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The Flat Earth model is an archaic belief that the Earth's shape is a plane or disk. Many ancient cultures have had conceptions of a flat Earth, including Greece until the classical period, the Bronze Age and Iron Age civilizations of the Near East until the Hellenistic period, India until the Gupta period (early centuries AD) and China until the 17th century. It was also typically held in the aboriginal cultures of the Americas, and a flat Earth domed by the firmament in the shape of an inverted bowl is common in pre-scientific societies.
The paradigm of a spherical Earth was developed in Greek astronomy, beginning with Pythagoras (6th century BC), although most Pre-Socratics retained the flat Earth model. Aristotle accepted the spherical shape of the Earth on empirical grounds around 330 BC, and knowledge of the spherical Earth gradually began to spread beyond the Hellenistic world from then on.
In early Egyptian and Mesopotamian thought the world was portrayed as a flat disk floating in the ocean. A similar model is found in the Homeric account of the 8th century BC in which "Okeanos, the personified body of water surrounding the circular surface of the Earth, is the begetter of all life and possibly of all gods." The biblical earth is a flat disc floating on water.
The Pyramid Texts and Coffin Texts reveal that the ancient Egyptians believed Nun (the Ocean) was a circular body surrounding nbwt (a term meaning "dry lands" or "Islands"), and therefore believed in a similar Ancient Near Eastern circular earth cosmography surrounded by water.
Both Homer and Hesiod described a flat disc cosmography on the Shield of Achilles. This poetic tradition of an earth-encircling (gaiaokhos) sea (Oceanus) and a flat disc also appears in Stasinus of Cyprus, Mimnermus, Aristophanes, and Apollonius Rhodius.
Homer's description of the flat disc cosmography on the shield of Achilles with the encircling ocean is repeated far later in Quintus Smyrnaeus' Posthomerica (4th century AD), which continues the narration of the Trojan War.
Several pre-Socratic philosophers believed that the world was flat: Thales (c. 550 BC) according to several sources, and Leucippus (c. 440 BC) and Democritus (c. 460 – 370 BC) according to Aristotle.
Thales thought the flat earth floated in water like a log. Anaximander (c. 550 BC) believed the Earth was a short cylinder with a flat, circular top that remained stable because it was the same distance from all things. Anaximenes of Miletus believed that "the earth is flat and rides on air; in the same way the sun and the moon and the other heavenly bodies, which are all fiery, ride the air because of their flatness." Xenophanes of Colophon (c. 500 BC) thought that the Earth was flat, with its upper side touching the air, and the lower side extending without limit.
Belief in a flat Earth continued into the 5th century BC. Anaxagoras (c. 450 BC) agreed that the Earth was flat, and his pupil Archelaus believed that the flat Earth was depressed in the middle like a saucer, to allow for the fact that the Sun does not rise and set at the same time for everyone.
Hecataeus of Miletus believed the earth was flat and surrounded by water. Herodotus in his Histories ridiculed the belief that water encircled the world, yet most classicists agree he still believed the earth was flat because of his descriptions of literal "ends" or "edges" of the earth.
In antiquity, a cosmological view prevailed in India that held the Earth is a disc that consists of four continents grouped around the central mountain Meru like the petals of a flower. An outer ocean surrounds these continents. This view was elaborated in traditional Jain cosmology and Buddhist cosmology, which depicts the cosmos as a vast, oceanic disk (of the magnitude of a small planetary system), bounded by mountains, in which the continents are set as small islands.
The ancient Norse and Germanic peoples believed in a flat earth cosmography of the earth surrounded by an ocean, with the axis mundi (a world-tree: Yggdrasil, or pillar: Irminsul) in the centre. The Norse believed that in the world-encircling ocean sat a snake called Jormungandr. In the Norse creation account preserved in Gylfaginning (VIII) it is stated that during the creation of the earth, an impassable sea was placed around the earth like a ring:
...And Jafnhárr said: "Of the blood, which ran and welled forth freely out of his wounds, they made the sea, when they had formed and made firm the earth together, and laid the sea in a ring round. about her; and it may well seem a hard thing to most men to cross over it."
The late Norse Konungs skuggsjá, on the other hand, states that:
...If you take a lighted candle and set it in a room, you may expect it to light up the entire interior, unless something should hinder, though the room be quite large. But if you take an apple and hang it close to the flame, so near that it is heated, the apple will darken nearly half the room or even more. However, if you hang the apple near the wall, it will not get hot; the candle will light up the whole house; and the shadow on the wall where the apple hangs will be scarcely half as large as the apple itself. From this you may infer that the earth-circle is round like a ball and not equally near the sun at every point. But where the curved surface lies nearest the sun's path, there will the greatest heat be; and some of the lands that lie continuously under the unbroken rays cannot be inhabited."
The first chapter of the Nihongi ("Chronicles of Japan") describes the ancient Japanese belief that the world was flat and that dry land floated "like oil" on water:
Hence it is said that when the world began to be created, the soil of which lands were composed floated about in a manner which might be compared to the floating of a fish sporting on the surface of the water...
...Of old, when the land was Young and the earth young, it floated about, as it were floating oil. At this time a thing was produced within the land, in shape like a reed-shoot when it sprouts forth.
In ancient China, the prevailing belief was that the Earth was flat and square, while the heavens were round, an assumption virtually unquestioned until the introduction of European astronomy in the 17th century. The English sinologist Cullen emphasizes the point that there was no concept of a round Earth in ancient Chinese astronomy:
Chinese thought on the form of the earth remained almost unchanged from early times until the first contacts with modern science through the medium of Jesuit missionaries in the seventeenth century. While the heavens were variously described as being like an umbrella covering the earth (the Kai Tian theory), or like a sphere surrounding it (the Hun Tian theory), or as being without substance while the heavenly bodies float freely (the Hsüan yeh theory), the earth was at all times flat, although perhaps bulging up slightly.
The heavens are like a hen's egg and as round as a crossbow bullet; the earth is like the yolk of the egg, and lies in the centre.
This analogy with a curved egg led some modern historians, notably Joseph Needham, to conjecture that Chinese astronomers were, after all, aware of the Earth's sphericity. The egg reference, however, was rather meant to clarify the relative position of the flat earth to the heavens:
In a passage of Zhang Heng's cosmogony not translated by Needham, Zhang 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 Tian 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 BC Greece.
Further examples cited by Needham supposed to demonstrate dissenting voices from the ancient Chinese consensus actually refer without exception to the Earth's being square, not to its being flat. Accordingly, the 13th-century scholar Li Ye, who argued that the movements of the round heaven would be hindered by a square Earth, did not advocate a spherical Earth, but rather that its edge should be rounded off so as to be circular.
As noted in the book Huai Nan Zu, in the 2nd century BC Chinese astronomers effectively inverted Eratosthenes' calculation of the curvature of the Earth to calculate the height of the sun above the earth. By assuming the earth was flat, they arrived at a distance of 100,000 li, a value short by three orders of magnitude.
After the Greek philosophers Pythagoras, in the 6th century BC, and Parmenides, in the 5th, recognized that the Earth is spherical, the spherical view spread rapidly in the Greek world. Around 330 BC, Aristotle maintained on the basis of physical theory and observational evidence that the Earth was spherical. The Earth's circumference was first determined around 240 BC by Eratosthenes. By the second century CE. Ptolemy had derived his maps from a curved globe and developed the system of latitude, longitude, and climes. His Almagest was written in Greek and only translated into Latin in the 11th century from Arabic translations.
In the 2nd century BC, Crates of Mallus devised a terrestrial sphere that divided the Earth into four continents, separated by great rivers or oceans, with people presumed living in each of the four regions. Opposite the oikumene, the inhabited world, were the antipodes, considered unreachable both because of an intervening torrid zone (equator) and the ocean. This took a strong hold on the medieval mind.
Lucretius (1st. c. BC) opposed the concept of a spherical Earth, because he considered that an infinite universe had no center towards which heavy bodies would tend. Thus, he thought the idea of animals walking around topsy-turvy under the Earth was absurd. By the 1st century AD, Pliny the Elder was in a position to claim that everyone agrees on the spherical shape of Earth, though disputes continued regarding the nature of the antipodes, and how it is possible to keep the ocean in a curved shape. Pliny also considered the possibility of an imperfect sphere, "...shaped like a pinecone."
In late antiquity such widely read encyclopedists as Macrobius (5th century) and Martianus Capella (5th century) 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.
During the early Church period, with some exceptions, most held a spherical view, for instance, Augustine, Jerome, and Ambrose to name a few.
In Book III of The Divine Institutes Lactantius ridicules the notion that there could be inhabitants of the antipodes "whose footsteps are higher than their heads." After presenting some arguments he attributes to advocates for a spherical heaven and Earth, 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 that 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.
Saint Augustine (354–430) took a more cautious approach in arguing against assuming that people inhabited the antipodes:
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 that 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 understood him to have shared the common view of his educated contemporaries that the Earth is spherical, in line with the quotation above, and with Augustine's famous endorsement of science in De Genesi ad litteram. That tradition has, however, recently been challenged by Leo Ferrari, who concluded that many of Augustine's passing references to the physical universe imply a belief in an essentially flat Earth "at the bottom of the universe".
Diodorus of Tarsus (d. 394) may have 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 that 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.
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.
A very recent essay by Leone Montagnini, discussing the question of the shape of the Earth from the origins to the late Antiquity, has shown that the Fathers of the Church shared different approaches that paralleled their overall philosophical and theological visions. Those of them who were more close to Platonic visions, like Origen, shared peacefully the geosphericism. A second tradition, including Basil, Ambrose and Augustine, but also Philoponus, accepted the idea of the round Earth and the radial gravity, but in a critical way. In particular they pointed out a number of doubts about the physical reasons of the radial gravity, and hesitated in accepting the physical reasons proposed by Aristotle or Stoicism. However, a "flattist" approach was more or less shared by all the Fathers coming from the Syriac area, who were more inclined to follow the letter of the Old Testament. Diodorus, Severian, and Cosmas Indicopleustes, but also Chrysostom, belonged just to this latter tradition.
Early medieval Christian writers in the early Middle Ages felt little urge to assume flatness of the earth, though they had fuzzy impressions of the writings of Ptolemy, Aristotle, and relied more on Pliny.
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, many textbooks of the Early Middle Ages supported the sphericity of the Earth. For example: some 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. Further examples of such medieval diagrams can be found in medieval manuscripts of the Dream of Scipio. In the Carolingian era, scholars discussed Macrobius's view of the antipodes. One of them, the Irish monk Dungal, asserted that the tropical gap between our habitable region and the other habitable region to the south was smaller than Macrobius had believed.
"As for the perverse and sinful doctrine which he (Virgil) against God and his own soul has uttered—if it shall be clearly established that he professes belief in another world and other men existing beneath the earth, or in (another) sun and moon there, thou art to hold a council, deprive him of his sacerdotal rank, and expel him from the Church."
A possible non-literary but graphic indication that people in the Middle Ages believed that the Earth (or perhaps the world) 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. However the word 'orbis' means 'circle' and there is no record of a globe as a representation of the Earth since ancient times in the west till that of Martin Behaim in 1492. Additionally it could well be a representation of the entire 'world' or cosmos.
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." However, the work of these intellectuals may not have had significant influence on public opinion, and 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.
By the 11th century Europe had learned of Islamic astronomy. The Renaissance of the 12th century from about 1070 started an intellectual revitalization of Europe with strong philosophical and scientific roots, and increased interest in natural philosophy.
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.[nb 1] 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. Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, wrote, "The physicist proves the earth to be round by one means, the astronomer by another: for the latter proves this by means of mathematics, e.g. by the shapes of eclipses, or something of the sort; while the former proves it by means of physics, e.g. by the movement of heavy bodies towards the center, and so forth."
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 there is night on the opposite side of the Earth when there is daytime in Norway. The author also discusses the existence of antipodes—and he notes that (if they exist) they see the Sun in the north of the middle of the day, and that they experience seasons opposite those of people in the Northern Hemisphere.
However Tattersall shows that in many vernacular works in 12th- and 13th-century French texts the Earth was considered "round like a table" rather than "round like an apple". "In virtually all the examples quoted...from epics and from non-'historical' romances (that is, works of a less learned character) the actual form of words used suggests strongly a circle rather than a sphere.
Portuguese exploration of Africa and Asia, Columbus's voyage to the Americas (1492) and finally Ferdinand Magellan's circumnavigation of the Earth (1519–21) provided the final, practical proofs for the global shape of the Earth.
The Abbasid Caliphate saw a great flowering of astronomy and mathematics in the 9th century CE. in which Muslim scholars translated Ptolemy's work, which become the Almagest, and extended and updated his work based on spherical ideas, and these have generally been respected since. However after the decline of the Golden Age in the 13th century more traditional views were increasingly heard.
The Quran mentions that the world was "laid out" or "made flat". To this a classic Sunni commentary, the Tafsir al-Kabir (al-Razi) written in the late 12th century says "If it is said: Do the words “And the earth We spread out” indicate that it is flat? We would respond: Yes, because the earth, even though it is round, is an enormous sphere, and each little part of this enormous sphere, when it is looked at, appears to be flat. As that is the case, this will dispel what they mentioned of confusion. The evidence for that is the verse in which Allah, may He be exalted, says (interpretation of the meaning): “And the mountains as pegs” [an-Naba’ 78:7]. He called them awtaad (pegs) even though these mountains may have large flat surfaces. And the same is true in this case."
A later classic Sunni commentary, the Tafsir al-Jalalayn written in the early 16th century says "As for His words sutihat, ‘laid out flat’, this on a literal reading suggests that the earth is flat, which is the opinion of most of the scholars of the [revealed] Law, and not a sphere as astronomers (ahl al-hay’a) have it, even if this [latter] does not contradict any of the pillars of the Law." Other translations render "made flat" as "spread out".
As late as 1595, an early Jesuit missionary to China, Matteo Ricci, recorded that the Chinese say: "The earth is flat and square, and the sky is a round canopy; they did not succeed in conceiving the possibility of the antipodes." The universal belief in a flat Earth is confirmed by a contemporary Chinese encyclopedia from 1609 illustrating a flat Earth extending over the horizontal diametral plane of a spherical heaven.
In the 17th century, the idea of a spherical Earth spread in China due to the influence of the Jesuits, who held high positions as astronomers at the imperial court.
This belief is even repeated in some widely read textbooks. Previous editions of Thomas Bailey's The American Pageant stated that "The superstitious sailors [of Columbus' crew] ... 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 everyday observations, for example seeing how mountains vanish below the horizon on sailing far from shore.
Some historians consider that the early advocates who projected flat Earth upon Christians of the Middle Ages were highly influential (19th-century view typified by Andrew Dickson White); current historians (late 20th-century view typified by historian and religious studies scholar Jeffrey Burton Russell) have asserted that White's and other writings projecting flat Earth belief upon Christians are inaccurate, citing centuries of theological writings, and suggested the motivations for the promotion of such inaccuracies.
According to Russell, 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 A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus in 1828. Although some of the arguments attributed by Irving to Columbus's opponents had been recorded not long after the latter's death, here are only hints that any argued that the Earth was flat, in the argument that the ocean might be infinite in extent, repeated by later historians. Other arguments were based on the impossibility of the antipodes, the vast size of the Earth, the impossibility of going from one hemisphere to the others, and other arguments based on the sphericity of the Earth. Modern historians have dismissed the claim that they maintained the earth was flat as a fabrication of Irving's.
The only denial published at the time came from Zacharia Lilio, a canon of the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome in 1496. In a section entitled "That the earth is not round" he argues that "when they assert that the earth is round, Ptolemy and Pliny do not add to the evidence, collected on the spot, they simply make a conjecture based solely on reasoning". It is notable that Copernicus, writing only twenty years after Columbus in 1514, dismisses the idea of a flat Earth in two sentences and has to go back to the early Greeks to find a supporter, though he expends more effort on showing that other current ideas were fallacious and demonstrating the sphericity of the earth. In reality, the issue in the 1490s was not the shape but the size of the Earth, as well as the position of the east coast of Asia.
In the modern era, belief in a flat Earth has been expressed by isolated individuals and groups, but no scientists of note.
English writer Samuel Rowbotham (1816–1885), writing under the pseudonym "Parallax," produced a pamphlet called Zetetic Astronomy in 1849 arguing for a flat Earth and published results of many experiments that tested the curvatures of water over a long drainage ditch, followed by another called The inconsistency of Modern Astronomy and its Opposition to the Scripture. One of his supporters, John Hampden, lost a bet to Alfred Russel Wallace in the famous Bedford Level Experiment, which attempted to prove it. In 1877 Hampden produced a book called "A New Manual of Biblical Cosmography". Rowbotham also produced studies that purported to show that the effects of ships disappearing below the horizon could be explained by the laws of perspective in relation to the human eye.
In 1883 he founded Zetetic Societies in England and New York, to which he shipped a thousand copies of Zetetic Astronomy. Challenges were issued in the New York Daily Graphic offering $10,000 to charity to anyone proving the Earth revolved on an axis.
William Carpenter, a printer originally from Greenwich, England, was a supporter of Rowbotham and published Theoretical Astronomy Examined and Exposed - Proving the Earth not a Globe in eight parts from 1864 under the name Common Sense. He later emigrated to Baltimore where he published A hundred proofs the Earth is not a Globe in 1885. He argues that:
John Jasper, the black ex-slave preacher said to have preached to more people than any Southern clergyman of his generation, echoed his friend Carpenter's sentiments in his most famous sermon "Der Sun do move and the Earth Am Square", preached over 250 times always by invitation.
In Brockport, N.Y, in 1887, M.C. Flanders argued the case of a flat Earth for three nights against two scientific gentlemen defending sphericity. Five townsmen chosen as judges voted unanimously for a flat Earth at the end. The case was reported in the Brockport Democrat.
"Professor" Joseph W. Holden of Maine, a former justice of the peace, gave numerous lectures in New England and lectured on flat Earth theory at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. His fame stretched to North Carolina where the Statesville Semi-weekly Landmark recorded at his death in 1900: 'We hold to the doctrine that the earth is flat ourselves and we regret exceedingly to learn that one of our members is dead'.
After Rowbotham's death, Lady Elizabeth Blount created the Universal Zetetic Society in 1893 in England and created a journal called Earth not a Globe Review, which sold for twopence, as well as one called Earth, which only lasted from 1901 to 1904. She held that the Bible was the unquestionable authority on the natural world and argued that one could not be a Christian and believe the Earth is a globe. Well-known members included E. W. Bullinger of the Trinitarian Bible Society, Edward Haughton, senior moderator in natural science in Trinity College, Dublin and an archbishop. She repeated Rowbotham's experiments, generating some interesting counter-experiments, but interest declined after the First World War. The movement gave rise to several books that argued for a flat, stationary earth, including Terra Firma by David Wardlaw Scott.
In 1898, during his solo circumnavigation of the world, Joshua Slocum encountered a group of flat-Earthers in Durban. Three Boers, one of them a clergyman, presented Slocum with a pamphlet in which they set out to prove that the world was flat. Paul Kruger, President of the Transvaal Republic, advanced the same view: "You don't mean round the world, it is impossible! You mean in the world. Impossible!"
Wilbur Glenn Voliva, who in 1906 took over the Christian Catholic Church, a Pentecostal sect that established a utopian community at Zion, Illinois, preached flat Earth doctrine from 1915 onwards and used a photograph of a twelve mile stretch of the shoreline at Lake Winnebago, Wisconsin taken three feet above the waterline to prove his point. When the airship Italia disappeared on an expedition to the North Pole in 1928 he warned the world's press that it had sailed over the edge of the world. He offered a $5,000 award for proving the Earth is not flat, under his own conditions. Teaching a globular Earth was banned in the Zion schools and the message was transmitted on his WCBD radio station.
In 1956, Samuel Shenton set up the International Flat Earth Research Society (IFERS), better known as the Flat Earth Society from Dover, Britain, as a direct descendant of the Universal Zetetic Society. This was just before the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik; he responded, "Would sailing round the Isle of Wight prove that it were spherical? It is just the same for those satellites."
His primary aim was to reach children before they were convinced about a spherical Earth. Despite plenty of publicity, the space race eroded Shenton's support in Britain until 1967 when he started to become famous due to the Apollo program. His postbag was full but his health suffered as his operation remained essentially a one-man show until he died in 1971.
In 1972 Shenton's role was taken over by one of his correspondents from California, Charles K. Johnson. He incorporated the IFERS and steadily built up the membership to about 3,000. He spent years examining the studies of flat and round Earth theories and proposed 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 the magazine Science Digest, 1980. It 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 without detecting any curvature."
The Society declined in the 1990s following a fire at its headquarters in California and the death of Johnson in 2001. It was revived as a website in 2004 by Daniel Shenton (no relation to Samuel Shenton). He believes that no one has provided proof that the world is not flat.
The notion of a flat Earth survives in a wide range of contexts. Indirect references to the theory include the widely used idiom the four corners of the earth. The term "flat-Earther" is often used in a derogatory sense to mean anyone who holds ridiculously antiquated views.
An early mention in literature was Ludvig Holberg's comedy Erasmus Montanus (1723). Erasmus Montanus meets considerable opposition 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 protagonists spread the rumor that a Parish Council meeting had voted in favor of a flat Earth. The 1980 film The Gods Must Be Crazy concerns a San of the Kalahari who decides to travel to "the edge of the world" to dispose of a Coca-Cola bottle that he thinks has evil powers.
The first use of the term flat-earther recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary is in 1934 in Punch: "Without being a bigoted flat-earther, he [sc. Mercator] perceived the nuisance..of fiddling about with globes..in order to discover the South Seas." The term flat-earth-man was recorded in 1908: " Fewer votes than one would have thought possible for any human candidate, were he even a flat-earth-man."
Fantasy fiction is particularly rich in references to flat worlds. 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 (although the Earth itself is accepted and written as being spherical, with Narnian king Caspian X being amazed by this fact). Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels (1983 onwards) are set on a flat, disc-shaped world that rests on the backs of four huge elephants that stand on the back of an enormous turtle. Many explorers died falling off the edge trying to prove that it's not so.
In a satirical piece published 1996, Albert A. Bartlett, an emeritus Professor of Physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder, uses arithmetic to show that sustainable growth on Earth is impossible in a spherical Earth since its resources are necessarily finite. He explains that only a model of a flat Earth, stretching infinitely in the two horizontal dimensions and also in the vertical downward direction, would be able to accommodate the needs of a permanently growing population.
Referring to Julian Simon's book The Ultimate Resource, Bartlett suggests "So, let us think of the “We’re going to grow the limits!” people as the “New Flat Earth Society.”" The satiric nature of the piece is also made clear by a comparison to Bartlett's other publications, which mainly advocate the necessity of curbing population growth.
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