When I was at school, we were taught something false about the shape of the Earth.
The falsehood was that people in the Middle Ages sincerely believed that the Earth was flat. Seafarers feared that if they sailed too far their ships would literally fall off the edge of the planet into the void. Christopher Columbus had to convince the church that by heading west in search of a better route to the Indies he wouldn’t suffer such a terrible fate!
The astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson appears to think our ancestors clung to this superstitious belief. When the Atlanta rap singer B.o.B recently tweeted his personal view that the Earth is flat, Tyson replied that nobody had believed that for five centuries – thereby inferring that before the Renaissance, it was the accepted wisdom.
But it wasn’t.
Even in the so-called “Dark Ages”, after the fall of the Roman Empire when classical learning was allegedly lost to us, the Venerable Bede calculated the date for Easter on the assumption that the Earth was spherical. One mistake he made was thinking this “orb” was at the centre of the universe. It would take Copernicus hundreds of years later to put the Sun in the middle and the Earth orbiting round it. But, while getting that wrong, Bede never countenanced the notion that the planet was flat as a pancake.
Long before Bede, the Sumerian civilisation, Babylonians, ancient Greeks and Hebrew scholars – all accepted that the Earth was round. They didn’t have modern observatories or the ability to fly planes and rockets. Instead, they deduced the Earth was round from observation – mainly of the stars in the skies and their movements. Also, simple facts like watching a ship disappear hull first when it reached the horizon.
Ancient Greek super-brains Pythagoras and Aristotle wrote about the Earth being round five hundred years before Christ while Eratosthenes, a Greek scholar living in Ptolemaic Egypt even calculated the circumference of the Earth using a stick, the shadow cast by the sun in two places and some pretty basic maths. This video explains how he did it – then read on afterwards!
So why on Earth, pardon the pun, in the 21st century is the Flat Earth movement experiencing huge growth? The Flat Earth Conference this year was better attended than ever. Attendees were told that mainstream science and NASA in particular have been lying to them. The planet is flat and the Antarctic forms an icy barrier that stops us all falling off and plunging into outer space.
The Flat Earth view is endorsed by celebrities from ex-basketball star Shaquille O’Neill to English cricketer Andrew “Freddie” Flintoff. In an outburst against those who think the planet is spherical, Flintoff asked:
If you’re in a helicopter and you hover, why does the Earth not [rotate under you] if it’s round?
In 2007, a survey found that 55% of American adults and 95% of eight-year-olds (who have a better excuse for ignorance) believed the Earth was flat. Not even Christopher Columbus, most of the medieval church and anybody remotely educated in the Dark Ages thought we live on a gigantic plate. Yet there are people today who think NASA and the world of science are peddling myths.
Today’s Flat Earth movement began in Victorian England with a reaction against rationalism and the scientific establishment. A chap called Samuel Birley Rowbotham (1816-1884), writing under the pseudonym “Parallax”, founded the school of Zetetic Astronomy. This kicked off a rancorous debate that ended in a vicious court battle between scientist and round Earth proponent Alfred Russel Wallace and Flat Earth advocate John Hampden – who ended up trolling Wallace (in a Victorian manner) for years afterwards.
In 1885, William Carpenter published his book One Hundred Proofs that the Earth is not a Globe with arguments that have become common currency to today’s Flat Earthers:
- The surface of standing water is always level
- Surveyors make calculations for the construction of roads and railways that make no allowance for the Earth’s surface being curved
- The light from lighthouses is seen from distances that should be impossible if the Earth was round
- Mariners use maps and not globes because the Earth is flat
Carpenter begged his readers to just use their senses and trust the bible – which he claimed made no assertion of the Earth being round (but neither does it state it’s flat). His lightweight arguments were known to the Ancient Greeks and refuted over two thousand years ago.
Eratosthenes, using his calculations of the Earth’s size, was even able to work out a distance from the Earth to the moon and a rough idea of its size. Other Greeks got close to working out how gravity operates (so why human beings don’t fall off a spherical earth) and that our planet circled the sun and not vice versa. This was two thousand, five hundred years ago.
The depressing revival in Flat Earthism threatens to take us back – not to the Middle Ages…but to the Bronze Age!