“Falling flat” (Flat Earth proponents)


I’m feeling lazy today. I skipped the gym. I’m taking the children to the backyard instead of the park. And my skeptic laser is being focused on flat Earth proponents.

These were once an abundant breed, but Eratosthenes proved Earth was round, and calculated its circumference almost exactly, in the third century BCE. This was widely accepted within a few centuries, and Christopher Columbus’ first journey was about opening trade routes and determining Earth’s size, rather than a courageous gamble against superstition.

Deacon White, a 19th Century Hall of Fame baseball player was, until the modern incarnation of the Flat Earth movement, one of the last believers. I mention him primarily to have an excuse to include a quote of his which has nothing to do with Earth’s shape:  “No man is going to sell my carcass unless I get half.”

With that out of the way, we move onto the modern flat Earth movement, if it can be called that. Englishman Samuel Shenton was responsible for this lunacy lauch in 1956, although it was the result of ego, not eccentricity. Still in a round Earth mindset, Shenton floated the idea of an aircraft lifting off from England, hovering for a few hours while Earth rotates, then landing in the United States.

This wouldn’t work because a plane on the ground is moving with the surface of Earth and is imperceptibly going 1,000 miles per hour. When it takes off, it still has this speed. To fly east, the plane increases its speed relative to Earth’s surface and then overtakes it. If flying west, the airplane decreases its speed relative to the surface, and Earth chugs on by. I won’t be addressing north and south travel, due to the aforementioned laziness.

Shenton rejected these ideas, and postulated that his plan was shot down due to Earth being flat, and that a conspiracy was keeping this secret. Emboldened, he founded the Flat Earth Society.

The Society was still active in 1980s, headed by Charles Johnson. I talked with this man by telephone, and he assured me that, “The Flat Earth Society runs the world.” It certainly ran the flat Earth portion of it. At the time we spoke, in 1986, he and his wife were the theory’s only known proponents. Johnson said if Earth was round, people on the bottom would fall off. He compared Earth to a beach ball that drops to the ground. When it is picked up, grains of sand will stay at the top of the ball, but fall from the bottom. For any third graders reading this, Johnson was failing to realize the gravity that drew the sand to the beach would also keep people from plummeting into outer space.

When attempting to counter the flat Earth movement, the first protest usually lodged is that one would go over the edge. But Flat Earth Society members claim there is a 150-foot tall ice wall that encompasses the ring around the edge of Earth. There are no photos or videos of this because, according to the Society’s website, the wall has “snow and hail, howling winds, and indescribable storms and hurricanes in every direction. Human ingress is barred by unsealed escarpments of perpetual ice, extending farther than eye or telescope can penetrate, and becoming lost in gloom and darkness.” Since observing it even indirectly is deemed impossible, it remains unclear how Flat Earthers arrived at the 150-foot figure. Also, in spite of the impenetrability, the society maintains that NASA employees access the region to stand guard and prevent mortals from discovering the secret.

NASA are the Round Earther’s most sinister element, but they have plenty of cohorts, such as every GPS manufacturer, communications industry worker, and pilot. Also in on the fix is Felix Baumgartner, whose jump from the edge of space showed Earth’s curvature.

The second most common point made by normal people Round Earth proponents are pictures of the planet so shaped. The Apollo mission pictures were dismissed as fake by Johnson in the 1960s. By now, we have many more fake pictures, numbering in the thousands. Flat Earthers point out how easy it is to manipulate and stage photos today. For all this ease, we have yet to see a photo, real or fake, of the ice wall or anything else vouching for a flat Earth.

Johnson’s Flat Earth Society died with him, but another was started by Daniel Shenton (not related to Samuel through biology, just through illogical).

The group is very tiny and most members are British, so you are unlikely to encounter one. But if you do, here are arguments to use if inclined. These observations are consistent with a round Earth: 1, Seeing the top of ships first when they come over the horizon. 2, The farther one travels from the equator, the farther stars go toward the horizon. 3, If you put two sticks in the ground a few feet apart, they will produce shadows of different length. 4, The higher up you are, the farther you will see. 5, Every other known heavenly body is round. 6. When one half the world is light, the rest is dark. 7, During a lunar eclipse, a round shadow is cast on the moon.

Now that the Flat Earthers have been dispatched, it’s off to the backyard to take down my 5-year-old daughter in a game of one-on-one.

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