originally published July 5, 2014
There are certain scientific truths which appear to be inarguable. Light travels faster than sound, an explosion is exponentially more bad-ass when someone is walking slowly away from it, and the consumption of alcohol makes me a scientifically better dancer. But we have come a long way since our ancestors cracked two rocks together and created a spark which they attributed to the Mistress of Dark Magic.
We no longer give props to the gods for changing the seasons, and rather than attribute those weird sores on our bodies to an infestation of demons, we get a shot of penicillin and stop sleeping with skeevy people we meet at the bus station. Also, we can hop aboard a boat and cruise into the sequined azure horizon without fearing that we’ll drop off the edge of the planet-disc and tumble into the intangible ether.
Well, most of us can. There still exists – and I have no idea just how deeply into their cheeks their tongues may be pressed – a Flat Earth Society. In theory, there are still dozens of dubious doubters who suspect that the so-called globe theory is little more than a ruse being perpetrated by the scientific community for the purposes of… well, I’m not sure why scientists would want us to believe the planet to be a sphere. Globe sales? Communism? Probably communism.
In defense of the ancients, there was really no way for them to know the earth was round. Homer and Hesiod both depicted a flat disc, with the water surrounding the land and stretching to some mysterious edge. Anaximander, a pre-Socratic philosopher whom Carl Sagan has credited with having performed the first ever recorded scientific experiment, saw us as living on the round top of a short, stumpy cylinder. Anywhere you went: India, the Norse lands, China… the earth was flat as a crepe. In fact the Chinese held on to their belief that the earth was flat and square (though the heavens were spherical) until they caught wind of European astronomy in the 17th century.
Once Pythagoras and Parmenides declared the planet to be puffed-out and ball-shaped, word spread quickly among the intelligentsia of Ancient Greece. Aristotle knew it, Eratosthenes made the first primitive (yet freakishly accurate) guess at the planet’s circumference, and Ptolemy came up with latitudes and longitudes for his curved globe depiction of the world. All this went down over a hundred years before Jesus had batted an eyelash at our yellow sun.
It has been said that Christopher Columbus faced scads of shrill warnings that his westward voyage would launch him over the earth’s edge into the unknown abyss. That makes for great story-telling, so long as you’re willing to suspend any and all notions of accuracy. When Washington Irving wrote what was seen as the definitive Chris Columbus bio in 1828, he played up the European ‘Dark Ages’ bit and really hyped the 15th-century adherence to flat-earthism.
The only published denial from Columbus’ era comes from Zacharia Lilio, written from the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome. He accuses Ptolemy and Pliny of having offered only conjectures based “solely on reasoning.” But the reality is that virtually no European academics believed in a flat earth by the time Columbus was ready to scoot across the Atlantic. The teachings of Ancient Greece had not been forgotten, and their adherence to a spherical homeland was accepted as common cosmological knowledge. Columbus may have been worried about depleting food rations, disease and getting lost amid the indigo infinite, but he sure as hell wasn’t worried about tumbling into space.
That’s not to say that the human race collectively gave up on the flat-earth theory and hugged our globes without exception. A small movement began with English writer Samuel Rowbotham in 1849 when he published Zetetic Astronomy, a pamphlet that argued that the earth was not round and backed it up with science. Flimsy science, but at least the guy was trying. A follower of his, William Carpenter, published A Hundred Proofs the Earth is Not a Globe in 1885, offering the following nuggets of rock-solid proof:
First off, there are rivers that flow for hundreds of miles without falling even by a foot. Look at the Nile – that sonofabitch keeps on going and doesn’t drop more than a foot (or so William Carpenter claims – I have no earthly idea). That’s science! Clearly that means the world is flat! Here’s another: if our planet were truly a globe, then it would make the most sense for a sea captain to take a globe with him on a trans-ocean voyage, not a map. “But such a thing as that is not known: with such a toy as a guide, the mariner would wreck his ship, of a certainty! This is a proof that Earth is not a globe.”
My point is that we as a species, despite having embraced the scientific re-framing of our world for hundreds of years, still wasn’t ready to unilaterally accept the globe as a measure of accurate geography. In Brockport, New York, a famous debate was held in 1887 between some guy named M.C. Flanders (who, I hear, can drop the diddly-don-doodly dopest beats) and two scientists. It was a three-night debate, and Flanders won a unanimous decision among the five local judges – he’d fought for the world being flat and they bought it.
Wilbur Glenn Voliva, a strict Pentecostal Christian leader who had taken over a religious utopian community in Zion, Illinois in 1906, preached in favor of a flat earth, offering $5000 of his own money for someone to prove the earth is round. Under his own conditions, of course. All Zion schools were banned from teaching the round earth principles. It seems as though those who clung to the flat earth notion this late in our scientific knowledge were also those who clung tenuously and desperately to their faith, metaphorically spitting upon those who would claim to believe otherwise. Fortunately we’re past the age in which religious doctrine overrules anyone’s common sense when it comes to matters of intelligent debate.
In 1956, a British signwriter named Samuel Shenton founded the International Flat Earth Research Society, more commonly referred to as the Flat Earth Society. A short time later, the USSR launched Sputnik into the sky, and a round earth seemed inarguable. Except it wasn’t. “Would sailing around the Isle of Wight prove that it were spherical?” So Shenton believed the satellite was merely floating around the perimeter of the disc. Shenton’s organization was not one that featured a throng of followers, particularly as the space race continued to pile on the evidence that we are sitting more on top of a softball than a Frisbee.
Californian Charles K. Johnson took over the IFERS and built membership up to 3000, which is further proof that Generation X did not invent irony. Johnson chalked up the dominance of the “sphere-ies” to a massive conspiracy which involved Moses, Columbus and FDR. He cites the fact that Lake Tahoe and the Salton Sea do not have curved surfaces. There you are. Oh, and there’s no such thing as gravity. According to the Flat Earth folks, the earth is moving upward at a constant rate, and that ginger ale you just spilled didn’t fall to the floor – the floor rose to it.
The Flat Earth Society still exists online, and you can visit it here if you’re looking to challenge your presently-held beliefs. But don’t expect any new evidence to flip our collective tenets on this one. There just ain’t enough dark magic out there to make this idea real.