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During the First age and before, Arda was flat. I'm not certain how flat it was, but wouldn't this imply that one could see great distances, as far as the nearest mountain that was higher than your vantage point? If you were high enough (and had very keen eyes), couldn't you see to the edge of the world?

Were there any references to this, such as watchtowers being able to see much greater distances, or seeing lands that are impossibly far away?

  • from a purely physics stand-point (which this is not asking for) you would potentially be able to see farther, but most of the time the 'seeing' would not be good enough and without telescopes you would quickly lose definition. You might actually see fewer towers because they would only be useful for seeing over hills. – DampeS8N Jan 7 '14 at 23:50
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    Scientifically the idea doesn't hold. Light is diffused by the particles it travels through, which is why things far away look indistinct, and we can't see stars and planets during the day. Water droplets, smoke particles, and even the air molecules themselves scatter light. The distance looking through the atmosphere parallel to the crust is much greater than the distance looking up through the atmosphere toward the stars: by about seven miles, we're getting more distortion looking horizontally than vertically. – BESW Jan 7 '14 at 23:55
  • You say "the edge of the world", but as far as I remember, Tolkien expressly refrained from mentioning any edge at all. He suggested instead that you could travel on and on indefinitely. – Mr Lister Jan 8 '14 at 10:30
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How flat was the world? Here's an old map from the Ambarkanta of the 1930s demonstrating exactly how flat the world was - which was actually quite curved indeed.

How flat, indeed?

Of course, we're talking about a strictly mythical period in Middle-earth's history here, so normal laws of physics shouldn't be considered to apply.

As to whether or not one could see vast distances, the main reference is the (supposed) ability to see Eressea from Numenor, which is mentioned in the Akallabeth:

...at times, when all the air was clear and the sun was in the east, they would look out and descry far off in the west a city white-shining on a distant shore, and a great harbour and a tower.

For in those days the Numenoreans were far-sighted; yet even so it was only the keenest eyes among them that could see this vision, from the Meneltarma, maybe, or from some tall ship that lay off their western coast as far as it was lawful for them to go.

Of course, Tolkien doesn't actually say anything about how far this distance was, so it's difficult to form a final judgement based on this passage.

The words "when all the air was clear" are relevant, however, because the distance one can see is not just dependent on the distance to the horizon, but also on clarity of the air, as Richard mentions in his answer.

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From "AskAMathematician";

For someone around 5’6″ tall, if the Earth were perfectly flat the horizon would be about 0.04° higher. That’s about the width of a (mechanical) pencil lead held at arm’s length. Unless you have short arms, in which case you’ll need to shave down the lead a little.

So, even assuming a completely flat plane your view would basically be unchanged from your current view of the horizon. Imagine looking out at the sea and seeing the horizon a millimetre lower.

Now, If you factor in mountains and hills then the absolute farthest you could see would be the level of the highest object in your eyeline. You could, in principle see all the way to Cori Celesti but your view would then be moderated by any clouds, fog, dust or heat-haze that occludes your view.

Theoretically if you were on the highest object on the entire disk, you could see a very long way (several hundred miles or more) but your depth of vision would be massively small unless you wanted to look at things that are very very large.

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    If this is a complete answer, then the question should be moved to physics.se. Since the question was asked in sf.se and hasn't been moved (or even voted to be moved), its answers should focus on "Were there any references to this [in Tolkien's works]?" with the physics lesson as a secondary element. – BESW Jan 8 '14 at 0:34
  • Agreed. Jimmy Shelter's answer is far more in keeping with the site's remit. – Valorum Jan 8 '14 at 20:32
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Even under extremely clear conditions, it's unusual to see more than a couple of hundred kilometers.

This is due to a variety of very complex effects, but visibility is limited by scattered light in the lower atmosphere due to particles, moisture, etc.

http://mintaka.sdsu.edu/GF/explain/atmos_refr/horizon.html

Except in cases of significant contrast, which may allow you to identify that contrast from further away.

So ultimately, what you can see would be largely unchanged.

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    The title needs focus, otherwise this is the answer I'm looking for. – Mazura Jun 3 '16 at 19:46
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Near where I live is a mountain peak with an elevation of almost 7,000 ft.

About 100 miles to the west is another peak with an elevation of over 10,000 ft.

On a clear day, from the nearer peak, the taller peak is visible, though it does have a significant blue tint. On a hazy day, the mountain can be completely hidden.

Given greater distance, eventually everything would blend in with the sky, regardless of clarity of the air.

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