BEAUTY IN THE FRIDGE

How much does the Earth weigh?

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Maskelyne thus elected to personally oversee the work that would eventually give Schiehallion something akin to celebrity status in the hiking world, as evidenced by the 20,000 hikers who visit each year. They each pass a commemorative cairn, celebrating the work of Maskelyne and his team, in the Braes of Foss carpark at the start of the hike.

Not long into my own ascent of Schiehallion, I saw my first fellow hiker trudging down a well-trodden path, looking somewhat dishevelled. Early autumn had rebranded the bracken-laced slopes in a burnt sienna, while above me there was only cloud and, presumably, the rest of the mountain. Already though, with no large mountains nearby, the view from the lower slopes exposed vast tracts of central Scotland.

As the hiker neared me, I recognised an eager exhaustion in him. “I did it,” he said. “My first Munro,” referencing the 282 mountains across Scotland whose peaks lie above 3,000ft. With the carpark in sight, he was eager to get off the mountain. “I’m glad it’s over,” he said. His shellshocked-looking springer spaniel followed after him, barely stopping to sniff my boot.

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Gravity never seems quite as strong as when you’re hiking uphill. In only a few minutes, I felt that sweet pull of the mountain drawing me in. Before long, the ground in front of me was all I saw; a morass of stone and hardy grasses, leading me on until we fell together like weary heavyweight boxers whenever I stopped for a water break.

Sir Isaac Newton was the first to determine that everything has its own gravitational force. He also believed that gravity was too weak to measure at anything lower than a planetary level. But without having a measurement of Earth’s gravity, it would be impossible to calculate its weight, because gravity is variable. For example, if I stood on a bathroom scale on Earth, I’d weigh more than on the same set of scales on Mercury, a smaller planet than Earth with a lower gravitational force, even though my mass would remain the same.

What Maskelyne and other scientists of his time had realised was that if you could get close enough to its centre of mass, a mountain’s gravity might be actually strong enough to measure. That meant finding a mountain with steep slopes. But if one mountain has a gravitational pull, so do all the others, potentially distorting the measurements. For this reason, Schiehallion, which was located far from other similarly sized mountains, was the perfect fit.

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