Bronze-level articleFlat Earth

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Flat Earth, or Flat Earth myth and various similar formulations, is the belief that the earth — which the vast, vast majority of the population imagine in their heads as this big spherical thing (or oblate spheroidal thing, pedants) we're standing on thanks to numerous pieces of evidence, not least pictures of it from space — is actually flat.

A less common term for belief in a flat earth is platygeism.

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[edit] Flat history

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File:Gossuin de Metz - L'image du monde - BNF Fr. 574 fo42 - miniature.jpg
High Mediaeval illustration of a spherical Earth.

On certain length scales, the Earth certainly is flat — the ground on what we like to call flatland certainly doesn't look like it has any significant curvature in everyday life. In a mountainous region, the local geography is so variable that discerning a curve would be even more difficult. As a result of this, a common sense interpretation of a flat Earth can be reached pretty quickly. Very early Egyptian and other middle Eastern civilisations portrayed the Earth as flat land suspended in an ocean, and with a "roof" of some kind over it. This is particularly reflected in some of the prose that made its way into the Bible and has been used to justify flat-Earth beliefs today[citation needed]. Ancient Chinese astronomy makes no mention of any roundness of the Earth, indeed some depictions made it square. In Siam, now Thailand, the flat-earth idea was part of Buddhist scripture until the 1800s, as part of the Traiphum cosmography.[1] However, most religious scholars considered it as a metaphorical description. It's unlikely it was ever taken painfully literally in Siam, even before King Mongkut (the one of The King and I fame) officially introduced more modern geography during his reforms and westernisation of the country.

In Western science and theology, that the entire world really was flat was discredited the moment it was properly considered and looked at, and had faded by the time of Classical Greek philosophy. Pythagoras suggested that the Earth was round, and Aristotle provided convincing evidence for it in Ancient Greece, although the main source to suggest Greeks prior to Aristotle thought the world was flat is Aristotle himself. By the Middle Ages, even the Catholic Church's most beloved of scientific theologians, Thomas Aquinas, was advancing the Earth's roundness as a fundamental of logic.

Isaac Asimov used the idea of a flat Earth in his essay The Relativity of Wrong to make a point about the progress of scientific knowledge. He pointed out that the notion of a flat Earth is wrong, but the idea of a spherical Earth is also wrong, as the shape of the Earth is better described as an oblate spheroid. Asimov went on to mention how these theories aren't equally wrong (and believing such a thing is "wronger than wrong") but that they do have use. An architect working on a small building site would have no use for "Spherical Earth Theory" and would assume the ground is flat, a designer of novelty globes wouldn't need to compensate for the oblateness of the Earth, but those sending satellites into orbit do (in fact the distortion has quite a dramatic effect on inclined orbits).

[edit] The modern myth

The idea that people used to believe that the Earth was flat until only very recently, mostly due to the influence of religion, is essentially a complete myth. A Greek Egyptian by the name of Eratosthenes not only proved the world was round, but calculated its circumference with an error of less than 2 percent, and did it in the third century BCE — nearly two thousand years before Columbus had ever existed. This is often brought up as an example of how secular enlightenment has triumphed over unfounded religious dogma; indeed, some theories state that this is the reason the myth is so popular.[2] Another possible reason for the myth may be the existence of various Flat Earth Societies in the 19th century.

In the Anglophone world, the myth is believed to originate with the novel The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus by Washington Irving, which perpetuated the idea that Columbus sailed around the globe to prove that it was round. In reality, all that was at stake with Columbus' journey and those of his contemporaries was the size of the Earth — it was Columbus' egregious underestimation of the Earth's size that led him to theorize that reaching Asia from the west was feasible. The Spanish Court's reluctance to fund his voyage was based on an estimate of the Earth's circumference that much more closely agreed with modern measurements, but was substantially larger than the figure Columbus had come up with. In other words, it was the King and Queen who were right, and Columbus who was wrong. He just got lucky and found an entirely New World on the way; otherwise, he and his crew would have died of starvation. It was widely known that it would be physically possible to get to Asia by going west, (Disregarding the then unknown Americas) if you could carry sufficient supplies. What prevented anyone before Columbus from trying to go around the world was that the ships were not large enough or fast enough to get from Europe to Asia by travelling west before the supplies ran out.

[edit] Modern "Flat-Earthers"

Logo of the modern Flat Earth Society

Given this history, it should come as a surprise to anyone that any human being existing in the developed world right now should still consider the idea of a flat Earth probable. Since the mid-1800s, though, modern pseudoscientists have been trying to prove that the Earth is flat. As evidence (such as the fact that we can now orbit the planet and view it from a distance or travel around it in aircraft and see that it curves) continues to mount against the Flat Earth, the idea is beginning to take a turn for the silly.[3]

Q: "Why do you guys believe the Earth is flat?"

A: Well, it looks that way up close. [...]

When asked what was underneath the flat plane that was Earth, the FAQ says the following.

A: This is unknown. Most FE proponents believe that it is generally composed of rocks. Please note that in Hinduism, the Earth rests on the back of four elephants and a turtle.

English inventor Samuel Rowbotham (1816–1884) published a 16-page pamphlet, which he later expanded into a 430-page book, Earth Not a Globe, expounding his views based on his literal interpretation of several Biblical passages. Under the model proposed by this book, the Earth is a flat disc with the north pole at its center and the south "pole" extending all the way around the outer edge. This outer edge is also guarded by a 150-foot-tall wall of ice. (Remember, at the time this was written, no expedition to Antarctica had yet reached the south pole.) After his death, his followers founded the Universal Zetetic Society which published a magazine Earth Not A Globe; however, the society slowly declined after World War I.

The Flat Earth Society (also known as the International Flat Earth Society or International Flat Earth Research Society) was founded by Englishman Samuel Shenton in 1956.[4] Shenton initially accepted the globe theory of the Earth, and indeed suggested his own innovation on how to make use of the Earth's rotation.[5] This involved raising an airship into the sky and then holding it stationary. After a few hours of the Earth's rotation, the airship would be over America. It could then be lowered, making transatlantic transport extremely fast and cheap, in one direction at least. He went as far as to write to the British government, urging them to use this method. The inevitable ridicule and indifference that he received convinced him that the Earth could not be rotating and that there was a conspiracy (for no defined reason) that hid the fact of the Earth's flatness.

This conspiracy blossomed to include everyone in every government, civilian pilots (post-war) and/or GPS manufacturers (1960s), everyone in every telecommunications industry, everyone in the southern hemisphere (the difference between the currently-accepted globe and Flat Earth map are so massive below the equator that they would be difficult to ignore) and anyone using an odometer on a trip between any four landmarks. Also included in the conspiracy are thousands of supersoldiers keeping ordinary citizens from witnessing the Ice Wall, which surrounds the Flat Earth. As for what lies beyond the Ice Wall, the Flat Earth Society has this to say:

Beyond the 150 foot Ice Wall is anyone's guess. How far the ice extends; how it terminates; and what exists beyond it, are questions to which no present human experience can reply. All we at present know is, that snow and hail, howling winds, and indescribable storms and hurricanes prevail; and that in every direction "human ingress is barred by unsealed escarpments of perpetual ice," extending farther than eye or telescope can penetrate, and becoming lost in gloom and darkness. Some hold that the tundra of ice and snow stretches forever eternally."[6]

The FERS is now defunct, but was still active in 1980 under the leadership of (the now deceased) Charles K. Johnson.[7] There is another modern Flat Earth Society with Daniel Shenton as its president, mainly notable for having its first member be synthpop musician Thomas Dolby, whose chief/only real qualification for such is that he made a rather good album called The Flat Earth. In fairness, unlike anything else one might provide to support the notion of a flat Earth, at least the album exists.

Motives for advocating a flat over a round earth despite evidence to the contrary vary. (Even typical young-earth creationists who think it's 6000 years old don't go so far as to say that it's not round.[8]). Charles K. Johnson based his flat earth belief on a hyper-literal interpretation of the Bible (asserting that Jesus' ascent "up" into Heaven is proof of a flat earth, since a round earth would have no "up" or "down"). While current FES president Daniel Shenton on the other hand accepts modern science such as evolution and global warming, yet somehow reconciles them with his flat earth beliefs,[9] [10] A flat earth movement also does exist within fundamentalist Islam based off of a literal interpretation of several Qu'ranic verses (See the "Flat Earth and the Qur'an" section below).

[edit] The conspiracy theorist bluff, everyone on the planet calls it...

The flat earth theory can be falsified on any clear night an hour or two after sunset by observing satellites in the sky[11], provided that one accepts either Occam's razor or common sense as valid stances. Plus sanity. Unless governments around the world are launching one-shot satellites every night to maintain the conspiracy, a flat earth simply won't support a constellation of orbiting objects. They'll fall right over the edge, giving you nothing but blurry images of a stack of turtles.[12]

[edit] Flat Earth and the Qur'an

Some Islamic fundamentalists possibly believe the earth is flat, using a literal interpretation of several Qur'an verses. Iraqi astronomer Fadhel Al-Sa'd declared that the earth is flat, and that the sun is much smaller than the Earth and revolves around it.[13]. In 1966 the supreme religious authority of Saudi Arabia, Sheik Abdul-Aziz Ibn Baaz is rumored to have declared "The earth is flat. Whoever claims it is round is an atheist deserving of punishment." However historians such as Robert Lacey believe that this quote was misinterpreted (and that Ibn Baaz was actually asserting that the earth doesn't orbit around the sun - but not that the earth was flat).

Like all scriptural quotations, this is a combination of very vague readings and picking the right translation.

Al-Kahf (18:47)

And (remember) the Day We shall cause the mountains to pass away (like clouds of dust), and you will see the earth as a levelled plain, and we shall gather them all together so as to leave not one of them behind.

The Muhsin Khan and Shakir translation seem to use "levelled plain", other translations, apart from Yusuf Ali, which says "level stretch" rather than "levelled plain", suggests this is just seeing the Earth prominently. Or something.

Taha (20:53)

Who has made earth for you like a bed (spread out); and has opened roads (ways and paths etc.) for you therein; and has sent down water (rain) from the sky. And We have brought forth with it various kinds of vegetation.

Translations again disagree on this. Like a "carpet" and like a "cradle" are also popular.

Az-Zukhruf (43:10)

Who has made for you the earth like a bed, and has made for you roads therein, in order that you may find your way.

Other translations of this "like a bed" indicate that it's metaphorical, with "resting place" being the most popular use. The Dr. Ghali translation still uses "cradle" in place of bed.

Az-Zukhruf (43:38)
Till, when (such a one) comes to Us, he says [to his Qarîn (Satan / devil companion)] "Would that between me and you were the distance of the two easts (or the east and west)" a worst (type of) companion (indeed)!

One presumes that this is a tacit admission that there is an absolute point marked "east" and a point marked "west" which isn't possible on a globe because it wraps around. It's not entirely possible on a flat Earth, either as there is no fixed reference. In Terry Pratchett's Discworld, set on a flat disc, they use radial co-ordinates of "hubward" (meaning toward the centre) "rimward" (towards the outside) and "turnwise" and "widdershins" for clockwise and anticlockwise respectively. Analogous with east and west on a globe, there are no fixed points on this reference frame.

An-Naba (78:6)

Have We not made the earth as a bed,

Only Muhsin Khan says "bed". The rest are "expanse" or variations of it. Dr Ghali continues with "cradle". One has to ask, if the Earth is like a bed, one usually thinks of beds as small, warm, comfortable things you sleep in. Flat is usually quite far down the list of words associated with beds.

An-Naziat (79:30)

And after that He spread the earth;

Ironically, the flat Earthers would have been better off with Dr Ghali here, as he is less ambiguous about it: "And the earth, after that He flattened it (for life)."

[edit] Logical proof

What follows is a more complicated logical proof that the Qu'ran claims that the earth is flat. Unlike the above, this proof is independent of translation (provided that your translation is moderately literalist) because it is based on logic, not quotation.

Much of Surah 18 (The Cave) is dedicated to an account of a figure called Dhu'l-Qarneyn, which translates as "The Two-Horned Lord". Most scholars identify this figure as Alexander the Great, although there is some debate over this, but the identity of the figure is not relevant to this discussion. Consider Qu'ran 18:83-86 and 18:89:90 (emphases mine):

They will ask thee of Dhu'l-Qarneyn. Say: I shall recite unto you a remembrance of him. Lo! We made him strong in the land and gave him unto every thing a road. And he followed a road, Till, when he reached the setting-place of the sun, he found it setting in a muddy spring, and found a people thereabout. ...
Then he followed a road, Till, when he reached the rising-place of the su, he found it rising on a people for whom We had appointed no shelter therefrom.

This implies that:

  • The sun has concrete places where it sets and rises (rather than remaining suspended in space, with the earth moving around it)
  • It is possible to reach the setting- and rising-places of the sun by travelling along a road (which could be some kind of cosmic space-road, but that seems unlikely, because...)
  • There are people living at the setting- and rising-places of the sun, presumably implying that they are concrete locations upon the earth
  • There is mud at the setting-place of the sun, presumably implying that there is soil and water to make it, again implying that it is a concrete location upon the earth

Now try to create a cosmological system where these qu'ranic pseudofacts remain consistent with the actual scientific facts regarding the sun and the earth. I'm pretty sure that Dhu'l-Qarneyn lived on a thoroughly flat earth which was the centre of the universe.

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

[edit] Footnotes

  1. Thongchai Winichakul, Siam mapped: a history of the geo-body of a nation
  2. Stephen Jay Gould. The Late Birth of a Flat Earth. In Dinosaur in a Haystack: Reflections in Natural History
  3. Flat Earth Society FAQ
  4. SF Hub -The Flat Earth Society Archive Archive copy at the Wayback Machine
  5. Flat Earth — The History of an Infamous Idea, Christine Garwood, MacMillan (2007)
  6. http://wiki.tfes.org/index.php?title=The_Ice_Wall
  7. http://www.lhup.edu/~dsimanek/fe-scidi.htm
  8. http://www.lhup.edu/~dsimanek/fe-scidi.htm
  9. http://www.theguardian.com/global/2010/feb/23/flat-earth-society
  10. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oc0trwHSRIA
  11. A handy way of knowing when and where to look for them is Heavens Above or any other website or software supporting satellite tracking.
  12. See the scientific version
  13. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A15iuoHEnWQ
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