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Flat Earth believes the surface of our Earth is flat.

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Flat Earth refers to the notion the inhabited surface of Earth is flat. Flat Earth argues the Earth is flat rather than a curved spherical shape. This article focuses on the views about the shape of the Earth during the history of Europe, on historical evidence for and against the modern belief that people in Medieval Europe believed that the Earth was flat, on modern believers in a Flat Earth, and on the use of the idea of a Flat Earth in literature and popular culture.

Flat Earth Map.
Flat Earth Map from 15th century adaptation of a T-O map. This kind of medieval Mappa Mundi illustrate only the reachable side of a round Earth, since it was thought that no one could cross a torrid clime near the Equator to the other half of the globe.

In early Classical Antiquity, the Earth was generally believed to be flat. Greek philosophers from that time period were prone to form conclusions similar to those of Anaximander, who believed the Earth to be a short cylinder with a flat, circular top. It is conjectured that the first person to have advocated a spherical shape of the Earth was Pythagoras (6th century BC), but this idea is not supported by the fact that most presocratic Pythagoreans considered the world to be flat. Eratosthenes, however, had already determined that the earth was a sphere and calculated its rough circumference by the third century B.C.

By the time of Pliny the Elder in the 1st century, the Earth's spherical shape was generally acknowledged among the learned in the western world. Ptolemy derived his maps from a curved globe and developed the system of latitude, longitude, and climes. His writings remained the basis of European astronomy throughout the Middle Ages, although Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (ca. 3rd to 7th centuries) saw occasional arguments in favor of a flat Earth.

The modern misconception that people of the Middle Ages believed that the Earth was flat first entered the popular imagination in the nineteenth century, thanks largely to the publication of Washington Irving's fantasy The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus in 1828.

Flat Earth in antiquity .

Belief in a flat Earth is found in mankind's oldest writings. In early Mesopotamian thought, the world was portrayed as a flat disk floating in the ocean, and this forms the premise for early Greek maps like those of Anaximander and Hecataeus. Many theologians and biblical researchers maintain that writers of the Bible had a Babylonian world view according to which Earth is flat and stands on some sort of pillars. According to Dictionary of the Bible written by W. Browning "Hebrew cosmology pictured a flat earth, over which was a dome-shaped firmament, supported above the earth by mountains, and surrounded by waters. Holes or sluices (windows, Gen 7.11) allowed the water to fall as rain. The firmament was the heaven in which God set the Sun (Ps 19.4) and the stars (Gen 1.14)" Other theologians counter that the book of Isaiah alludes to the earth being circular or spherical (Isa 40.22).

By classical times an alternative idea, that Earth was spherical, had appeared. This was espoused by Pythagoras, apparently on aesthetic grounds, as he also held that all the celestial bodies were spherical. Aristotle provided observational evidence for the spherical Earth, noting that travelers going south see southern Constellations rise higher above the horizon. This is only possible if their horizon is at an angle to northerners' horizon. Thus the Earth's surface cannot be flat. Also, the border of the shadow of Earth on the Moon during the partial phase of a lunar eclipse is always circular, no matter how high the Moon is over the horizon. Only a sphere casts a circular shadow in every direction, whereas a circular disk casts an elliptical shadow in most directions.

The Earth's circumference was first determined around 240 BC by Eratosthenes. Eratosthenes knew that in Syene (now Aswan), in Egypt, the Sun was directly overhead at the summer solstice, while he estimated that a shadow cast by the Sun at Alexandria was 1/50th of a circle. He estimated the distance from Syene to Alexandria as 5,000 stades, and estimated the Earth's circumference was 250,000 stades and a degree was 700 stades (implying a circumference of 252,000 stades). Eratosthenes used rough estimates and round numbers, but depending on the length of the stadion, his result is within a margin of between 2% and 20% of the actual circumference, 40,008 kilometres. Note that Eratosthenes could only measure the circumference of the Earth by assuming that the distance to the Sun is so great that the rays of sunlight are essentially parallel. A similar measurement, reported in a Chinese mathematical treatise, the Zhoubi suanjing (1st c. BC), was used to measure the distance to the Sun- albeit by assuming that the Earth was flat.

Flat Earth manuscript.
Sketch map flat Earth from a 12th century manuscript of Macrobius's commentary on Dream of Scipio, showing the inhabited northern region separated from the antipodes by an imagined ocean spanning the equator.

During this period, Earth was generally thought of as divided into zones of climate, with a frigid clime at the poles, a deadly torrid clime near the Equator, and a mild and habitable temperate clime between the two. It was thought that the different temperatures of these zones were related with proximity to the sun. It was erroneously believed that no one could cross the torrid clime and reach the unknown lands on the other half of the globe. At the time, these imagined lands as well as their inhabitants were both called antipodes.

Lucretius (1st. c. BC) opposed the concept of a spherical Earth, because he considered the idea of antipodes absurd. But by the 1st century AD, Pliny the Elder was in a position to claim that everyone agrees on the spherical shape of Earth (Natural History, 2.64), although there continued to be disputes regarding the nature of the antipodes, and how it is possible to keep the ocean in a curved shape. Interestingly, Pliny as an "intermediate" theory considers also the possibility of an imperfect sphere, "shaped like a pinecone". (Natural History, 2.65)

In the Second century the Alexandrian astronomer Ptolemy advanced many arguments for the sphericity of the Earth. Among them was the observation that when sailing towards mountains, they seem to rise from the sea, indicating that they were hidden by the curved surface of the sea.

In late antiquity such widely read encyclopedists as Macrobius (4th c.) and Martianus Capella (5th c.) discussed the circumference of the sphere of the Earth, its central position in the universe, the difference of the seasons in northern and southern hemispheres, and many other geographical details. In his commentary on Cicero's Dream of Scipio, Macrobius described the Earth as a globe of insignificant size in comparison to the remainder of the cosmos.

Flat Earth and the views of the early Christian church.

From Late Antiquity, and from the beginnings of Christian theology, knowledge of the sphericity of the Earth had become widespread. As in secular culture a small minority contended with the flatness of the Earth. There was also some debate concerning the possibility of the inhabitants of the antipodes: people imagined as separated by an impassable torrid clime were difficult to reconcile with the Christian view of a unified human race descended from one couple and redeemed by a single Christ.

But as to the fable that there are Antipodes, that is to say, men on the opposite side of the earth, where the sun rises when it sets to us, men who walk with their feet opposite ours, that is on no ground credible. And, indeed, it is not affirmed that this has been learned by historical knowledge, but by scientific conjecture, on the ground that the earth is suspended within the concavity of the sky, and that it has as much room on the one side of it as on the other: hence they say that the part which is beneath must also be inhabited. But they do not remark that, although it be supposed or scientifically demonstrated that the world is of a round and spherical form, yet it does not follow that the other side of the earth is bare of water; nor even, though it be bare, does it immediately follow that it is peopled.

Since these people would have to be descended from Adam, they would have had to travel to the other side of the Earth at some point; Augustine continues:

It is too absurd to say, that some men might have taken ship and traversed the whole wide ocean, and crossed from this side of the world to the other, and that thus even the inhabitants of that distant region are descended from that one first man.

Scholars of Augustine's work have traditionally assumed that he would have shared the common view of his educated contemporaries that the earth is spherical. That assumption has recently been challenged, however.

A few Christian authors directly opposed the round Earth:

Lactantius (245-325), after his conversion to Christianity became a trenchant critic of all pagan philosophy. In Book III of The Divine Institutes he ridicules the notion that there could be inhabitants of the antipodes "whose footsteps are higher than their heads". After presenting some arguments which he claims advocates for a spherical heaven and earth had advanced to support their views, he writes:

But if you inquire from those who defend these marvellous fictions, why all things do not fall into that lower part of the heaven, they reply that such is the nature of things, that heavy bodies are borne to the middle, and that they are all joined together towards the middle, as we see spokes in a wheel; but that the bodies which are light, as mist, smoke, and fire, are borne away from the middle, so as to seek the heaven. I am at a loss what to say respecting those who, when they have once erred, consistently persevere in their folly, and defend one vain thing by another.

flat earth in a Tabernacle.
Cosmas Indicopleustes' world picture - flat earth in a Tabernacle.

In his Homilies Concerning the Statutes St.John Chrysostom (344-408) explicitly espoused the idea, based on his reading of Scripture, that the Earth floated on the waters gathered below the firmament, and St. Athanasius (c.293-373) expressed similar views in Against the Heathen.

Diodorus of Tarsus (d. 394) also argued for a flat Earth based on scriptures; however, Diodorus' opinion on the matter is known to us only by a criticism of it by Photius.

Severian, Bishop of Gabala (d. 408), wrote: "The earth is flat and the sun does not pass under it in the night, but travels through the northern parts as if hidden by a wall".

The Egyptian monk Cosmas Indicopleustes (547) in his Topographia Christiana, where the Covenant Ark was meant to represent the whole universe, argued on theological grounds that the Earth was flat, a parallelogram enclosed by four oceans. At least one early Christian writer, Basil of Caesarea (329-379), believed the matter to be theologically irrelevant.

Different historians have maintained that these advocates of the flat Earth were either influential (a view typified by Andrew Dickson White) or relatively unimportant (typified by Jeffrey Burton Russell) in the later Middle Ages. The scarcity of references to their beliefs in later medieval writings convinces most of today's historians that their influence was slight.

Flat Earth in the Middle Ages.

Sphere of the Earth at the center.
9th century Macrobian cosmic diagram showing the sphere of the Earth at the center, (globus terrae).
12th century T-O map representing the inhabitated world as described by Isidore of Seville in his Etymologiae. (chapter 14, de terra et partibus).

With the end of Roman civilization, Western Europe entered the Middle Ages with great difficulties that affected the continent's intellectual production. Most scientific treatises of classical antiquity (in Greek) were unavailable, leaving only simplified summaries and compilations. Still, the dominant textbooks of the Early Middle Ages supported the sphericity of the Earth. For example: many early medieval manuscripts of Macrobius include maps of the Earth, including the antipodes, zonal maps showing the Ptolemaic climates derived from the concept of a spherical Earth and a diagram showing the Earth (labeled as globus terrae, the sphere of the Earth) at the center of the hierarchically ordered planetary spheres. Images of some of these features can be found in Dream of Scipio.

Europe's view of the shape of the Earth in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages may be best expressed by the writings of early Christian scholars:

  • Boethius (c. 480 - 524), who also wrote a theological treatise On the Trinity, repeated the Macrobian model of the Earth as an insignificant point in the center of a spherical cosmos in his influential, and widely translated, Consolation of Philosophy.
  • Bishop Isidore of Seville (560 - 636) taught in his widely read encyclopedia, the Etymologies, that the Earth was round. His meaning was ambiguous and some writers think he referred to a disc-shaped Earth; his other writings make it clear, however, that he considered the Earth to be globular. He also admitted the possibility of people dwelling at the antipodes, considering them as legendary and noting that there was no evidence for their existence. Isidore's disc-shaped analogy continued to be used through the Middle Ages by authors clearly favouring a spherical Earth, e.g. the 9th century bishop Rabanus Maurus who compared the habitable part of the northern hemisphere (Aristotle's northern temperate clime) with a wheel, imagined as a slice of the whole sphere.
  • The monk Bede (c.672 - 735) wrote in his influential treatise on computus, The Reckoning of Time, that the Earth was round, explaining the unequal length of daylight from "the roundness of the Earth, for not without reason is it called 'the orb of the world' on the pages of Holy Scripture and of ordinary literature. It is, in fact, set like a sphere in the middle of the whole universe." (De temporum ratione, 32). The large number of surviving manuscripts of The Reckoning of Time, copied to meet the Carolingian requirement that all priests should study the computus, indicates that many, if not most, priests were exposed to the idea of the sphericity of the Earth. Ælfric of Eynsham paraphrased Bede into Old English, saying "Now the Earth's roundness and the Sun's orbit constitute the obstacle to the day's being equally long in every land.".
  • Bishop Vergilius of Salzburg (c.700 - 784) is sometimes cited as having been persecuted for teaching "a perverse and sinful doctrine ... against God and his own soul" regarding the sphericity of the earth. Pope Zachary decided that "if it shall be clearly established that he professes belief in another world and other people existing beneath the earth, or in another sun and moon there, thou art to hold a council, and deprive him of his sacerdotal rank, and expel him from the church." The issue involved was not the sphericity of the Earth itself, but whether people living in the antipodes were not descended from Adam and hence were not in need of redemption. Vergilius succeeded in freeing himself from that charge; he later became a bishop and was canonised in the thirteenth century.

A non-literary but graphic indication that people in the Middle Ages believed that the Earth was a sphere, is the use of the orb (globus cruciger) in the regalia of many kingdoms and of the Holy Roman Empire. It is attested from the time of the Christian late-Roman emperor Theodosius II (423) throughout the Middle Ages; the Reichsapfel was used in 1191 at the coronation of emperor Henry VI.

A recent study of medieval concepts of the sphericity of the Earth noted that "since the eighth century, no cosmographer worthy of note has called into question the sphericity of the Earth." Of course it was probably not the few noted intellectuals who defined public opinion. It is difficult to tell what the wider population may have thought of the shape of the Earth - if they considered the question at all. It may have been as irrelevant to them as the Heisenberg uncertainty principle is to most of our contemporaries.

Flat Earth in the Later Middle Ages.

Sphere of the World.
Picture from a 1550 edition of: "On the Sphere of the World". The most influential astronomy textbook of the 13th century.

By the 11th century, Europe had learned of Islamic astronomy. Around 1070 started the Renaissance of the 12th century, featuring an intellectual revitalization of Europe with strong philosophical and scientific roots, and increased appetite for the study of nature. By then, abundant records suggest that any doubts that Europeans may have had in earlier times in regard to the spherical shape of the Earth were generally eliminated.

Hermannus Contractus (1013-1054) was among the earliest Christian scholars to estimate the circumference of Earth with Eratosthenes' method. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), the most important and widely taught theologian of the Middle Ages, believed in a spherical Earth; and he even took for granted his readers also knew the Earth is round. Lectures in the medieval universities commonly advanced evidence in favor of the idea that the Earth was a sphere. Also, "On the Sphere of the World", the most influential astronomy textbook of the 13th century and required reading by students in all Western European universities, described the world as a sphere.

The shape of the Earth was not only discussed in scholarly works written in Latin; it was also treated in works written in vernacular languages or dialects and intended for wider audiences. The Norwegian book Konungs Skuggsjá, from around 1250, states clearly that the Earth is round - and that it is night on the other side of the Earth when it is daytime in Norway. The author also discusses the existence of antipodes - and he notes that they (if they exist) will see the Sun in the north of the middle of the day, and that they will have opposite seasons of the people living in the Northern Hemisphere.

Spherical Earth.
Artistic representation of a spherical Earth, (c.1400).

Dante's Divine Comedy, the last great work of literature of the Middle Ages, written in Italian, portrays Earth as a sphere. Also, the Elucidarium of Honorius Augustodunensis (c. 1120), an important manual for the instruction of lesser clergy which was translated into Middle English, Old French, Middle High German, Old Russian, Middle Dutch, Old Norse, Icelandic, Spanish, and several Italian dialects, explicitly refers to a spherical Earth. Likewise, the fact that Bertold von Regensburg (mid-13th century) used the spherical Earth as a sermonic illustration shows that he could assume this knowledge among his congregation. The sermon was held in the vernacular German, and thus was not intended for a learned audience.

Reinhard Krüger, a professor for Romance literature at the University of Stuttgart (Germany), has discovered more than 100 medieval Latin and vernacular writers from the late antiquity to the 15th century who were all convinced that the earth was round like a ball. However, as late as 1400s, the Spanish theologian Tostatus still disputed the existence of any inhabitants at the antipodes. From a European perspective, Portuguese exploration of Africa and Asia and Spanish explorations in the Americas in the 15th century and finally Ferdinand Magellan's circumnavigation of the earth brought the experimental proofs for the global shape of the earth.

Flat Earth in the Medieval Muslim World.

At some time in the 9th century, with scholars like Al-Battani, the Muslim World was leading in astronomical knowledge, and the sphericity of the Earth was consequently a well known fact. Around 830 CE, Caliph al-Ma'mun commissioned a group of astronomers to measure the distance from Tadmur (Palmyra) to al-Raqqah, in modern Syria. They found the cities to be separated by one degree of latitude and the distance between them to be 66 2/3 miles and thus calculated the Earth's circumference to be 24,000 miles.

Ibn Taymiya (died 1328 CE), said: "Celestial bodies are round-as it is the statement of astronomers and mathematicians-it is [likewise] the statement of the scholars of the Muslims; as Abul-Hasan ibn al-Manaadi, Abu Muhammad Ibn Hazm, Abul-Faraj Ibn Al-Jawzi and others have quoted: that the Muslim scholars are in agreement (that all celestial bodies are round). Indeed Allah has said: And He (Allah) it is Who created the night and the day, the sun and the moon. They float, each in a Falak. Ibn Abbas says: A Falaka like that of a spinning wheel. The word 'Falak' (in the Arabic language) means "that which is round."

Many Muslim scholars declared a mutual agreement (Ijma) that celestial bodies are round. Some of them are: Ibn Hazm (d. 1069), Ibn al-Jawzi (d. 1200), and Ibn Taymiya (d. 1328). The later belief of Muslim scholars, like Suyuti (d. 1505) that the earth is flat represents a deviation from this earlier opinion .

The Muslim scholars who held to the round earth theory used it in an impeccably Islamic manner, to calculate the distance and direction from any given point on the earth and Mecca. This determined the Qibla, or Muslim direction of prayer. Muslim mathematicians developed spherical trigonometry which was used in these calculations. Ibn Khaldun, in his famous Muqaddimah, clearly says the world is spherical.

There is also a verse in the Quran [79:30] which some modern English translations give as "He made the earth egg-shaped" which suggests that the Earth was not believed to be flat. Most translations ("And after that He spread the earth") suggest that this verse can be interpreted to support the flat Earth theory.

Flat Earth in China and the Far East.

In ancient China, the prevailing belief was that the earth was flat and square, while the Heavens were round. In the Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 AD) text of the Da Dai Li Ji (Records of Ritual Matters by Dai Senior), it quotes the earlier Zeng Shen (505 BC-436 BC) replying to a question of Shanchu Li, admitting that it was hard to conceptualize the orthodox Chinese view of the four corners of the earth and how they could be properly covered. According to the historian Needham, Zhang Heng (78-139 AD) theorized that the universe was in the oval shape of a hen's egg, while the earth itself was like the curved yolk within (in a geocentric model of thinking similar to Europe before Galileo). However, the English sinologist Cullen objects that

In a passage of (Zhang Heng's) cosmogony not translated by Needham, Chang himself says: "Heaven takes its body from the Yang, so it is round and in motion. Earth takes its body from the Yin, so it is flat and quiescent". The point of the egg analogy is simply to stress that the earth is completely enclosed by heaven, rather than merely covered from above as the kai t'ien describes. Chinese astronomers, many of them brilliant men by any standards, continued to think in flat-earth terms until the seventeenth century; this surprising fact might be the starting-point for a re-examination of the apparent facility with which the idea of a spherical earth found acceptance in fifth-century B.C. Greece.

Yu Xi (c. 330 AD) influenced many Chinese thinkers afterwards when he expressed his own criticisms about the square and flat earth, while Li Ye wrote of similar ideas, arguing that the movements of the round heaven would be hindered by a square earth. Li Ye argued that it was spherical like the heavens, only much smaller, a belief that was shared by the followers of the Hun Tian theory.

The only Chinese thinker coming close to developing the idea of a spherical earth might be Chiang Chi (4th-5th century) with his hypothesis of the curvilinear propagation of light along the celestial sphere: "Here, if at all, we might have expected to find some reference to the sphericity of the earth, but, as already noted, Chinese astronomy shows no trace of this idea."

Shortly after the collapse of the Ming dynasty, the Ge Chi Cao treatise of Xiong Ming-yu was written (1648 AD), and showed a printed picture of the earth as a spherical globe, with the text stating that "The Round Earth certainly has no Square Corners". The text also pointed out that sailing ships could return to their port of origin after circumnavigating the waters of the earth. Xiong Ming-yu, in order to persuade the elite class of his time, harkened back to ideas of the Hun Tian theorists to defend his ideas, with the earth 'as round as a crossbow bullet' ('yuan ru dan wan').

However, the influence of the map is distinctly Western, as traditional maps of Chinese cartography held the graduation of the sphere at 365.25 degrees, while the Western graduation was of 360 degrees. Also of interest to note is on one side of the world, there is seen towering Chinese pagodas, while on the opposite side (upside-down) there were European cathedrals. Western influence of geographical knowledge was used by Xiong to enforce what he believed had already been argued by earlier Chinese astronomers, something which the French sinologist Jean-Claude Martzloff regards as a retrospective interpretation:

European astronomy was so much judged worth consideration that numerous [Chinese] authors developed the idea that the Chinese of antiquity had anticipated most of the novelties presented by the missionaries as European discoveries, for example, the rotundity of the earth and the "heavenly spherical star carrier model." Making skillful use of philology, these authors cleverly reinterpreted the greatest technical and literary works of Chinese antiquity. From this sprang a new science wholly dedicated to the demonstration of the Chinese origin of astronomy and more generally of all European science and technology.

Nevertheless, the Chinese, through observation of lunar eclipse and solar eclipse, understood that the celestial bodies (if not the earth) were spherical in shape. The polymath Chinese scientist Shen Kuo (1031-1095 AD) once wrote:

The Director [of the Astronomical Observatory, Zhao Wen] asked me about the shapes of the sun and moon; whether they were like balls or (flat) fans. If they were like balls they would surely obstruct (ai) each other when they met. I replied that these celestial bodies were certainly like balls. How do we know this? By the waxing and waning (ying khuei) of the moon. The moon itself gives forth no light, but is like a ball of silver; the light is the light of the sun (reflected). When the brightness is first seen, the sun(-light passes almost) alongside, so the side only is illuminated and looks like a crescent. When the sun gradually gets further away, the light shines slanting, and the moon is full, round like a bullet. If half of a sphere is covered with (white) powder and looked at from the side, the covered part will look like a crescent; if looked at from the front, it will appear round. Thus we know that the celestial bodies are spherical.

Flat Earth in modern times.

The common misconception that people before the age of exploration believed that Earth was flat entered the popular imagination after Washington Irving's publication of The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus in 1828. In the United States, this belief persists in the popular imagination, and is even repeated in some widely read textbooks. Previous editions of Thomas Bailey's The American Pageant stated that "The superstitious sailors ... grew increasingly mutinous...because they were fearful of sailing over the edge of the world"; however, no such historical account is known. Actually, sailors were probably among the first to know of the curvature of Earth from daily observations - seeing how shore landscape features (or masts of other ships) gradually descend/ascend near the horizon.

The Flammarion woodcut.
The Flammarion woodcut. Flammarion's caption translates to "A medieval missionary tells that he has found the point where heaven and Earth meet..."

During the 19th century, the Romantic conception of a European "Dark Age" gave much more prominence to the Flat Earth model than it ever possessed historically.

The widely circulated woodcut of a man poking his head through the firmament of a flat Earth to view the mechanics of the spheres, executed in the style of the 16th century cannot be traced to an earlier source than Camille Flammarion's L'Atmosphère: Météorologie Populaire (Paris, 1888, p. 163). The woodcut illustrates the statement in the text that a medieval missionary claimed that "he reached the horizon where the Earth and the heavens met", an anecdote that may be traced back to Voltaire, but not to any known medieval source. In its original form, the woodcut included a decorative border that places it in the 19th century; in later publications, some claiming that the woodcut did, in fact, date to the 16th century, the border was removed. Flammarion, according to anecdotal evidence, had commissioned the woodcut himself. In any case, no source of the image earlier than Flammarion's book is known.

In Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians, Jeffrey Russell (professor of history at University of California, Santa Barbara) claims that the Flat Earth theory is a fable used to impugn pre-modern civilization, especially that of the Middle Ages in Europe. Today essentially all professional medievalists agree with Russell that the "medieval flat Earth" is a nineteenth-century fabrication, and that the few verifiable "flat Earthers" were the exception.

Flat Earth in the Transvaal perspective.

In 1898 during his solo circumnavigation of the world Joshua Slocum encountered such a group in the Transvaal Republic. Three Boers, one of them a clergyman, presented Slocum with a pamphlet in which they set out to prove that the world was flat. President Kruger advanced the same view, telling him "you don't mean (you sailed) around the world; it is impossible! You mean in the world!"

The Flat Earth Society.

The last known group of Flat Earth proponents, the Flat Earth Society, kept the concept alive and at one time claimed a few thousand followers. The society declined in the 1990s following a fire at its headquarters in California and the death of its last president, Charles K. Johnson, in 2001. In 2004, a new Flat Earth Society (not directly connected to Charles K. Johnson's) was founded and currently maintains the Flat Earth Society website and forum.

William Carpenter (1830-1896) maintained that "There are rivers that flow for hundreds of miles towards the level of the sea without falling more than a few feet - notably, the Nile, which, in a thousand miles, falls but a foot. A level expanse of this extent is quite incompatible with the idea of the Earth's 'convexity.'" Carpenter also presented aeronautic testimony that even at the great observable heights no curvature of the earth is observed, and fits with the idea of a flat-earth, since it is the nature of level surfaces to rise to a level with the human eye.

English scientist Samuel Rowbotham (1816-1885), writing under the pseudonym "Parallax," published results of many experiments which tested the curvatures of water over lakes. He also produced studies which purported to show the effects of ships disappearing into the horizon can be explained by the laws of perspective in relation to the human eye.

Flat-Earth president Charles K. Johnson, who spent years examining the studies of flat and round earth theories, produced supposed evidence of a conspiracy against flat-earth: "The idea of a spinning globe is only a conspiracy of error that Moses, Columbus, and FDR all fought…" His article was published in Science Digest, 1980, and has since achieved much controversy. The journal, Science Digest, goes on to state, "If it is a sphere, the surface of a large body of water must be curved. The Johnsons have checked the surfaces of Lake Tahoe and the Salton Sea (a shallow salt lake in southern California near the Mexican border) without detecting any curvature."

Flat Earth: Ibn Baz controversy.

Between 1993 and 1995, various newspapers and magazines published accounts of a modern Islamic cleric, Ibn Baz, the late Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, who is alleged to have claimed that "the earth is flat". Baz strongly denied that claim, describing the allegations to be "a pure lie", and saying that he only denied the rotation of the earth.

Supporters say that the alleged book does not exist, and that the entire controversy is based on one interview with Egyptian journalists, in that Ibn Baz, as he clarified later, was referring to the surface of earth that we walk on being flat although he believes the earth to be round. In Arabic, the same word is commonly used for both the earth as well as the ground. The journalist, having not paid attention to this distinction, misquoted Ibn Baz and created a story; the story was picked up by a Kuwaiti magazine (Assiyasah) and from there spread to the whole world. Ibn Baz was an admirer and a scholar of the works of Ibn Taymiyya, who did not support the flat earth theory.

The Flat Earth in popular culture, and fiction.

  • In Ludvig Holberg's comedy Erasmus Montanus (1723), Erasmus Montanus returns to his country area after having finished his studies in Copenhagen. He meets considerable opposition when he claims the earth is round, since all the peasants hold it to be flat, and he is denied marriage to his fiancée of this reason. Not until he cries "The earth is flat as a pancake", he is allowed to get his beloved.
  • In Rudyard Kipling's The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat, the unnamed narrator and some friends are unjustly fined for a minor offence by a crooked village magistrate and his accomplices in the police. By way of revenge, they spread the rumor that a Parish Council meeting had voted in favor of a flat Earth. The village is ridiculed in the press, and a popular song entitled The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat sweeps the nation. When the narrator visits the House of Commons and observes the Members of Parliament singing the song, he reflects that he may have gone too far.
  • In L. Frank Baum's Mother Goose in Prose, the Three Wise Men of Gotham make their journey to decide whether the earth is flat, spherical or hollow.
  • In some of J.R.R. Tolkien's writings, his Fantasy world of Arda is conceived as a world which was originally flat, but became spherical at the time of the Fall of Númenor.
  • In C.S. Lewis' The Voyage of the Dawn Treader it is stated that 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 comical 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. In his novel The Color of Magic astronomers a build spaceship to discover whether the turtle is male or female. Small Gods describes a totalitarian church that insists the world is a sphere. Pratchett had earlier explored a similar setting in Strata (1981).
  • In Michael Swanwick's 1989 short story "The Edge of the World" he portrays a flat Earth with a history similar to ours; the story tells of three teenagers who take a trip to visit the world's edge.
  • E. A. Abbott's satire Flatland (1884) is set in an entirely two-dimensional world.
  • In the fictional text adventure universe of Zork, Quendor is located on a flat planet which some believe to be held up by a giant humanoid called a brogmoid.
  • In Stephen King's short story The Mist group of people who refuse to believe in the events going on around them despite the obvious information are known as 'The Flat Earth Society' by the other characters, an obvious correlation to people who insist on a flat earth despite overwhelming information to the contrary.
  • In the game Grim Fandango, the world is flat, with a huge waterfall bordering the edge. One chapter of the game takes place on an island at the very edge of the world.
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's En shows the ship Hai Peng, used by the heroes of the film, facing a giant waterfall. This is a reference to the flat earth at its edge where ships fall down, hence the waterfall and the title.

Flat Earth in other contexts.

  • Thomas Friedman uses the metaphor of a "flat Earth" to describe the leveling of the world economic stage in his best-selling book, The World is Flat.
  • The Spanish songwriter Quimi Portet released, in 2004, an album called "La Terra és Plana" (which in Catalan means "The Earth is Flat") and a single with the same title.
  • Robert McKimson's 1951 cartoon Hare We Go pairs up Bugs Bunny with Christopher Columbus. It opens with Columbus arguing about the shape of the world with the king of Spain, who insists that it's flat.
  • Monty Python's film The Meaning of Life contains a skit, The Crimson Permanent Assurance, in which a pirate office building falls off the edge of the world.
  • The comic strip The Wizard of Id had a strip which depicted two men arguing whether the Earth was flat or round. The king ended the argument by suggesting that both positions were right, calling it his "pizza theory.".
  • Satirist Allan Sherman's song "Good Advice" climaxes with a description of Christopher Columbus prevailing on Queen Isabella to "pawn her jewels for all they're worth. / So next day he set sail / and as everyone knows / he fell off the edge of the earth. / And that was bad advice, bad advice...".
  • The Golden Sun video game series is set in a flat world called Weyard.
  • Creation in the role playing game Exalted is a flat world thousands of miles in extent.
  • Ernie Kovacs, in a radio skit called "Mr. Question Man", put a twist on the usual stereotyped skepticism of the round Earth. An alleged listener's question was, "If the Earth is round, why don't people fall off?" Kovacs' answer: "What you've stated is a common misconception. People are falling off all the time!".
  • Flip Wilson, in an old standup routine playing Christopher Columbus, put a different spin on the old joke. Arguing with someone over whether to take his famous voyage, he was told, "Don't you know the world is square?" He replied, "It sure is!".
  • In song lyrics, in the musical comedy film Gigi, by Alan J. Lerner is the line "The earth is round, but everything on it is flat.".
  • In Cow & Chicken after Chicken and Cow were playing with the globe, their parents confiscated the globe, their father stepped and flattened the globe and taught them that the Earth is flat like a pancake. In the end of the episode the Chicken and Cow family were sailing in the sea and their boat fell off the edge of the world, confirming what their parents said.
  • Our Flat Earth is the name of a Chicago late night comedy show that uses Flat Earth theory to parody intelligent design and religious conservatism.
  • British songwriter Thomas Dolby released his second album The Flat Earth in 1984, which includes the title song. A portion of the lyric: "the Earth can be any shape you want it / any shape at all / dark and cold or bright and warm / long or thin or small / but it's home and all I ever had / and maybe why for me the Earth is flat".

Further reading about the Flat Earth.

  • Aufgebauer, Peter 2006. "Die Erde ist eine Scheibe" - Das mittelalterliche Weltbild in der Wahrnehmung der Neuzeit, in: Geschichte in Wissenschaft und Unterricht, Heft 7/8, 2006, S. 427-441.
  • Garwood, Christine. 2001. "Alfred Russel Wallace and the Flat Earth Controversy". Endeavour, 25, 139-143.
  • Garwood, Christine. 2007 (in press). Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea. MacMillan. ISBN 140504702X.
  • Gingerich, O. 1992. "Astronomy in the age of Columbus". Scientific American, 267(5), (November), 66-71. (An expansion of some of Russell’s historical material, with comments on the subsequent Copernican Revolution.).
  • Gould, S.J. 1996. "The late birth of a flat Earth". In: Dinosaur in a haystack, Jonathan Cape, London, 3-40. (Reprinted from "The persistently flat Earth", Natural History, 103, March 1994, 12-19. Draws extensively from Russell and discusses the way a desire to see "progress" has led to the rewriting of history and to the advocacy of a warfare between science and religion).
  • Jones, Charles W. 1934. "The Flat Earth". Thought, 9, 296-307. An early critique of the "Flat Earth thesis" by an expert on Bede and Early Medieval England.
  • Krüger, Reinhard 2000a. Das überleben des Erdkugelmodells in der Spätantike (ca.60 v.u.Z. - ca 550) (Eine Welt ohne Amerika II), Weidler, Berlin.
  • Krüger, Reinhard 2000b. Das lateinische Mittelalter und die Tradition des antiken Erdkugelmodells (ca. 550 - 1080) (Eine Welt ohne Amerika III), Weidler, Berlin.
  • Needham, Joseph (1986). Science and Civilization in China: Volume 3. Taipei: Caves Books, Ltd.
  • Russell, Jeffrey Burton (1991). Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians. New York: Praeger, xiv, 117 p. ISBN 0275939561. , see his summary.
    • Review by Joel Cleland, The History Teacher, 26 (1993): 396-398.
    • Review by Owen Gingerich, Speculum, 68 (1993): 885.
    • Review by J. B. Harley, The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser., Vol. 49 (1992): 381-382.
    • Review by Steven D. Sargent, Isis, 84 (1993): 353.
  • Simek, Rudolf 1992. Erde und Kosmos im Mittelalter. Das Weltbild vor Kolumbus, München 1992.
  • Tyler, D.J. 1996. "The impact of the Copernican Revolution on biblical interpretation". Origins, July (No. 21), 2-8. (Discusses the "language of appearance" used in the Bible and the way hermeneutical issues were clarified by the Copernican revolution. The principles developed in this article are directly applicable to any claim that the Bible "teaches a Flat Earth".).
  • Vogel, Klaus Anselm 1995. Sphaera terrae: Das mittelalterliche Bild der Erde und die kosmographische Revolution, phil. Diss., Göttingen 1995. online.
  • White, Andrew D. 1896. A History of The Warfare Of Science With Theology in Christendom.
  • Wolf, Jürgen 2004. Die Moderne erfindet sich ihr Mittelalter - oder wie aus der 'mittelalterlichen Erdkugel' eine 'neuzeitliche Erdscheibe' wurde (Colloquia academica Nr. 5), Stuttgart, Steiner.

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