Flatness is as flatness does

Courtesy of a commenter at Alma Boykin’s place yesterday, I was led to this informative (?) article.

In a survey conducted by the American Geographical Society, almost a third of all respondents said that Kansas was the flattest state. Some people even call it “flatter than a pancake.” But what does science have to say about that?

The first, and only, study that we know of that directly compared the Sunflower State to a pancake was done by a trio of geographers in 2003. For their tongue-in-cheek analysis, they acquired a pancake from IHOP, cut out a sample slice and made a topographic profile of it using a laser microscope (assuring us that they would “not be daunted by the ‘No Food or Drink’ sign posted in the microscopy room”). They then compared their pancake to an east-west profile of Kansas taken from a 1:250,000 scale digital model of the state’s elevation data, and calculated flatness estimates for each.

A flatness value of 1.000 would indicate “perfect, platonic flatness.” The pancake was scored as 0.957, which the researchers said is “pretty flat, but far from perfectly flat.” The value for Kansas, meanwhile was ~0.9997, or “damn flat,” as they said.

“Simply put, our results show that Kansas is considerably flatter than a pancake,” the team concluded.

But that’s not the whole story. When the playful study first came out in the Annals of Improbable Research, Lee Allison, then the Director of the Kansas Geological Survey, quipped that “everything on Earth is flatter than the pancake as they measured it.”

Clarifying Allison’s retort in a paper from earlier this year, geographers Jerome Dobson and Joshua Campbell explain it like this:

“The pancake measured in the article was 130 millimeters, and its surface relief was 2 millimeters. Apply that ratio to the east-west dimension of Kansas, approximately 644 kilometers, and the state would need a mountain (2/130 x 664,000 meters) 9,908 meters tall in order not to be flatter than a pancake. Since the highest mountain in the world is 8,848 meters tall, every state in the U.S. is flatter than a pancake.”

There’s more at the link.

I daresay it’s an interesting comparison for geographers.  My question is, how many bottles of pancake syrup would be needed to cover Kansas in a suitably uniform layer of the stuff?  And would one need to add butter, or would the state’s dairy herd suffice?  And what would that do to interstate drivers while passing through it?



  1. I would argue that rural Illinois is much worse for "flatness", I can at least keep my sense of direction in Kansas.

  2. Pancake syrup? The only suitable syrup is maple syrup. How many maple trees would have to be tapped to cover the state?

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