A Flat Earth?

In the US and in Britain there are organized groups of people who strongly believe that the Earth is flat. The US group is named “Flat Earth International” and it holds regular conferences (https://flatearthconference.com). A major website for the US flat-earth movement is http://flatearth101.com and that of the UK movement is https://wiki.tfes.org. It is claimed that there is a massive conspiracy to hide the fact that the Earth is flat, with all governments and all scientists working together to maintain the fiction that the Earth is round. This conspiracy, if real, would include most scientists, philosophers, and religious leaders on several continents, going back more than two thousand years. This belief could be considered harmless, but the movement provides additional fuel for the notion that all scientists are conspiratorial liars and are not to be trusted, which is a dangerous notion with serious consequences for society.

A popular model of the US flat-earthers’ version of the truth is that the Earth is a stationary flat circular disk (with local hills and valleys) with the North Pole at the center and an impenetrable wall of ice at the edge where, in some accounts, armed guards prevent one from crossing. The Sun and Moon are said to be spotlights circling the disk at a constant height of about 3500 miles and with diameters of about 30 miles. These numbers make the angular size of the Sun and Moon be one-half degree at noon, as is observed. These numbers also account for the different angular heights of the Sun and Moon seen at different latitudes. A rotating hemispherical dome above the disk carries spots of light (not distant “stars”) that move in circles around the North Star.

Many flat-earthers believe that there is no such thing as gravitational forces between objects, the proof being that if you place a ping-pong ball in contact with the bottom of a suspended bowling ball, the ping-pong ball falls, so evidently the bowling ball does not exert a gravitational force on the ping-pong ball to prevent it from falling. If you don’t believe there is such a thing as gravity, then Australians can’t be suspended upside-down, and this is taken as additional evidence that the Earth can’t be round (that is, nearly spherical; actually an oblate spheroid). All the evidence in favor of a round Earth and a huge Universe around the Earth is thought to have been faked, including all of the videos and photos released by NASA and the space programs of all other countries.

The starting premise of all this is that you should believe your own eyes rather than what some authorities claim. This attitude can be seen as positive, since direct observation is a necessary foundation for science and understanding. However, the way that this plays out among flat-earthers has some very serious limitations. The believers generally do not make many careful observations, usually preferring to quote flat-earth authorities. The believers do not make the necessary deductions from the fact that their own flat-earth model makes predictions of naked-eye phenomena that are utterly different from what one actually sees. At the very least this should have triggered attempts to improve the flat-earth model.

Secondly, they fail to understand that progress in science has included the need to invent and deploy ever more sensitive technologies to go beyond what can be understood solely from naked-eye observations. Examples of the latter point abound. No unaided human eye has seen a virus or an atom; we had to invent microscopes of increasing capability to augment human vision. We can’t see the electromagnetic waves that carry conversations to our cell phones, but those waves are very real and are obviously detectable by a cell phone. In 1798 Cavendish was the first to construct an apparatus sufficiently sensitive to be able to measure the extremely small gravitational forces that two large metal balls exert on each other (the measurements were in agreement with the vastly larger gravitational force that the entire massive Earth exerts on these balls).

Of course the strongest evidence for a flat Earth is that it looks flat (again, ignoring local variations in the form of hills and valleys). The Earth is so large that an initially horizontal beam of light will be only 8 inches higher above the surface after going a mile, and for a distance of N miles, the difference is N-squared times 8 inches. This is a somewhat difficult measurement to make, and for large distances an object can seem to be raised or lowered by mirage-like bending of light due to atmospheric conditions near the surface. Though such measurements have been made (over water) that verify that the Earth is round, these results are rejected by flat-earthers. At the end of the recent documentary on the flat-earth community, “Behind the Curve,” some flat-earthers repeat the experiment themselves and are stunned that the results are not consistent with a flat Earth, but this seems to have had no impact on the community. Also near the end of the documentary one hears a flat-earther saying that, using a complex device called a ring laser gyroscope, his measurements showed that the Earth does in fact rotate, “but don’t tell anyone.”

There is an unresolvable tension in this community between claiming to be scientific by providing a model that will agree with naked-eye observations, and the need to reject disproof of this model for the sake of maintaining a congenial community that delights in sharing knowledge of a vast conspiracy and feeling the satisfaction of disproving conventional science.

I wrote a GlowScript VPython program to create a navigable computational version of a popular flat-earth model. In the section below on “Using the computer model,” which includes a link to the program, you can explore this model yourself. While roaming around in this 3D visualization of the flat Earth, it was easy to identify several predictions of the flat-earthers’ model that disagree dramatically with what one actually sees with the naked eye:

1) The flat-earth model predicts that the visual diameter of the flat-earth Sun will vary by more than a factor of 2 between noon and sunrise or sunset, which we do not observe. At sunrise or sunset the flat-earth Sun is much farther away than the 3500 miles at noon, so it would look much larger at noon. Also, the angular size of the flat-earth Sun is very different when viewed from different latitudes, which is not what is observed in the real world.

2) The flat-earth model predicts that the flat-earth Sun will never get anywhere near the horizon, despite the fact that we see sunrises and sunsets with the Sun at and even sinking below the horizon. Because the flat-earth Sun is about 3500 miles above the disk, an observer on such a flat Earth should always see lots of sky between the horizon and the Sun; at sunrise and sunset the flat-earth Sun is far above the horizon.

3) A closely related naked-eye observation is that at sunset one sometimes sees the bottoms of low-lying clouds lit by the setting Sun. The flat-earth model predicts that this cannot happen, since the flat-earth Sun is about 3500 miles above the Earth.

4) The flat-earth model predicts that the North Star will be visible even from Argentina, despite the fact that it is not visible from anywhere a few miles south of the equator (the North Star is a small angular distance from the point around which it seems to circle, so that at a short distance south of the equator you can see it some of the time). A closely related issue is that the flat-earth model predicts that the angular height of the North Star should be about 70 degrees in Dallas Texas, but it’s actually only about 30 degrees above the horizon, which is a huge naked-eye discrepancy.

5) The flat-earth model predicts that if you watch a constellation that is near the eastern horizon at nightfall, it will grow larger until midnight, as it comes closer to you, then smaller as it moves away from you toward the west. No such effect is in fact observed. Closely related is the prediction that as you move farther from the North Pole, the larger will be constellations in their closest approach to you. Moreover, in all cases the brightness of the flat-earth stars and flat-earth Sun will vary depending on how close or far you are from them, which is not observed in naked-eye observations. This implies that the stars and Sun are very far away. Also, except at the North Pole, a constellation in reality never moves parallel to the horizon during the night as it does in the flat-earth model.

The commonality of these five effects is that you don’t need any special equipment in order to make the relevant observations. It’s true that if you want to make the North Star disappear, you will have to travel to a little bit south of the equator. As an alternative, check with trusted friends who live south of the equator and can look for the North Star on your behalf. Or just compare the angular height of the North Star above the horizon at your location, and notice that it dramatically contradicts the angle predicted by the flat earth model. There are many other problematic aspects of the flat-earth model that can be tested with some precision equipment, although these are still accessible to anyone who wants to make an investment of time and money. For example, amateurs as well as scientists have verified the earth’s curvature using long-baseline surveying over water or have measured the gravitational forces that ordinary-sized objects exert on each other, as Cavendish did.

The flat-earthers take pride in having created an alternative model of the Earth and its surroundings. However, they have not taken the critical next step, a crucial step in a scientific approach, which is to take their own model seriously. This would mean checking whether the predictions of the model are consistent with observations, including, at the very least, naked-eye observations.

Some History

In her 2007 book “Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea,” Christine Garwood documents that while early Babylonian and Egyptian cosmology included a flat Earth, the Greeks realized that it had to be round. Aristotle traveled south in Egypt, saw that he could see constellations that were new to him and couldn’t see some familiar constellations, and correctly concluded that the Earth is not flat. A century later Eratosthenes measured with remarkable accuracy the size of the Earth by comparing the lengths of shadows of vertical rods in two Egyptian cities on the same longitude, at the same time of day. Garwood points out that from that time forward until the 1800s, everyone in the West accepted that the Earth was round.

Garwood comments that there is a persistent myth that at the time of Columbus, people thought the Earth was flat, but that is not true. Columbus incorrectly believed that the Earth was much smaller than people of his day knew it to be, and he thought it was small enough that his provisions would support his ship voyage from Spain to China. He was way off and would have starved, if he hadn’t run into the islands of the Caribbean. Galileo’s heresy wasn’t a claim that the Earth was round; it was stating that the round Earth, accepted by the Catholic Church, wasn’t at the center of the Universe.

As documented by Garwood, in England in the 1800s there arose a challenge to the Earth being round instead of flat, and the contemporary flat-earth societies in the UK and the US are inheritors of that movement. She shows that the main motivation was discomfort with secularism in general and with evolution in particular. One of the arguments used by flat-earthers was to find passages in the Bible that could be interpreted as support for a flat Earth. It is relevant that on the first page of the important flat-earth website, http://flatEarth101.com, there is this statement: “The majority of people believe they are descendants of monkeys living on a giant spinning ball of water hurtling and spiraling through space. All of which was not created but was formed billions of years ago in some outrageous cosmic explosion that created everything from nothing. If this were true it would mean we are insignificant pieces of cosmic dust! We aren’t special in the least, without a purpose in being here. Our self-worth and outlook on others and the world as a whole is warped. Well, the exact opposite is true, we are special and are not some random result of a billion year old explosion!”

There is a larger context for all of this. In her 2000 book “The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam” by Karen Armstrong, a distinguished scholar of religion, Armstrong shows that although fundamentalists in all of the three major monotheisms think of themselves as returning to ancient tradition, in fact all three fundamentalisms are quite recent phenomena. She makes a distinction between “logos” (the word; logic and rationalism) and “mythos” (the stories we tell; the only language we have for discussing some kinds of important experiences). Both of these forms of discourse are essential to being human. Fundamentalists saw the growing power of science, logos par excellence, and in reaction wanted their own form of logos. They came to claim for their holy books, works par excellence of mythos, the status of logos. Instead of celebrating the story-telling mythos of the holy books, many fundamentalists are literalists for whom these books have the same logos-based characteristics as scientific works. Of course not all flat-earthers are fundamentalists, and few fundamentalists are flat-earthers, but there has been and continues to be a significant connection.

Members of the flat-earth movement emphasize how much value they place in the friendships and other social aspects of belonging to a community. It is a common human trait to value social connections, and to accept the common beliefs of ones’ chosen peers. Social connections insulate and protect flat-earth belief from the impact of the many discrepancies and observable errors in the flat-earth model. In spite of the rhetoric concerning direct observation and scientific reasoning, the flat-earth movement is ultimately not based on logos, but on mythos.

Acknowledgements

I owe a large debt to Lee McIntyre, a philosopher of science who became interested in the flat-earth movement as an example of science denial and, in an editorial in the September 2019 issue of the American Journal of Physics, asked for help from physicists on how to rebut the arguments of flat-earthers. I strongly recommend his excellent 2019 book, “The Scientific Attitude: Defending Science from Denial, Fraud, and Pseudoscience.” I also owe much to the thoughtful insights and suggestions of my friend Derek Roff.

Using the computer model

Click tinyurl.com/FEmodel to start up the computer program in a separate browser tab, and drag that tab out of the browser so that you can see this text and the computer display at the same time.

You should see a transparent rotating dome with embedded stars and their long-exposure trails. The hemispherical dome sits on a stationary flat disk that represents the flat Earth.

Position the mouse just above the center of the scene and press the mouse button to move forward into the flat-earth model. Release the mouse button to stop moving. As you get closer you will see radial longitude lines and circular latitude lines drawn on the green flat Earth. The yellow line lies between your original position and the North Pole at the center of the disk. A red circle marks the equator. You can’t move farther into the model than the east-west light blue line that is perpendicular to the entry yellow line. You can roam backwards with the mouse below the center of the scene, and you can roam left or right with the mouse to the left or right of the center of the scene.

If you click “Look around,” roaming is disabled and you can use the mouse to look in any direction without moving. This is useful for inspecting the model. Look up and you’ll see the stars with their circular trails centered on the white North Star (Polaris). Look a little bit below the lowest star trail and find the moving yellow flat-earth Sun that moves in a circle about 3500 miles above the equator, this being a day near the spring or autumn equinox. When this Sun moves beyond the east-west line its color is dimmed to indicate that you are now in darkness. Sunrise occurs when the Sun crosses the eastern end of the east-west line, and sunset occurs when the Sun crosses the western end.

1) The changing size of the Sun: In “Look around” mode you can with some care observe the changing angular diameter of the Sun. You might start by observing from the equator, where the Sun at noon has the observed angular width of half a degree. Watch for “sunrise” in the east (when the Sun becomes bright) and click “Pause”. Observe the size of the distant Sun. Click “Run” and then click “Pause” when the Sun is overhead. Note that it looks significantly bigger now, because it is significantly closer to you. Or simply let the model run and watch the “Sun width” degree display below the scene, which is the angular width of the Sun at this moment as seen from where you stand. Move to a different latitude, and you’ll see that the angular size of the flat-earth Sun changes, because you are closer or farther from it, and this effect that is not what is actually observed. The size of the Sun is exaggerated to make it easier to observe it, but the “Sun width” display is the computed angular width for the flat-earth model.

2) The Sun never gets near the horizon: As you watch the Sun move around the Earth, note that it never gets close to the horizon, because it is high above the flat Earth.

3) Cloud illumination: Imagine low-lying clouds, which are very far below the Sun. Since the flat-earth Sun is very high above these clouds, even at sunset it cannot illuminate the underside of the clouds. Yet it is not uncommon at sunset to see the bottoms of low-lying clouds illuminated by sunlight.

4) Angular height of the North Star: In “Roam” mode, navigate to a latitude of 33 degrees (like Dallas, Texas) and in “Look around” mode observe the viewing angle for the North Star by looking toward it. You’ll find that it’s about 70 degrees above the horizon, but in Dallas the North Star is in fact only 33 degrees above the horizon, as is predicted for a round Earth. Also note that if you move far from the North Pole and then look at the North Star in “Look around” mode, you’ll see that the tracks of the stars around the North Star are no longer circles but are now ellipses, which does not agree with long-exposure photos.

5) The changing size of constellations: Near the horizon are 12 identical rectangular “constellations.” Roam to the equator, click “Look around”, and click “Pause”. Now look around at the various constellations, and of course those nearest to you are bigger than those farther away. Or click “Run” and watch the constellations grow in size as they move from the east to the west. Or, click “Pause” and roam toward one of the “constellations,” noting that it gets bigger and bigger, but in the real world the apparent size of a constellation doesn’t change with latitude.

All of these effects shown in the computer model ought to be visible with simple naked-eye observations of the sky. However, what we actually observe when we look at the sky is very different from what the flat-earth model predicts, as demonstrated by the computer model. The key point is that if the Sun and stars are only a few thousand miles away from an observer as predicted by the flat-earth model, their individual sizes and their distances from each other on the sky, and their brightnesses, will necessarily change as they move a few thousand miles toward or away from the observer during the day and night. In contrast, if the Sun and stars are very far away compared to the size of the Earth, then changes in their distances from the observer during the day and night will be such a small fraction of those distances that naked-eye observations will not detect any changes, and that is precisely what we actually observe.

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