Category Archives: Exploration

Flat wrong: the misunderstood history of flat Earth theories


Chris Fleming, Western Sydney University

For most people, being described as a “flat Earther” is an insult. The idea of the Earth being flat is considered not only wrong, but a model of wrongness, the gold standard of being incorrect about something.

This being so, oddly enough, most people described pejoratively as “flat Earthers” do not actually believe that the Earth is flat. “Flat Earther” is simply a scientifically seasoned variation of “idiot”.

For a recent example, US President Barack Obama recently expressed impatience with the persistent objections put forward by climate change deniers by saying: “We don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society.”

In a subsequent move that one can read as either very fortunate or very unfortunate, the real Flat Earth Society issued a statement in support the hypothesis of anthropogenic climate change.

What do we do, then, when someone actually does believe that the Earth is flat, as the American rapper B.o.B expressed recently? The usual path seems to be blocked; it’s difficult to insult someone with a term that they themselves happily adopt.

Edge of the world

But what exactly is a “flat Earth theory”? In fact, there never has been anything called “the flat Earth theory”. Different cultures at different times have posited a staggeringly diverse array worldviews which cannot easily be summed up with the phrase “flat Earth.” Nor is the idea of a flat Earth something that is exclusive to the Western world.

Even the most cursory historical survey shows that the idea that the Earth is flat has been a notion shared by an extraordinarily wide range of cultures and tied to vastly different metaphysical systems and cosmologies.

It was a common belief in ancient Greece, as well as in India, China and in a wide range of indigenous or “pre-state” cultures. Both the poets Homer and Hesiod described a flat Earth. This was maintained by Thales, considered by many one of the first philosophers, Lucretius, an avowed materialist, as well as Democritus, the founder of atomic theory.

The ancient Greek conception, in turn, has some parallels with that of early Egyptian and Mesopotamian thought, with both thinking that the Earth was a large disc surrounded by a gigantic body of water. The ancient Chinese were also virtually unanimous in their view of the Earth’s flatness, although – in this system – the heavens were spherical and the Earth was square.

A number of ancient Indian conceptions, common – with some degree of variation – to ancient Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, tie their cosmography to botanical images, with the earth being comprised of four continents surrounding a mountain, akin to the way petals encircle the bud of a flower. Ancient Norse thought postulated a circular flat Earth surrounded by a sea inhabited by a giant serpent.

Others, like the Mountain Arapesh people of Papua New Guinea, envisage a world which ends at the horizon, the place where giant clouds gather. But even where commonalities exist across these traditions, vastly different metaphysical and cosmological narratives are at stake.

And, to complicate matters, to these we must add cultures and intellectual traditions for whom the shape of Earth is of no interest whatsoever. Many tribal or pre-state societies, for instance, have little concern for what might be considered cosmography.

Does it look flat?
DonkeyHotey, CC BY

Turtles all the way down

However, from at least the 6th century BCE, the theory of the flat Earth began to fall out of favour. By the time we get to Aristotle in the 4th century BCE, the idea of a spherical Earth is commonplace, at least among the educated classes. And by the 1st Century BCE it is considered an uncontroversial truth. Having said that, the theory of a flat Earth has continued as a minor tradition in thought, like a handful of theories in science, such as Lamarckianism and vitalism.

Despite the historical tide having long turned, the mid 20th century saw the establishment of the Flat Earth Society, started in 1956 by Samuel Shenton, whose work was continued by the retired aircraft mechanic, Charles K. Johnson, in 1972.

From California (where else?), Johnson functioned as president for The International Flat Earth Society. As its spokesman, he made a series of claims that have now become widespread outside the flat Earth community: the Apollo moon landings were faked, and that the correct view of the world is the traditional Christian one of the earth being flat.

Johnson, interestingly enough, didn’t get only his cosmology wrong, he got his history and theology wrong as well. Orthodox Christian thinkers, at least since 5th century on, have supported the idea of a spherical Earth, from Bede through to Thomas Aquinas.

Indeed, as the University of California historian Jeffrey Burton Russell has argued, very few educated people in the West after the 3rd century BCE thought that the world was flat. This goes directly against the common belief that most people in medieval times believed the Earth was flat.

How unenlightened they were

But, if the flat Earth serves as a kind if myth or fantasy for those who believe in it, there are also myths about the flat Earth that are just as widespread.

One of the most widely propagated myths in the contemporary world is the belief that Columbus was advised by the Catholic Church to abandon his journey on the basis that he risked falling off the edge of the world.

It’s source is the 19th century writer, Washington Irving, author of other rigorous historical accounts such as The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle.

What this suggests is that we are sometimes overly keen to enlist the past – or our version of the past – in our attempts to feel better about how enlightened we are and how benighted were our predecessors.

That, of course, does not mean that nobody believed the Earth was flat in the middle ages; nor does it entail that nobody believes it today. Mohammed Yusuf, the founder of Boko Haram, famously claimed to not believe in a whole series of modern ideas which he though were contrary to Islam – including the spherical shape of the Earth.

If there is anything truly astounding about BoB’s improbable cosmographical musings, it’s that the battle between him and Neil deGrasse Tyson is, at this stage at least, being carried out only through the medium of rap. That could be a historical first for cosmography.

The Conversation

Chris Fleming, Senior Lecturer in Cultural and Social Analysis, Western Sydney University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Female Exploration



Article: The Mystery of Ludwig Leichhardt


The link below is to an article that looks at what happened to Australian explorer Ludwig Leichhardt.

For more visit:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2013/may/31/what-really-happened-ludwig-leichhardt


Video: Race for the Poles



Article: The Viking Sunstone


The link below is to an article that looks at the Viking Sunstone, known as an Iceland Spar.

For more visit:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/8862471/Magical-Viking-stone-may-be-real.html


Article: Lewis and Clark


The following article reports on the adventures of Lewis and Clark, the famous explorers of North America.

For more, visit:
http://www.neatorama.com/2012/04/06/postcards-from-the-edge-of-america-the-adventures-of-lewis-clark/


Today in History – 30 April 1492


Christopher Columbus: Receives His Commission of Exploration from Castile (Spain)

Christopher Columbus was born between the 22nd August and the 31st October 1451, in Genoa (now in Italy). Contrary to common belief Columbus did not discover America, but he did greatly increase European awareness of the New World.

The maritime career of Christopher Columbus began when he was 10 years old. In the years that followed he undertook a number of journeys on the open sea in various roles on various ships. In 1485 he began looking for an opportunity to explore and discover a western route to Asia. He presented his ideas to the king of Portugal and was ultimately frustrated after several attempts. He also tried England, Genoa, Venice and then Spain (Castile) in 1486. He was frustrated in all these attempts (England eventually agreed, but by that time Columbus was already in league with Castile), but the king and queen of Castile (Ferdinand II and Isabella I) retained his services and after many attempts he finally gained the support of Ferdinand II and Isabella I on this day in 1492.

In all, Columbus would make four voyages between Castile and America. His life would end in great disappointment, having been jailed and having the terms of his contract with Castile overturned due to various claims and convictions of abuse of power and mismanagement of the domains over which he governed in the New World. Columbus died on the 20th May 1506 in Valladolid, Crown of Castile (now in Spain).

 


Today in History – 20 April 1770


Captain James Cook: Off the East Coast of New Holland

Captain James Cook had already made a name for himself in Canada with the Royal Navy during the Seven Years’ War prior to his first voyage of discovery. In 1766, the Royal Society hired Captain Cook to travel to the Pacific Ocean in order to observe and record the passing of Venus across the sun in Tahiti. It was on his return journey to England, having completed his primary mission and having mapped New Zealand by circumnavigation, that he and his crew decided to return via the east coast of New Holland.

The Endeavour reached the south-east coast of Australia on the 19th April 1770. On the 20th April Cook was off the east coast of what is now known as New South Wales. By doing so, he became the first European to discover and observe the east coast of New Holland (Australia). On the 23rd April 1770 he made his first observations of Australian Aborigines. On the 29th April Captain Cook made his famous landing at Botany Bay, which he named after the unique plant specimens found there by botanists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander.

 


Today in History – 17 April 1524


Giovanni da Verrazzano: Discovery of New York Bay

On this day in 1524, navigator Giovanni da Verrazzano, discovered New York Bay. Verrazzano was employed by the French king, Francis I, to find a sea route to the Pacific Ocean in order to reach China. After a failed first expedition, Verrazzano in the ‘La Dauphine,’ left France on the 17th January 1524 for the North American mainland. Once in American waters he explored the east coast of North America, including the area from North Carolina to New York. During his journey he came into contact with native American Indians and entered the Hudson River. The area explored by Verrazano was named ‘New France.’

Verrazzano is thought to have been born in 1485, south of Florence in Italy, though more recent research would suggest he was born in Lyon, France. Verrazzano died during a third trip to America, when he was killed and eaten by native Carib Indians on the island of Guadeloupe in 1528.

As with any other day, there was plenty more that happened on this day in history. Among the more important events on this day in the past were:

  • In 1492, Christopher Columbus signed a contract with Spain to find the Indies.
  • In 1521, Martin Luther was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church.
  • In 1534, Sir Thomas Moore was confined in the Tower of London.
  • In 1970, Apollo 13 sucessfully returned to earth.

 


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