Flat Earth - The History Of An Infamous Idea

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9780330432894: Flat Earth - The History Of An Infamous Idea

Contrary to popular belief fostered in countless school classrooms the world over, Christopher Columbus did not discover that the earth was round. The idea of a spherical world had been widely accepted in educated circles from as early as the fourth century b.c. Yet, bizarrely, it was not until the supposedly more rational nineteenth century that the notion of a ?at earth really took hold. Even more bizarrely, it persists to this day, despite Apollo missions and widely publicized pictures of the decidedly spherical Earth from space.

            Based on a range of original sources, Garwood’s history of ?at-Earth beliefs---from the Babylonians to the present day---raises issues central to the history and philosophy of science, its relationship to religion and the making of human knowledge about the natural world. Flat Earth is the ?rst de?nitive study of one of history’s most notorious and persistent ideas, and it evokes all the intellectual, philosophical, and spiritual turmoil of the modern age. Ranging from ancient Greece, through Victorian England, to modern-day America, this is a story that encompasses religion, science, and pseudoscience, as well as a spectacular array of people and places. Where else could eccentric aristocrats, fundamentalist preachers, and conspiracy theorists appear alongside Copernicus, Newton, and NASA, except in an account of such a legendary misconception?

Thoroughly enjoyable and illuminating, Flat Earth is social and intellectual history at its best.

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About the Author:

Christine Garwood studied history as an undergraduate and was later awarded a doctorate in history of science. She has been a Research Fellow at the Open University and is currently a freelance writer and researcher.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Flat Earth
Chapter OneSURVEYING THE EARTHObservation of the stars ... shows not only that the earth is spherical but that it is of no great size, since a small change of position on our part southward or northward visibly alters the circle of the horizon, so that the stars above our heads change their position considerably, and we do not see the same stars as we move to the North or South ... This proves both that the earth is spherical and that its periphery is not large, for otherwise such a small change of position could not have had such an immediate effect. 
ARISTOTLE, On the Heavens (Book II, 350 BC) 
 
BEYOND THE FAIRYTALE LAND of heroes and villains and momentous conflicts between truth and falsehood on an individual, cultural and conceptual scale, flat-earth belief can be traced back to some of the most ancient civilizations in world history. The first of these are the Sumerians and Babylonians, who inhabited Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates (the site of modern Iraq) from c. 4500 to 500 BC. Although these peoples left texts describing a range of cosmological theories - too many to speak of a single, overarching Mesopotamian world-view - they developed the idea of a tripartite universe, with the earth as a flatsurface ruled by the god Enlil, sandwiched between the sky and the underworld. For the Egyptians, the same triple-decker arrangement applied, with the sky resting on four pillars, forked poles or mountain peaks rising from the corners of the flat earth beneath. While the Egyptian system differed in detail from the Sumero-Babylonian world-view, it too personified natural phenomena, representing the earth as the earth-god, Geb, lying outstretched to create the plane. The sky, meanwhile, was the goddess Nut, mother of the sun-god Re, who was depicted as a giant standing cow or a young woman arched over the earth like a canopy. And so the situation remained; while later Egyptians made voyages to the so-called land of Punt, thought to be along the coast of East Africa, and other evidence suggests that they circumnavigated the continent, such experiences had no impact on ideas about the shape of the earth. This being the case, in the eyes of the oldest civilizations for which we have records, whether in the form of Babylonian clay tablets or Egyptian papyri, the earth continued to be a flat surface of a circular or rectangular shape.1It remained the same for the ancient Hebrews, who were flanked by the Egyptians to the south-west and the Sumero-Babylonians to the north-east, and whose cosmology resembled the assumptions of their powerful neighbours about the form of the earth. In terms of cosmology and creation, the Old Testament owes much to Mesopotamian mythology, which has led to claims that the Bible is a 'flat-earth book'.2 Although the scriptures do contain disparate passages relating to cosmology they are not a systematic study of the heavens, however, rendering any presentation of a Biblical world-view a patchwork of statements scattered through books written over several centuries. Nevertheless, it had been claimed that the Bible presents a reasonably clear and consistent view of a tiered universe based on the Sumero-Babylonian model. In this system, the cosmos consists of the vault of heaven (shamayim), or 'firmament', containing the sun, moon and stars (Genesis 1:14-17). The Bible teaches that these heavenly bodies move across the stationary earth (Psalms 19:1-7), while the firmamentrests on pillars or mountains (Job 26:11) rooted in the flat earth below. Beneath the earth lies the underworld, Sheol, seen as the abode of the dead (Numbers 16:28-34; I Samuel 28:13-15; Isaiah 14:9-11; Ecclesiastes 9:10). The earth, which is generally depicted as an immovable disc or 'circle' (Job 26:10), supported on water (Psalms 24:2) or in empty space (Job 26:7), is bordered by a protective barrier, probably a mountain range. As for its shape, it is generally spoken of as a flat disc, so that if one travelled far enough one would eventually arrive at the 'ends of the earth' (Deuteronomy 13:8, 28:64; Isaiah 5:26; Psalms 135:7). Within this scheme, the four corners of the earth (Isaiah 11:12, Ezekiel 7:2) might refer to distant regions, unless taken literally, when the earth could be considered rectangular or square.3Flat-earth belief was also prevalent in Ancient Greece, details of which are provided in the writings of Aristotle (384-22 BC), who had a habit of reviewing his predecessors' opinions as a precursor to demolishing them with his own. His cosmological treatise On the Heavens (350 BC) provides a useful, if polemical, survey of opinions dating from Thales, the Ionian geometer, astronomer and engineer (c. 625-c. 547 BC), in the sixth century BC.4 The first speculative thinker of the Ionian school, he believed the earth was a circular disc floating like a piece of wood on the world (meaning universe) ocean, while his pupil or younger associate, Anaximander (c. 611-c. 545 BC), argued that the earth was a cylindrical column floating upright in air in the centre of the universe. According to Aristotle, Anaximander believed that this column was three times as broad as it was high with humankind inhabiting the flat uppermost surface.5Meanwhile, the third philosopher of the Ionian school, Anaximenes (c. 585-525 BC), is reputed to have believed that the heavenly bodies were flat, and likely thought the same of the earth, although the precise details of his view remain unknown. Indeed, when dealing with pre-Socratic thinkers - each of whom seemed to design his own cosmological system but left no writings - we are reliant on fragments for clues about a number of complexviews. Yet in terms of who knew what, when and how, the Ionian school has been credited with being the first to practise a broadly philosophical and naturalistic way of looking at the world; that is to say, they began to ask a new range of questions about nature in terms of its phenomena, its composition and the way that it worked. Thales and Anaximander began to think of the world as an orderly, unitary whole that was worth investigating for its own sake, beyond its role as the realm of gods, and they looked further than Zeus and his cohorts for explanations about the way things worked. Here, then, are traces of the beginnings of what we now know as 'science' and 'philosophy', although religion and astrology continued to play a central role in and around new lines of enquiry, meaning that shifts were exceedingly gradual and sporadic. The same may be said of the development of ideas concerning the shape of the earth.6It was not until the late sixth century BC that the flat-earth thinking that had dominated world-views for several millennia was to take a more radical turn through the teachings of the Pythagoreans. A much-mythologized philosophical school, it was based at the other extremity of the Greek world from the Ionians, in the thriving city of Croton in what is now southern Italy. Its leader, Pythagoras (582-500 BC), the most famous mathematician in Ancient Greece, was the son of a silversmith and gem engraver and later a pupil of Thales and Anaximander at Miletus. Having travelled in Babylonia and Egypt, at some time around 530 BC, Pythagoras settled at Croton where he established the Pythagorean brotherhood, a large, close-knit religious community that held extensive political power in its hometown and the surrounding area, Magna Graecia (Greek-governed southern Italy). While Pythagoras appears to have been a visionary who, according to Athenian philosopher Plato (c. 427-c. 347 BC), taught a whole way of life, in the absence of writings it is impossible to extricate his ideas from those of his followers in a school of thought that was bound by confidentiality and which undoubtedly developed its doctrines over something in the region of two centuries. Amongan abundance of ideas that have been ascribed to the Pythagoreans or Pythagoras himself are a focus on purification and the practice of silence, the belief in a mystical union with all living things and the immortality and transmigration of the soul, along with a veto on various activities, including leaving a cooking pot's imprint visible in the ashes of a fire and standing on one's own toenail clippings. Best known, however, is Pythagoras's teaching that number lies at the heart of all things; it is the realm of eternal perfection and absolutes of which all things are composed. The contemplation of geometrical forms and patterns was believed to allow the mind to surpass the earthly appearance of reality and engender a connection to the divine, although again there is no certainty about exactly what Pythagorean number-related teaching involved.7 As a whole, Pythagorean philosophy seemed to be based on a vision of mystical unity in nature, with number at the root of all things, from the theorem governing right-angled triangles (the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the two other sides) to those governing rhythm and acoustics in music- the connection between the pitch of a note, for example, and the length of a string.In a religious world-view based on numbers and measurement, shapes and sizes, patterns and unity, heavenly movements and the shape of the earth were obvious sources of interest as natural manifestations of the divine. It has been suggested that Pythagoras learned the basics of his astronomy and mathematics from his travels in 'the East', but whatever the case, when it comes to ideas about the shape of the earth, a feature at the heart of traditional histories of science is entirely bypassed. While Pythagoras, or the Pythagoreans, are generally credited with being the first to argue that the earth is a globe (although doubtless someone suggested the idea before), it is ironic that the name of the first individual 'discoverer' of one of the most basic scientific facts is a mystery. All that can be said is that the Pythagoreans believed that the earth was a globe floating freely in space because the sphere was the perfect shape. In addition, it is impossible to say how readily thisdoctrine was accepted outside their school, in educated circles or through society as a whole. Importantly, post-Pythagorean philosophers, most notably Anaxagoras of Clazomenae (497-428 BC) and the atomists Leucippus of Miletus (fl. 440) and Democritus of Abdera (c. 460 BC-c. 370 BC), were still arguing that the earth was disc- or drum-shaped in the fifth century BC.8 That said, Pythagorean speculations brought into play the idea of a spherical earth and were to have a profound influence on Plato. By the time his pupil Aristotle was writing, later in the fourth century BC, the globe concept seems to have become widely accepted among educated people.In this way, the three-tiered earth, heaven and underworld system of Near Eastern cultures gradually faded from view, replaced by visions of a spherical earth and an all-encompassing sky. Undoubtedly, changing perceptions were bolstered by practical, cultural and environmental factors, particularly that the Ancient Greek world was surrounded by sea. It has been suggested that the culture's consequent geographical knowledge and maritime experience may have triggered the switch from the world-view prevalent in the literal and metaphorical flatlands of Babylonia and Egypt.9 Certainly Aristotle invoked the proof of ships disappearing over the horizon, hull before masts, along with the earth's circular shadow on the moon during a lunar eclipse and the different appearance of stars when viewed from different latitudes, to support the contention that the earth was a globe in his book On the Heavens. The mainstream consensus, all of the renowned Greek writers, from Plato to Eudoxus (c. 375 BC), Euclid (c. 300 BC), Aristarchus (c. 310-230 BC) and Archimedes (287-212 BC), accepted a globular earth, while Aristotle's geocentric cosmology - centring on an immobile sphere at the centre of the universe with the planets moving around it in perfect concentric circles - was to dominate Western cosmological thinking until the work of Copernicus and Galileo nineteen centuries later.10With consensus reached on the shape of the earth, focus shifted to estimating its size. By the fourth century BC, Aristotle reports,efforts had already been made to calculate the circumference - perhaps by the different positions of the stars when viewed from different latitudes - which had resulted in the oldest existing estimate at 400,000 stadia. If a stade is taken to be c. 500 feet (a moot point because measurements were not standardized), this would give a figure of 39,000 or 40,000 miles at the equator.11 Further estimates followed and by the third century BC we have details of an experiment to measure the globe's diameter. The test was undertaken by the Greek polymath, Eratosthenes (c. 276-c . 194 BC), director of the famous library in the museum of Alexandria, then the Egyptian capital and centre of Hellenistic culture and learning. Essentially, he is said to have noticed that at noon on the summer solstice the sun was directly overhead at Syene (present-day Aswan) because a vertical pointer cast no shadow and the sun's rays shone to the bottom of a deep well. At the same time in Alexandria, which Eratosthenes believed to be 5000 stadia (approximately 530 miles) due north, the sun made an angle equivalent to one-fiftieth of a circle or 7.2 degrees to the vertical. Assuming that the sun's rays are basically parallel, Eratosthenes then used geometry to calculate the earth's circumference to 250,000 stadia, possibly somewhere in the region of 29,000 miles.12 Although there were flaws in Eratosthenes's data, and the exact length of a stade, or stadium, is unknown, his estimate for the earth's circumference is not far from the present-day value of approximately 24,860 miles.Mathematicians continued to estimate the size of the earth, while they also focused on cracking a puzzle on a much larger scale: explaining their geocentric vision of the universe, or how the planets moved around the central, immovable and, of course, spherical earth. In the second century, the theories and findings of six centuries of astronomical research were finally drawn together by the Greek geographer, mathematician and astronomer Claudius Ptolemy (c. 130-75), in his encyclopedic compilation of ancient knowledge Syntaxis, commonly known by its Arabic name Almagest or 'the greatest'. Compiled from the archives of the library atAlexandria, where Eratosthenes had earlier been based, the book's name was fitting indeed, for the theories of Almagest remained the mainstream for Arabic and Latin civilizations until set aside in favour of the heliocentric, or sun-centred, solar system proposed by Copernicus in the mid-sixteenth century. The Ptolemaic system was essentially a more complex version of the Aristotelian system, with adjustments to account for variations in the observed distances of the planets from the earth. By late antiquity, the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic system of circles and spheres, cycles and epicycles, dominated perceptions of the heavens, with a static spherical earth placed in the centre. Moreover, in common with Aristotle, Ptolemy's Almagest provided a number of 'sensible' (sense-related) proofs for why the earth must be this shape.13With the earth established as spherical for a number of centuries, the question becomes the survival and dissemination of the idea. Although factors surrounding the gradual disintegration of the Roman Empir...

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