The shape of the world we walk on has been used as lynchpin in countless ideologies, religions and scientific theories, as the basis for the way the universe itself is constructed. The majority of us take the current round-Earth model as gospel: but for some, the argument has never been settled. Where, then, did the idea of a flat Earth actually come from, and what’s the deal with its recent renaissance?
Simply put, it began as a conception of the Classical world. With travel difficult and space inaccessible, the shape of Earth became another mystery to be explained with religion or philosophical thought, just like the seasons and the sun. It’s a natural conclusion, reconciling an immense sky with the seemingly flat ground. To this end, the sea became a cosmic ocean that acted as the planet’s boundary, the sky either the boundary between reality and firmament or simply the limit of the universe.
The key to the new flat Earth debate is simple: this isn’t the same argument. Instead, it’s an act of ideological protest, part of a network of conspiracy theories.
But as with the Sun, it was the purview of later examination to explode this original model. Concepts of round Earths arise as far back as the sixth century BC, in Pythagoras’ geometric writings. From the Islamic astronomers to the work of Thomas Aquinas, from the Roman Macrobius to Bede’s The Reckoning of Time, the round Earth model rose in popularity. Iranian scholar Abu Rayhan Biruni, working in the eleventh century, estimated the Earth’s circumference a mere 31 kilometres shy of measurements performed by modern scientists. And, if you believe that Sputnik actually happened, our observation of the planet from orbit put the debate to rest.
If the above doesn’t convince you, there’s literal libraries to do some of your own research in. So why has the debate been reignited? The key to the new flat Earth debate is simple: this isn’t the same argument. Instead, it’s an act of ideological protest, part of a network of conspiracy theories.
According to the Twitter chapter of the flat Earth argument, a round world is just one of the alleged myths that NASA have been feeding the stupid “sheeple”, in addition to gravity, space travel and the existence of satellites. #FlatEarth teems with “strong” evidence such as memes, statistics without citation, six-hour Youtube videos and the ever-popular imploration to “think for yourselves”. There isn’t even any consensus as to the nature of flat earth they champion: whether the sea falls into space, or there’s a gargantuan ice wall surrounding the planet. It’s telling that one of their favourite arguments for the Earth being flat is that the Hebrew word “nāšā” – pronounced “nasha”, by the way – means “to deceive”.
And even in national organisations, the debate is predicated on similar ideas. A Colorado-based Flat-Earther, known by the pseudonym Knodel and speaker at the upcoming Flat Earth International Conference in Raleigh, insists that the round Earth model is an ideological tool of oppression, that it’s a conspiracy by intellectuals to “to create two classes: the ultra-rich and servants.” Information censorship by this international conspiracy conveniently accounts for any holes in the model.
So, is the Earth flat? The evidence seems overwhelmingly against it. But if the conspiracy theorists are right, the cover-up is real and Earth is a secret pancake careening through the stars, the implications about our leaders are disturbing to say the least.