We’ve seen a lot of celebrities lately who believe the Earth is flat. The latest is B.o.B., who went on a rather detailed Twitter rant. Before him, Tila Tequila weighed in, and Thomas Dolby, the man who famously put “SCIENCE!” in our collective pop culture reference vocabulary, wrote an entire album about the concept (which he seems to sincerely believe in).
So why do people think the Earth is flat, even when we know it’s not? First of all, it should be noted the Earth is not a perfect sphere. It’s actually an oblate spheroid, if you want to be technical about it, or, in other words, a ball with some bumps on it. That’s due to the fact that the Earth doesn’t have consistent mass across its face, so some parts are a bit more squishy than others. They are tiny bumps, just 26 miles or so, but they’re there. One thing the Earth isn’t, though, is flat, and we’ve known this for centuries.
Contrary to what you might have been told about Christopher Columbus, humanity has known the Earth isn’t flat since, oh, the 3rd century BCE. In fact, it was a theory for three centuries before that, and it was proven with a simple experiment. Eratosthenes noticed that a well in Syene had no shadow at noon, while a well in Alexandra, roughly 500 miles away, had one. From that, he worked out a rough idea of the Earth’s circumference. Since that point, the idea of a flat Earth has been, at best, controversial and rapidly became a fringe belief in most scientific traditions.
So why do we think Columbus had to deal with belief in a flat Earth? Blame Washington Irving. Yes, the guy who invented Ichabod Crane. He wrote a rather fanciful biography about Columbus that was taught a bit too often as actual history. It’s endured ever since, but it’s inaccurate. Even students in the Middle Ages — who learned astronomy from a basics textbook that got almost everything else wrong — had the shape of the earth pretty well pegged.
The main problem, of course, is that it disagrees with how we perceive things. If you stand on “ground level,” such as it is, you won’t feel like you’re standing on the side of a sphere. It comes down to perception. Your average human being is between 5-foot-4 and 6-foot, and the Earth is roughly 24,901 miles in circumference. You’re only seeing a tiny portion of any given time when you’re on ground level. Then of course, there’s the fact that we’ve got plenty of photographs of Earth, and it’s always round.
But if that’s not compelling enough, consider this. The Earth’s shape isn’t some arbitrary idea; it’s dictated by a physical model, in fact, the very first valid physical model, Isaac Newton’s. So, if you’re arguing the Earth is flat, by extension, you’re arguing that basically physics as we know it doesn’t exist. And there are indeed people who believe that physics is a scam, but you do have to ask what the point of that would be, exactly. A huge conspiracy is convincing us physics is real because, what? They want to torment high school juniors?
Now, granted, part of the scientific method is keeping an open mind. And perhaps B.o.B. can prove the Earth is flat. But if he does, we’ll be too busy throwing out all of science to apologize for making fun of him.