The Shape of the Earth-Flat or Hollow?

By Simanek, Donald | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Winter 2008 | Go to article overview
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The Shape of the Earth-Flat or Hollow?


Simanek, Donald, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea by Christine Garwood. Macmillian, 2007. 400 pp., 20.00 [pounds sterling] ISBN: 978-1-4050-4702-9

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Hollow Earth: The Long and Curious History of imagining Strange Lands, Fantastical Creatures, advanced Civilizations, and Marvelous Machines Below the Earth's Surface by David Standish. Da Cape Press, 2006. 300 pp, $16.95. ISBN: 978-0-306-81373-3

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AFICIONADOS OF ESOTERIC history will be overjoyed that two books have appeared nearly simultaneously that tell the history of two eccentric and incompatible views of the shape of the earth.

Science has forged a picture of the universe and its operations that is impressive in its power and scope. We complacently think of this as a picture of the "real" world. But the logical and experimental foundations of this scientific picture are beyond the grasp of most people, who must be content to take most of science "on faith," trusting scientists to "get it right."

Education hasn't helped as much as we might have hoped. I used to tell my college undergraduates about various views of the shape of the earth: round, flat, hollow and others. Then I asked them to write an essay, choosing one of these models, and defending it with evidence and sound arguments. The results were dismal. Most chose to defend the conventional round earth, but their evidence and arguments were weak and often irrelevant. I gave them a chance to research the matter more carefully and submit a revised essay. On the third try, one student wrote, in frustration "I don't know why the earth is round. I believe it because all my teachers said it was so. Isn't that enough?" "No," I said, "That is certainly not enough."

The ancient Greek philosophers knew the reasons that the earth was round, and these were based on observations that any student could easily make today. Aristotle listed them:

* The gradual disappearance of ships over the horizon, the tops of the sails disappearing last.

* The shape of the curved shadow of the earth on the moon during eclipses.

* The variation of the sun's elevation with latitude. (This was the basis of Eratosthenes' measurement of the earth's size.)

* The variation of a star's elevation with latitude. The fact that one sees new stars as one moves north or south on the earth's surface.

Students today are innocent of this ancient knowledge. While they "know" the earth is round, the best reasons they can muster to support this idea are: "Airplanes can fly around the earth" and "We have photos of earth taken from space." Not only are students innocent of science, they are innocent of history. Many still accept the myth that in the Middle Ages "everyone" thought the earth was flat, and Columbus had to overcome opposition from those who doubted that you could sail a ship around it.

The naive belief that the world is flat has become the prototypical example of a pseudoscience for good reason. It arises from the same kind of world-view that motivates other forms of "alternative science," including, and especially, creationism and intelligent design.

Christine Garwood, science historian, has written the first book that examines the whole history of the flat each idea from ancient times to the present. She begins by demolishing the historical myth that Columbus was opposed by those who knew the world was flat, and would have proved them wrong if America hadn't gotten in his way. In fact, at that time, educated persons accepted the round earth, but doubted that anyone could live on the "other side"--the "antipodes." Columbus accepted an estimate of earth's size that was much too small, thereby underestimating the time it would take to sail around it.

Garwood then follows the history of the flat earth idea from ancient times, to its revival in 19th century England, to the present.

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