. One of the attendants, “to organize” the first line, appeared from time to time and announced the numbers of vaccination tickets – the numbers, again! -that would be attended to. And it was so organized that sometimes the people with their files did not answer the call. So the organizer started calling by the hundreds. So: “From 200 to 290, stand over there. And then, “400 to 490…”. Then I protested: “Wouldn’t it be 291 to 380 now?”. Believe me, the young woman stammered to the point of stammering: “Huh? And she reacted: “I am calling for hundreds!”. Then, in the most serious and respectful way, I answered her: “But after 290 comes 291, 292, 293… not 400”. She conceded contrarily and shouted: “291! 292! 293! ….”. Terrible, To me, clearly, she expressed an absolute lack of manners – that outside the books of good manners.

But this, before igniting in us a scandal, a mockery, an indulgence falsely above the official, should awaken us to a serious danger. In the case of those out-of-order numbers, the young woman heard what I said to a neighbor in line: “We have to elect Lula. Out Bolsonaro.” And she closed her face, and spoke loudly out of the hundreds, “Nothing to see. Nothing to see!”. And she headed in a scowl to the front. I came to fear that she was going to direct the nurse to pretend to give me the vaccine.

Now we get closer to the ground and earth of the title. Look, if in a little more complicated situations, of infernal successions of numbers, Bolsonaro’s supporters have a hard time, imagine in front of the magnification of the place where they step. Is the ground flat? Is the ground straight? Does the ground always go flat to the square? Yes! Then, how is it that the earth is round? If it were, we would walk forward and already slip. It was the same as the circus globe of death. And once in a while, you would be upside down. That is the situation. And they would talk and talk: “Don’t tell me that mathematicians have known since the Greeks that the earth was round. This is crazy stuff from these LGBT people, I don’t know what else, degenerates against the Church. What to do? For these Bozo supporters, believers in the world of prehistory, there is no point in remembering that immortal phrase by Marx: “If the appearance and the essence of things coincided, science would be unnecessary. What good would scientific thought be? Only to complicate the world that God created. If it’s not in the Bible, it doesn’t exist.

So the brutal wager on ignorance by the individual in the presidency, of course, has historical roots, against his will. So it was in the persecution and death of philosophers, artists and intellectuals during fascism and Nazism. So it was in the gigantic book bonfires ordered by Hitler. So was the ideal of the pure, superior race, which was the meeting of the absurd of absurdities, for neither race nor purity existed. But they believed, and so they took the inferiors to the crematory ovens. And what about, closer to home, the atmosphere of terror during the dictatorship? For it was there that censorship became a mode of behavior against geniuses, against teachers of the level of Paulo Freire, who had to go into exile. So, this belief, below the middle age that the Earth is flat, is crazy, but there it has its method. Those who give Bolsonaro cheers think it is natural that everything is flat, at the shallowest and lowest level.

As for us, journalists, literati, educators and intellectuals, we have to fight tirelessly with works, classes, acts and numbers against this flat Earth. Who knows, maybe one day we will achieve a full Earth, full of humanity and knowledge. That is the plan.

Urariano Mota is the author of Never-Ending Youth.