Flat Earth

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15th century adaptation of a T and O map. This kind of medieval mappa mundi illustrates only the reachable side of a round Earth.

The flat earth is a scientifically false hypothesis that the surface of the Earth is not roughly a sphere, but rather flat (a plane). Belief in a flat Earth is found in writings predating around 500 BC. Early Mesopotamian maps showed the world as a flat disk floating in the ocean.

This was a common belief until the Classical Greeks began to discuss the Earth's shape about the 4th century BC. One of the "giveaways" is that ships' masts disappear as they move away from shore.

Eratosthenes (276 BC–194 BC) calculated the circumference of the Earth quite well.[1] From then on, few educated people ever believed in its being flat, though the idea of a flat earth was still common among the less educated.[2] Aristotle knew the Earth was round, that is to say, roughly spherical. (330 BC).

The large-scale shape of the Earth only matters when considering large distances, as it is hard to see the Earth's curve from the ground. Therefore in the Ancient world only sailors, astronomers, philosophers, and theologians would have cared about the Earth's large-scale shape.

The following authors argued for a spherical or ball-shaped earth: King Alfred of the Anglo-Saxons, Hildegard von Bingen, Thomas Aquinas, Snorri Sturluson, Marco Polo, Dante Alighieri, Christopher Columbus

Portuguese people explored Africa and Asia, Columbus sailed to the Americas (1492) and Ferdinand Magellan circumnavigated (sailed all round) the earth (1519-21). This proved finally, and in a practical way, that the Earth is a globe.

During the 19th century, the Romantic ideas about a European "Dark Age" made the Flat Earth model look more important than it ever had been in history.

In 1849, the Flat Earth movement was revived by Samuel Rowbotham, who wrote the book Zetetic Astronomy, which says that the results of his Bedford level experiment proved that the earth was flat.[3]

The Flammarion woodcut. Flammarion wrote, "A missionary in the Middle Ages tells that he has found the point where heaven and Earth meet..."

The widely circulated woodcut is of a man poking his head through the firmament of a flat Earth to see the machines working the spheres. It was made in 16th century style but cannot be traced to an earlier time than Camille Flammarion's L'Atmosphère: Météorologie Populaire (Paris, 1888, p. 163). The woodcut illustrates the statement in the text that a missionary in the middle Ages claimed that "he reached the horizon where the Earth and the heavens met". That story may be traced back to Voltaire, but not to any known source in the Middle ages. The original woodcut had a decorative border that places it in the 19th century; in later publications, some claimed that the woodcut dated from the 16th century and the border was removed. According to an unproved story Flammarion ordered the woodcut himself; certainly no source of the image earlier than Flammarion's book is known.

An early mention in literature was Ludvig Holberg's comedy Erasmus Montanus (1723). A great many people disagree with Erasmus Montanus when he claims the Earth is round, since all the peasants believe it is flat. He is not allowed to marry his fiancée until he cries "The earth is flat as a pancake". In Rudyard Kipling's The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat, the main characters spread the rumor that a Parish Council meeting had voted in favor of a flat Earth.

Myth[change | change source]

The myth of the flat Earth, or the flat earth error, is a modern wrong idea. It says that European scholars and educated people during the Middle Ages believed the Earth to be flat.[4][5] They did not.

Fantasy fiction[change | change source]

An old map of the world made in Amsterdam in 1689
The spherical Earth seen from Apollo 17, disproves the flat Earth model. The Flat Earth Society believes that images like these have been edited by NASA as part of a conspiracy.

Fantasy fiction often imagines a flat Earth. In C. S. Lewis' The Voyage of the Dawn Treader the fictional world of Narnia is "round like a table" (i.e., flat), not "round like a ball", and the characters sail toward the edge of this world. Terry Pratchett's Strata and Discworld novels (1983 onwards) are set on a flat, disc-shaped world resting on the backs of four huge elephants which are in turn standing on the back of an enormous turtle.

Related pages[change | change source]

References[change | change source]

  1. Asimov, Isaac. 1975. Asimov's biographical encyclopedia of science and technology, entry #42, "Eratosthenes", p. 29. Pan Books, London. ISBN 0-330-24323-3
  2. Gould, Stephen Jay 1996. The late birth of a flat Earth. In Dinosaur in a haystack. London: Penguin, p38. ISBN 0-14-025672-5
  3. Samuel Birley Rowbotham (1865). Zetetic astronomy. Earth not a globe! an experimental inquiry into the true figure of the earth ... Oxford University.
  4. * Russell, Jeffrey Burton (1991), Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and modern historians, New York: Praeger, ISBN 0-275-95904-X
  5. * Russell, Jeffrey Burton (1993), "The Flat Error: The Modern Distortion of Medieval Geography", Mediaevalia, 15: 337–353