Why the Earth isn’t flat

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’.

A beautiful picture of Earth from 1.6 million km sunwards. But wait, you say, it’s clearly round – but surely that’s just a flat disk? No doubt. Contrary to Flat Earth insistence, Central Africa is clearly the centre of the Earth, the United States, Australia, etc, don’t exist. And it hides the stacked elephants holding it up on the other side. What are they standing on? Hey – the elephants go all the way down. NASA, public domain.

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


26 thoughts on “Why the Earth isn’t flat

  1. Well said. We have only one home, so far, and I sincerely hope we don’t get another until we’ve learned the painful lessons of this one. I’d hate to think of homo sapiens roaring through the universe, trashing every planet it finds along the way!

    The only bit I’d disagree with is some of the history. You’re right about the ‘thinkers’ but I can’t see the average farmer in either Victorian England or early Mesopotamia being able to extrapolate curvature from the horizon. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that even now, kids learn that the Earth is round by rote; no thinking required. 😦 Sorry, disgruntled teacher talking.

    1. I agree – the arrival of humanity in outer space would merely lead to a repeat what we’ve done to Earth. Eventually, Thog the Alien SuperIntelligence would exterminate us as a mercy to the rest of the universe! (Heinlein, as I recall, envisaged just such a ‘galactic police force’ in ‘Have Spacesuit, Will Travel’).

      I might have been a bit ambiguous in the wording relative to who understood what in the ancient and Victorian worlds. I was meaning the educated types throughout. For the most part, as you say, the ordinary people wouldn’t have given it much thought and would likely have accepted what they were told.

        1. It’s worth checking out if you can find a copy. The novel took a fairly sharp dig at everything from ‘Doc’ Smith style space-opera to 1950s American TV contests, teenage milk-bar culture and UFO’s. And space-suit engineering, which Heinlein knew quite a bit about as he’d apparently been designing them in the 1940s for the US Navy’s high-altitude flight programme (he basically described exactly how spacesuits work – the only bit he missed relative to the way they are engineered, to this very day, was that he thought air-flow might be sufficient for cooling. This indeed was how early suits were designed, but it proved inadequate in practise).

          1. Oh wow, I had no idea Heinlein did any of that. I read him before the days of the internet and instant searches.
            So…what are suits cooled with? I imagine its a bit more high tech than water? Freon? or whatever that stuff is that goes in fridges?

            1. Apparently it is water – they wear an undergarment with water-filled cooling tubes through it, the LCG (Liquid Cooling Garment). Developed for the Apollo A7L moon suits and still used in EVA suits today. The system included a heat-exchanger. I gather it’s also been adapted for Earth-side applications, such as for fire-fighters.

              1. Wow…I’m gobsmacked. I was so sure they’d developed something new and super efficient. I guess if it works, that’s all that counts. I do wonder about the bulk though. -shrug-

  2. I had a look at the Flat Earth Society Twitter account. And, yeah, they have total conviction in it. I can’t quite understand it. Like with people who claim they’ve been abducted by aliens. This belief comes out of boredom, maybe? Something to add significance to their lives?

    Oh well. If I ever do get abducted by aliens, I’ll be sure to send Earth a postcard.

    1. I just had a look – @FlatEarthOrg. Yes, they seem quite convinced of their thinking, and apparently a spherical earth is a ‘theory’. Weirdly, some way down the scroll (17 January) is what appears to be a not-very-recent photo of NZ’s Prime Minister advocating flat earthism. I wonder if I should send the link to her office with an enquiry.

      Meanwhile, a friend of mine has suggested that a spherical Earth must be over-weight by definition by comparison with the flat variety, and wants to start a new organisation: the Fat Earth Society. Are you a starter? (Not that anybody is trying to fat-shame the planet or anything, I mean the Earth’s nothing compared to Jupiter, but you know…)

      1. I once read an opinion piece where the journalist claimed climate change can’t be happening. His reasoning was that his gin and tonic drink, when filled to the top, didn’t spill over. Consequently, that’s comparable to a planet.

        I should be less surprised really by this flat Earth stuff. Maybe I’ll try and start a hexagon Earth movement.

        Possibly not the best news if your PM is involved. Although ours, Theresa May, said God will guide her through Brexit. So it’s all fun and games.

  3. Totally agree, especially your last paragraph. Well said! Another reason for groups cherishing weird notions may be that it gives them a kind of exclusive inclusiveness. “We’re the special few” kind of thing. There is a sort of thrill to that. Believing the earth is flat though, that must require a real act of faith!

    1. That sense of uniqueness, ‘us’ versus ‘them’ must indeed be a large part of what attracts people to this. I recall, years ago, reading a very funny book by Patrick Moore, ‘Can You Speak Venusian?’, in which he researched all such groups he could find in England. Flat Earthers, UFO advocates, etc. All were quintessentially weird, but it was a quintessentially English kind of weirdness. (Mind you, Moore himself was kind of eccentric – I recall the time he came to NZ and was interviewed wearing a monocle, playing the xylophone).

        1. I knew he was bad but it got worse the more I looked into it. I gather the current ‘Steiners’ try to distance themselves from his doctrines about race (although they haven’t dropped his ideas of reincarnation, which were linked with it). What always disturbed me was the utterly intolerant sanctimony with which his zealots pursued his teachings, at least back in the 1970s and early 1980s. Aside from being lectured on how worthless I was for not being a Believer, I recall one of them getting very, very angry at the name of the band Eurythmics, because it sounded like the name of Steiner’s dance form, ‘Eurythmy’, and this was heretical.

  4. As is usual, even though the “brain trust” ancient greeks knew it was round, it took centuries before the mainstream population accepted it. And even more strange to me is that fact that some still cling to the thought. It truly takes all kinds to make the world go round and round, like a record. 😉

    1. On matters of Earth being round like a record, have you read Richard Lupoff’s ‘Circumpolar’? It’s a kind of strange novel, set on an alternate 1920s in which the planets are all coin-shaped. The First World War never really happened and the plot involves Charles Lindbergh, Howard Hughes and Amelia Earhart trying to circumnavigate the ‘coin’ by winning an air race against the evil Richthofen brothers, across its unknown side. Inevitably it was written with tongue firmly in cheek, but it was very entertaining.

  5. Ships don’t disappear over the curve of the earth, they disappear because of perspective. Earth is flat and stationary.

    1. what does that mean perspective???, if you look at a flat piece of paper any object on it does not disappear unless you turn the paper over, or put something between you and the object.

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