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Who said there's nothing new under the sun?

Monday, January 21, 2002

As we're nearing the end of our conversation at his dining room table, R.G. Elmendorf says to me, "I have the perfect title for your column: 'Crackpot in Glenshaw'."

The next morning, a letter arrives in my mailbox. It's from Elmendorf, suggesting that "Off-the-Wall in Glenshaw" might be better.

As I don't write the headlines, I don't know what the editor is calling this, but I mention it to make clear that Elmendorf, 74, is well aware of how far out his quest is.

He has spent more than two decades offering a reward to anyone who can prove what almost everyone believes: The Earth revolves around the sun. He recently upped that reward offer from $1,000 to $10,000: five grand to anyone who offers "scientific proof positive" that the Earth orbits the sun; another five grand to anyone who proves that the Earth rotates on its axis.

He doesn't expect to have to take out a second mortgage to pay anyone soon.

How often do you meet a guy willing to take on Copernicus and Galileo anymore? For generations, schoolchildren have been making Styrofoam solar systems with a big ol' sun in the middle and the nine planets hanging out on wires. Here's a guy suggesting they might have deserved Fs.

He's not sure, mind you. He just believes it's an open question -- hence, the funky steel model that was on his dining room table when I arrived. It was an armillary sphere, not unlike the ones used back in the pre-Copernican day, with Earth at the center of the solar system and the sun just another orb spinning round.

By my unskilled calculations, the Earth has been around the sun nearly 22 times since Elmendorf first offered the reward on March 10, 1980. The Earth has rotated on its axis almost 8,000 times. But I can't prove that. That's the rub.

"The required proof must be direct, observable, physical, natural, repeatable, unambiguous and comprehensive -- in other words, conclusive scientific evidence of the celestial state of affairs," his reward offer states. "Hearsay, popular opinion, 'expert' testimony, majority vote, personal conviction, organizational ruling, conventional usage, superficial analogy, appeal to 'simplicity' or other indirect means of persuasion do not qualify as scientific proof."

In short, he is harder to convince than the O.J. jury.

As his wife of 51 years, Virginia, made coffee, I asked what had led him down this celestial path. He's no astrophysicist. A mechanical engineer who earned his degree from Cornell University in 1950, he has an engineering, design and fabrication shop in West Deer, 10 winding miles north of his home. (Don't drive behind him; his license plate warns "STACALM" because he drives as slowly and meticulously as he does everything else.)

His unconventional journey began conventionally enough. He became a fundamentalist Christian, accepting the Bible as the literal truth. That led him to question scientific wisdom. When he discovered the "Copernican arrangement" of the solar system hadn't really been proven, at least to his engineering standards, he was shocked.

Don't tell him about the Foucault Pendulum, the 19th-century device that purportedly shows that our planet rotates beneath a pendulum whose motion remains fixed in space. Elmendorf self-published an 82-page book in 1994 declaring the pendulums fakes.

"I've pretty much concluded the proof isn't out there," he said.

The problem is distinguishing between a moving Earth and a moving universe. I'm told not even Isaac Newton solved that problem. The astronauts haven't gotten us any closer to the truth either, according to Elmendorf.

If you think you have what NASA and Newton lacked, write to R.G. Elmendorf at 208 S. Magnolia Drive, Glenshaw 15116. Because when the sun sets -- excuse me, appears to set -- tonight, Elmendorf will still be sitting on his money.


Brian O'Neill's e-mail address is boneill@post-gazette.com.

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