Some people may know of Mike Hughes, who is trying to ride his homemade rocket so he can prove that photographs of a round Earth are a conspiracy by NASA. The first impulse is to laugh. Of course, it is a quixotic adventure, but the idea of a flat Earth is not nearly as wrong as modern chauvinism commonly depicts it. It has often been used to disparage science, but this is a shallow argument for at least three reasons.

First, there is a misconception that educated people believed the Earth was flat until Elizabethan times. This is a latter-day myth promulgated by a few titans of fictional literature in the early 1800s, more interested in a good story than good history. The truth is that when the Greeks began venturing out to sea, observations of very large objects at much greater distances led Pythagoras to propose that the Earth was round circa 500 B.C. Two thousand years ago, Eratosthenes calculated that the circumference of the Earth was 26,000 miles, only 4.2 percent of the modern value of 24,090 miles. Ptolemy published his book “Geography” in A.D. 150 and considered the round Earth as a fact. … Columbus even owned a copy! And at least 100 years before his time, the texts used by European universities were actually teaching that the world was a sphere.

Second, modern science did not mature as a profession until the mid-19th century. This was the beginning of the second British Empire, and the admiralty was sending out numerous surveying vessels all over the world to draw charts for trading and war ships. This presented a problem of psychological isolation because the vessels were small, and because naval discipline, as well as social class, did not permit captains to consort with common seamen. Suicides were not unusual. Therefore, young university graduates (only men in those days) were taken aboard as companions for the captain. However, the admiralty had no intention of funding adventure cruises for young dilettantes. These young men were expected to be zoologists, botanists, metallurgists, geologists and geographers of some ability. Thus, the new empire could assess the natural resources and commercial value of the new colonies. This is how young Charles Darwin made his famous voyage on the HMS Beagle.

Prior to this, science had been the realm of wealthy gentleman or clerics. Much of the natural history of Britain in early Victorian times was done by country curates with an insufficient number of dying parishioners to visit and occupy their time. However, one of the side effects of British imperialism was the creation of a class of brilliant men unrestricted by wealth, who had sailed to all corners of the Earth and become world-class experts in all realms of science. They were the first generation of professional scientists. Since the idea of a round Earth preceded the invention of modern science by at least 2,000 years, it is not very perceptive to claim that modern science ever “believed” in a flat Earth.

Third, the flat Earth theory hardly deserves the scorn so often directed at it. Consider that the average ancient Egyptian male was 5 1/2 feet tall. At this height the horizon would be 2.9 miles away or 15,312 feet. This means that the curvature of the Earth differs from a flat plane by 4.3 thousandths of an inch per foot, or the thickness of an average human hair. Another way to think of it is that the error of the flat Earth theory over this distance is 0.0359 percent … but this also means that it is 99.964 percent correct!

Although the flat Earth theory has been falsified on a global scale, it is very close to being true on the human scale for which it was invented. Modern surveyors use laser instruments to lay out the foundations of highways and buildings with excruciating precision, but even then they make the simplifying assumption that the Earth is flat. An exception is the Verrazano Narrows Bridge from Brooklyn to Staten Island; its longest span is 4,260 feet, but the towers are 1 5/8 inches farther apart at the top than the base to account for the Earth’s curvature. We find this piece of trivia so intriguing precisely because, even today, we do customarily think of the ground as flat!


Impress your neighbors! Be the envy of your friends! Win a free cup of coffee at Three Mountain Cafe!

Assume for simplicity that the boundaries of Waitsfield are rectangular, the area is 27 square miles of domed surface, and the annual tax revenue is $1.5 million. However, suppose the Earth was flat? Then the surface would be smaller (less than 27 square miles). What is a reasonable estimate of the amount of tax revenue the town of Waitsfield would lose if the Earth really were flat? Show your work! Submit a legible diagram and calculation at Three Mountain Cafe. The winning entry will be posted there.

Barnes lives in Warren, Vermont.