I have never understood how anybody can imagine the Earth is flat. That’s certainly how it appears personally from ground level if you are stationary, but one has only to watch a ship disappearing out to sea, or travel a relatively short distance and watch a mountain range grow taller and taller as we approach it, to see that Earth is not. The simplest explanation for these observations is that Earth is a sphere; and objects moving away disappear around the curve. Or appear, if we’re approaching them.
The fact that Earth is (essentially) spherical was well known to the ancient Greeks such as Pythagoras, and eventually they even knew the dimensions of that sphere – which Erastothenes calculated in 240 BC via relatively simple geometric experiment. This allowed him to calculate the Earth’s curvature between Alexandria and Syene (Aswan), in southern Egypt, on summer solstice, and thus extrapolate the circumference and hence diameter of the sphere. He probably got it right. I say probably because he provided the answer in stadia, the measure of the day – and this wasn’t standardised. If he used the stadion (singular of stadia) we think he did, he got the circumference correct to within 1 percent. If he used another, he under-estimated it by 16 percent. Personally I suspect he got it right; one thing the Greeks were very good at was mathematics and geometry.
For all that, there was a hard core of ‘flat Earthism’ thinking in the ancient world. But it didn’t have much traction. What we might call ‘modern’ flat-Earthism originated in the nineteenth century and was the creation of a gentleman pseudonymously named Parallax (real name Samuel Rowbotham), who proposed it as a founding principle of his Universal Zetetic Society. It gained some support in context of period nineteenth century mysticism (which general thinking, however, had better following via Madame Blavatsky and finally Rudolf Steiner). However, the idea that Earth might be flat gained fresh life in 1956 at the hands of a Mr Samuel Shenton (1903-1971) of Dover, England. It continues to bubble along today among ‘alternative thinkers’.
What is the appeal of a flat Earth? I can only imagine. Possibly it’s the fact that such a thing by nature must be egocentric: Earth is a plane at the centre of the universe and the Sun and the skies rotate endlessly around it. Suddenly, instead of being an insignificant speck in a vast universe, our planet – and by extension, us – becomes the most important thing around. And I guess that’s comforting to some people.
Me? I think it’s far more interesting to be an insignificant speck, to be able to look out at that vast universe and try to understand it for what it is – to realise place and scale in a universe that we do not yet fully understand – but where that doesn’t then mean that any crazy theory must be right. It gives a sense of perspective, and it knocks human arrogance down a peg or two. Neither Earth, nor the universe, are here for us. We are a product of both – and when it comes to our precious sphere called Earth, we have to look after it. That sphere gives us our existence. We haven’t got another one.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2019