The 'Highest' Spot on Earth? : Krulwich Wonders... Mt. Everest, at 29,035 feet, is the highest spot on our planet, right? Well, if you define "highest" as "closest to outer space," there's another winner, due to a great big bulge around the equator.
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The 'Highest' Spot on Earth?

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The 'Highest' Spot on Earth?

The 'Highest' Spot on Earth?

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Now from the fastest to the tallest. There are certain things that people tell themselves they absolutely know about Mount Everest. Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were the first to climb it. The mountain straddles Tibet and Nepal. And of course Everest is the highest point on Earth. Or is it?

Enter NPR's Robert Krulwich.

ROBERT KRULWICH: If I were to ask you to find the one place on Earth closest to the stars and the moon and outer space, the highest spot on our planet, you'd say Mount Everest, of course. But there is another spot on Earth that might be even higher.

Mr. NEIL deGRASSE TYSON (Director, Hayden Planetarium): Oh yeah.

KRULWICH: Here is why says Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York. It turns out that while the Earth looks round when you see it from space, say, in fact it's not exactly round.

Mr. TYSON: No, it's not a perfect sphere...

KRULWICH: Yeah.

Mr. TYSON: ...and it's an oblate spheroid, if you must know.

KRULWICH: Which means it's kind of like a beach ball that somebody sat on.

(Soundbite of beach ball)

KRULWICH: So when it's sat on, of course, it bulges out just a little bit right in the middle. Isaac Newton proposed this 300 years ago because when things spin, and the Earth certainly spins, they splay just a little bit right at the middle. And sure enough, when scientists did the actual measuring, it turned out...

Mr. TYSON: As some listeners may know, Earth is wider at the equator than it is at the poles.

KRULWICH: So it's literally the case that if Minole Wetheral(ph), my engineer, and I were to go to the very center of the planet, down in the core, and we each of us have a bicycle, okay?

Ms. MINOLE WETHERAL (Producer): Okay.

KRULWICH: All right. Now I'm going to say to you, you ride your bike to the North Pole, while I simultaneously ride my bike to the equator - and go.

(Soundbite of bike)

KRULWICH: If we go at the exact same speed - it's not easy, I know. Are you there?

Ms. WETHERAL: I'm done.

KRULWICH: Okay. So - but you'll notice my ride to the equator is still going on. It's going to take longer because the equator is literally 13 miles further from the center of the Earth.

Mr. TYSON: And it turns out not only is that true, Earth is slightly fatter below the equator than at the equator.

KRULWICH: Ah, right.

Mr. TYSON: And if you're below the equator, then you're even farther away from the center than the equator.

KRULWICH: So if we'll go to any spot just south of the equator, you are on a bulge on Earth, and because you're on that bulge, you're already a little bit closer to the moon and the stars and to space. Now here is the way to get even closer.

Mr. TYSON: Now what you want to do is find a mountain that is near the zone.

KRULWICH: Okay. So let's let the Earth spin and let's check for mountains in the equatorial zone. What do we got? We've got Mount Kenya in Kenya. We've got Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. We've got nothing in particular in Indonesia, nothing very good up high. We've got Mount Huascaran in Ecuador. We are now still checking the Andes. Wait now. We have a winner.

(Soundbite of music)

KRULWICH: Mount Chimborazo, 20,561 feet above sea level, the tallest mountain in the Andes. Chimborazo.

Mr. TYSON: Chimborazo. That sounds Italian, the way you pronounced it.

KRULWICH: Well...

Mr. TYSON: Chimborazo.

KRULWICH: And it's not Italian. It's Andean. It is the highest peak in Ecuador and it's sitting on a big, fat equatorial bump, which leads us now to our very big question.

(Soundbite of music)

KRULWICH: From sea level, Mount Everest is 8,500 feet higher than Mount Chimborazo, because Chimborazo is on top of a planetary bulge, and because Mount Everest is lower down on that bulge. Which mountain - Mount Everest or Mount Chimborazo - which one is closer to the moon and the stars and space?

(Soundbite of music)

KRULWICH: The answer will come from Joseph Senne. You are what, a surveyor?

Mr. JOSEPH SENNE (Civil Engineer): Oh no, I'm a civil engineer.

KRULWICH: Okay. Civil engineer. Joseph Senne ran the numbers to see which of these mountains is in fact higher.

Mr. SENNE: Yeah. I know how to make the calculations.

KRULWICH: And what he found, he published in Professional Surveyor magazine, was...

Mr. SENNE: Mount Chimborazo was higher than Mount Everest.

KRULWICH: Really?

Mr. SENNE: That's right. Mm-hmm.

Mr. TYSON: It beats Mount Everest. If you're at the summit of Mount Chimborazo, you are one and a third miles farther from the center of the Earth than you are standing at the tip of Mount Everest.

KRULWICH: Really?

Mr. TYSON: Oh, yeah.

KRULWICH: So if you want to get as close as you can to the stars, you know what, forget Everest. The new champion with a 1.3-mile advantage...

(Soundbite of music)

KRULWICH: Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador.

Robert Krulwich, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: And if your interest is piqued, Neil deGrasse Tyson considers Mount Chimborazo in his newest book, "Death by Black Hole." And listen everyone, run to your windows, look out now, Manole should be still be pedaling by.

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