There are a number of people who are making the claim that the Earth is flat and the once quiet group is now making more of a social impression, with some having large social followings that sway the masses. To think that we have gotten to this stage of our existence with doubt around the three-dimensional shape of the planet is concerning. This is a negative reflection of the education system and, as someone who is apart of that system, it speaks magnitudes to how poorly we’ve been able to provide and explain the evidence. Let’s look into this further.
There have been a number of global cultures that initially believed that the Earth was flat or was an inverted bowl-like shape; with origins in religion and storytelling. The idea of a flat Earth remained the accepted global view until the 6th century BC when Pythagoras – a Greek philosopher – start discussing the Earth potentially being a sphere. It wasn’t until 330 BC however when the first bit of evidence to support this idea was presented by Aristotle and from there on, more evidence to support the claim was presented. Primary evidence provided was the curved line that appears on the moon during an eclipse as well as the different constellations viewed from different places around the world.
This continued to evolve going from a world split into 4 landmasses by great oceans and rivers to the idea’s of the Earth’s structure today. This was the accepted fact until the middle of the 20th century when people started to interpret the data collected in their own way which brought on the questioning of the Earths spherical shape. It was then that, in 1956, the International Flat Earth Society or IFERS (originally the Zetetic Society) was founded which uses religious literature and the interpretation of information gathered from the Bedford Level experiment; aimed at supporting the flat Earth idea.
At a straight, almost 10 km section of the Old Bedford River in the UK, Samuel Rowbotham conducted an observational based experiment in which a boat sailed down the river. His train of thought was that if the Earth was curved then after the first statute mile (≈1.6 km), the boat should have dropped 8 inches (≈20.3 cm) from his view. After repeated experiments, the observations did not change and it was this finding that was used to make the claim that the Earth was flat.
It wasn’t until a wager between John Hampden – supporter of Samuel Rowbotham – and Alfred Wallace was made in 1870 that provided alternative evidence to counter the evidence collected by the Bedford Level experiment. Wallace – a surveyor and naturalist – won the wager by altering the initial experiment. Rowbotham had two points in his experiment (himself looking through the telescope and the sailboat), whereas Wallace had a third. Wallace positioned his telescope on a bridge (4 meters above the water), and two poles set at the end and the middle of a 6 km portion of the canal.
The additional pole in the middle provided a ‘hump’ and was higher than the other pole; showing that there was some curvature. Hampden refused the observations provided by Wallace which led to 7 years of slander ending in death threats leading to Hampdens imprisonment. Wallace also received scrutiny from the scientific community for making light of a ‘basic fact’. Wallace ended up continuing his scientific endeavors leading to the development of the theory of evolution through natural selection; leading to the On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin.
The addition of the 3rd pole as well as all points being 4 meters above the water, instead of at the waters surface, minimized the effects of atmospheric refraction. Atmospheric refraction is the disorientation of light in a straight line caused by variations in density in air due to height. As you move further away from the surface of the Earth, the density of the surrounding air starts to decrease. This alteration changes how much light can curve with highly dense air creating more curvature and vice versa. At the ground, it is this effect that can make images in this distance appear to be higher than what they really are, as well as make objects at a distance almost wobble and bend. It is also this phenomena that curved the image of the sailboat in the distance, making it appear higher than what it already is.
These findings were accepted by many and was a common concept that was taught in class; until photographic evidence of the Earth from space was captured. Since then, it was just considered to be a norm and it was this statement without the coupled evidence that has lead to the rift between people and the agreed shape of the planet. The current agreed model by IFERS is one in which the north pole is situated at the center of a disk, the edge consisting of a 45 meter high wall of ice, and the sun and moon having a diameter of 52 km. A lot of this alternative perception of the Earths shape stems from the poor communication of information as well as conspiracies that occurred during the ‘Space Race’ between America and the USSR. Statements from the society’s site says that both countries falsified their accomplishments and that photographic evidences “do not lend much credibility” to the claims.
A lot of the evidence provided by the society is faulty at best with most being based on simply superficial observation or by questioning the credibility of evidence against their ideology. As someone who is a science and maths teacher I take pride in providing an environment in which students can learn; not only the concepts needed by the education system to pass a test but to promote the analysis and processing of critical information. It is this that many science communicators say is missing from the education system. The mind of a student is not something that needs to be filled with information; it is something that needs to be taught how to learn for itself.
The Earth is an imperfect sphere and people who believe otherwise are incorrect. There is more information and evidence presented for this than evidence for a flat Earth; with much of that evidence being shown to be wrong and not vice versa. I hope that this article is used to further educate people who question the credibility of fact and, at its core, science.