@OrganicMarble's answer to 1959 Peanuts cartoon about the Fischer ellipsoid (Earth is “pear-shaped”)? finally let me see the cartoon that Mathematician, Engineer and Geoscientist Irene Fischer wrote about in Geodesy? What's That?: My Personal Involvement in the Age-Old Quest for the Size and Shape of the Earth. In it there is a passage that mentions it in relation to the shape of the Earth as deduced from radio signals received from Sputnik-1 and other early spacecraft.
I remember reading about Earth's "pear-shapedness" in school books and never understanding it because the Earth is pretty much described by an oblate spheroid, a shape which is symmetric about the equator.
The disconnect is that it's been known since Newton (or before?) that the Earth is mostly an oblate spheroid (it couldn't not be) but after you subtract that off, what's left looks a little bit like a pear, appearently (sic).
In the essay The Relativity of Wrong The Skeptical Inquirer, Fall 1989, Vol. 14, No. 1, Pp. 35-44 Isaac Asimov eloquently as always explains:
Even the oblate-spheroidal notion of the earth is wrong, strictly speaking. In 1958, when the satellite Vanguard I was put into orbit about the earth, it was able to measure the local gravitational pull of the earth--and therefore its shape--with unprecedented precision. It turned out that the equatorial bulge south of the equator was slightly bulgier than the bulge north of the equator, and that the South Pole sea level was slightly nearer the center of the earth than the North Pole sea level was.
There seemed no other way of describing this than by saying the earth was pear-shaped, and at once many people decided that the earth was nothing like a sphere but was shaped like a Bartlett pear dangling in space. Actually, the pear-like deviation from oblate-spheroid perfect was a matter of yards rather than miles, and the adjustment of curvature was in the millionths of an inch per mile.
Question: But what is the nature of this pear-shapeeness? Does it come from the shape of the Earth's surface, or is it really just a way of saying that one of the components of Earth's octapole moment known as J₃ is non-zero?
The activities of the famous International Geophysical Year involved both analyzing radio signals from Sputnik-1 and Explorer-1 and painstaking geographic surveys of Earth's surface that spanned large chucks of Earth. So I'm not sure which type of data lead to the fruitful epiphany of Earth's pear shape.
The International Geophysical Year (IGY; French: Année géophysique internationale) was an international scientific project that lasted from 1 July 1957 to 31 December 1958. It marked the end of a long period during the Cold War when scientific interchange between East and West had been seriously interrupted.
Related elsewhere in SE:
- What is the Fischer 1960 Mercury Ellipsoid, and why is it called that?
- What (where) are elements that comprise WGS60 and FSHR1960?
- How are gravity coefficients calculated?
- Why is Earth not a sphere?
- What exactly was Lagrange's “grave mistake” with respect to rotating bodies under hydrostatic equilibrium?
- How does a Maclaurin spheroid become a Jacobi ellipsoid? What happens?
- In what ways did Taiwan actually participate in the International Geophysical Year (1957-58)?