The Earth Isn’t Flat?!

Continuing with our scientific discoveries that changed history and impacted our perception of the world…In case you had not noticed: the Earth IS spherical. Well, I know that may come out as a shocker, but please do remember, this was disputed and not very well understood for centuries! The idea that our planet was entirely flat was conceived by many people-and disbelieved by others, for sure. In fact, it has been pointed out that by the 14th century, no scholar would have happily supported the idea of a flat Earth, despite it perhaps being represented as such. However, we have to consider that artistic representations such as the triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronimous Bosch, where the world is depicted on a 2 dimensional flat circle, are mere conventions. It would not be until the Renaissance that perspectives and three-dimensionality really picked up. Moreover, there were certain mythologies such as in the early Mesopotamian culture, where the world was believed to be some sort of floating disk on water and surrounded by air and sky.

These type of concepts is what promoted the flat outline of cartography in the early maps. So, it would seem that we may have understood this matter poorly all along. Stephen Jay Gould pointed this out and suggested there is sufficient evidence to believe that the Greeks knew the spherical profile of the planet. Therefore this would have been knowledge passed out to future generations. Pytagoras was one of the first defenders of this idea back in the 6th century BC, and even though it was not until after Aristotle empirically agreed to this thesis c.330 BC, the concept then was widely embraced within the Hellenistic world. For your information, the way Aristotle became aware of the spherical nature of the world was mainly through astronomy and the observation of the southern constellations positions. Moving in to the Middle Ages, even in the early part of the period, people like Bede, would write treatises including theories about the Earth not being flat, as it is explained in The Reckoning of Time. Moreover, in the Islamic world the Earth had been not only accepted as spherical, but they had also managed to discern a good approximation of its circumference by the 9th century. This all obviously transpired in the 16th century, when Fernão de Magalhães (Ferdinand Magallan) and Juan Sebastián Elcano provided a practical demonstration of the round nature of the planet by achieving the circumnavigation of the Earth (1519-1522).

So, where did we get this idea of the planet being flat?! Well, funny that you say that, because it will seem that after realising our mistakes and accepting our error, throughout the 17th century this was used as ammo for the feuding Christian factions in the West. James Hannam notes how this was an argument used by the Protestants against Catholic teachings. This put many men of science at stake, and it created a harsh environment for the education of people. It came to discredit many religious theories, and vice versa many Christians started to question this perfectly valid idea of the actual shape of the world. Tensions started brewing. Nevertheless, the issue only developed further up to the 19th century. With the rise of Darwinism, evolution proved that the Christian doctrine may have been flawed with regards the understanding of human life on Earth. The Western world was torn between science and religion…And you all were blame it on the Middle Ages, huh? “The Dark Ages”. What are the Dark Ages if not another Romanticised concept of a distant past, where people were misguided and believed the Earth was flat…Follow me? Modernity had just as much to do with the damning of scientifically proven facts as did Antiquity.

Granted, the disbelieve was mostly amongst the lay folk and no scientist of note ever even considered it an option. But the quarrel had already begun; and that is how myths come alive. Nevertheless, there were modern men trying to prove, not only that the planet had a globular shape, but precisely that it was not entirely rounded, but more like an ellipsis with slightly flattened poles. This was the quest that Pierre Louis Maupertuis (1698–1759) proceeded to achieve. The French mathematician and philosopher even went on an expedition to Lapland to determine the correct shape of the world. And this concept is nowadays supported by the field of geodesy-the section of mathematics that deals with the measurement and representation of the Earth. By these principles, in fact, the Earth is, or rather should be considered as an oblate spheroid- but we will take sphere as a close approximate. Of course, the crazy theories about the flat conception of the planet have been disproved and rebated in the 20th century, and it is mostly safe to say: it is common knowledge the Earth is a sphere. But, there are some that persevere this is not the case. Of course, every case has its followers to the core…I mean, were you aware of the International Flat Earth Research Society (IFERS), better known as the Flat Earth Society? Well, these folks, whose leader was Samuel Shenton, found this group in 1956 in Dover (UK). Shenton’s intention was to get the idea of a flat Earth to the children before the educational system would teach the otherwise. The society found a home in California too, where Shenton’s correspondent, Charles K. Johnson furthered these ideas, taken them to the extreme…He seemed to truly believe that there was some sort of conspiracy to keep us all away from the idea of our mostly liquid, blue, flat paradise…The society did die out by the 1990s, after a fire in its headquarters, and particularly following the death of Johnson in 2001.

So, I guess there is a lesson to learn from our own contradictory nature and understanding of events. There will always be sceptics in the world- being these scientists, men of faith or ordinary people. However, this does not discredit the theories and evidence developed by any scientific, humanistic or philosophic trend. As ridiculous as it may sound to us, the concept of a flat world helps us grasp how much human thought has evolved, and ultimately the sciences, arts and our way of life with it…

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