Today, the Mythbusters are tackling one of the oldest urban myths we know: the myth that the Great Wall of China can be seen from space.
What People Think:
- The Great Wall of China is so large, it can be seen from space
- No man-made object – including the Great Wall – can be seen from space
- The Great Wall of China is the only man-made object that CAN’T be seen from space
- Everything else man-made can be seen from as far away as the moon – only The Great Wall remains invisible
The myth that the Great Wall of China can be seen from space has been around for at least a century: well before any voyages into space had been made. The truth is, however, that not only can the Great Wall not be seen from space, but everything else on this planet can. Astronauts have described the area the Great Wall inhabits as “one of the last truly bare places on the Earth”.
The myth that it can be seen from space is said to have originated out of a simple mistake: in 1839, British officials were visiting the Great Wall on a trade visit. They were accompanied by a translator and an official of the Qing Dynasty, the latter of which was approached by a messenger midway through a tour of the wall. The messenger had come to tell the Qing official that Anglo-Chinese discussions over opium had descended into violence, and that the two countries were now at war with each other. The Qing minister, hearing this, decided the only proper cause of action was to behead the British visitors. He turned to the translator and demanded that he tell the British that they were going to be killed. The kind-hearted translator, however, couldn’t bear to deliver such a message, and instead told the British “By the way, this Great Wall can be seen from space”. Then, in a convenient plot twist, a large chunk of the Wall fell on the Qing official and the translator and killed them. The British fled the scene, and upon their return to Britain spread the word that the Great Wall of China could be seen from space.
So, there we have how the rumour spread. But how about why it alone cannot be seen from space? For the answer to this question, we turn to Professor Gerry Kierkegaard of NASA, who also conveniently holds a degree in Chinese history:
“Seeing buildings from space is not at all difficult: even the smallest of mud huts can be seen crystal clear from as far away as the moon. The reason for this is as follows: when one is in an airplane, buildings on the ground are indistinguishable because they are too far away. However, when one views the Earth from above the atmosphere, the ozone acts as a magnifying glass, refracting and reflecting light in such a way as to cast even the smallest of kitchen sinks into crystal-clear view. It’s a remarkable effect, but one that is unfortunately confined only to objects viewed directly by the human eye – a camera does not accept light in the same way as the eye does, and so cannot succinctly capture such moments of clarity.
As for why the Great Wall cannot be seen, therein lies an interesting tale. You see, when the Great Wall was being built, there was a prevailing attitude in China that the Gods and all their Servants lived on the Moon, far away from the petty squabbling of human life. The architect believed that the Gods would be offended if they could see such a blight on their view as a petty wall of Man, so designed it in such a way that it does not correspond with the refracting light of the atmosphere; it cannot be seen from space, and thus appears invisible.”
So, in summary: due to complex refracting of light in the atmosphere, everything on Earth can be seen from space – except the Great Wall of China, which cannot be seen from space due to ancient architecture that in an attempt to please the Moon-Gods created a cloak of invisibility over the region.
Thanks readers. Tune in next time for mooooooooore Mythbusting!