The Flat Earth Society is an organization first based in England and later in Lancaster, California, that advocates a flat Earth.
Origins of the flat Earth movement
Modern hypotheses supporting a flat Earth originated with English inventor Samuel Rowbotham (1816-1884). Based on his interpretation of certain biblical passages, Rowbotham published a 16-page pamphlet, which he later expanded into a 430-page book, Earth Not a Globe, expounding his views. According to Rowbotham's system, which he called "Zetetic Astronomy", the earth is a flat disk centered at the North Pole and bounded along its southern edge by a wall of ice (Antarctica), with the sun and moon 3000 miles (4800 km) and the "cosmos" 3100 miles (5000 km) above earth.
Rowbotham and his followers gained attention by engaging in public debates with leading scientists of the day. One such debate, involving the prominent naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, concerned the Bedford Level experiment (and later led to several lawsuits for fraud and libel).
After Rowbotham's death, his followers established the Universal Zetetic Society, published a magazine entitled The Earth Not a Globe Review, and remained active well into the early part of the 20th century. After World War I, the movement underwent a slow decline.
In the United States, Rowbotham's ideas were taken up by the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church. Founded by a Scottish faith healer, John Alexander Dowie, in 1895, the church established the theocratic community of Zion, Illinois on the shore of Lake Michigan forty miles (seventy kilometers) north of Chicago. In 1906, Dowie was deposed as leader of the sect by his lieutenant, Wilbur Glenn Voliva. The flat earth doctrine was exclusively taught in community schools. Voliva was a pioneer in religious radio broadcasting and described his views in broadcasts on a 100,000-watt (100 kW) radio station. Voliva died in 1942 and the church declined. A few flat earth supporters persisted in Zion into the 1950s.
Flat Earth from space
The flat Earth faced challenges posed by photographs of Earth from space and later the moon, to which member Samuel Shenton remarked: "It's easy to see how a photograph like that could fool the untrained eye". The society took the position that the Apollo Moon landings were a hoax, staged by Hollywood and based on a script by Arthur C. Clarke
, a position also held by others not connected to the Flat Earth Society.
On hearing this, Clarke sent a facetious letter to NASA's chief administrator:
"Dear Sir, on checking my records, I see that I have never received payment for this work. Could you please look into this matter with some urgency? Otherwise you will be hearing from my solicitors, Messrs Geldsnatch, Geldsnatch and Blubberclutch".
Charles K. Johnson
In 1971, Shenton died and Charles K. Johnson
became the new president of the Flat Earth Society. Under his leadership, over the next three decades, the group grew in size from a few members to about 3,000. Johnson distributed newsletters, flyers, maps, and other promotional materials to anyone who asked for them, and he managed all membership applications together with his wife, Marjory, who was also a flat-earther.
The most recent world model propagated by the Flat Earth Society holds that humans live on a disc, with the North Pole at its center and a 150-foot (45 m) high wall of ice at the outer edge. The resulting map resembles the symbol of the United Nations, which Johnson used as evidence for his position. In this model, the sun and moon are each a mere 32 miles (52 km) in diameter.
A newsletter from the society gives some insight into Johnson's thinking:
- Aim: To carefully observe, think freely rediscover forgotten fact and oppose theoretical dogmatic assumptions. To help establish the United States...of the world on this flat earth. Replace the science religion...with SANITY
- The International Flat Earth Society is the oldest continuous Society existing on the world today. It began with the Creation of the Creation. First the water...the face of the deep...without form or limits...just Water. Then the Land sitting in and on the Water, the Water then as now being flat and level, as is the very Nature of Water. There are, of course, mountains and valleys on the Land but since most of the World is Water, we say, "The World is Flat". Historical accounts and spoken history tell us the Land part may have been square, all in one mass at one time, then as now, the magnetic north being the Center. Vast cataclysmic events and shaking no doubt broke the land apart, divided the Land to be our present continents or islands as they exist today. One thing we know for sure about this world...the known inhabited world is Flat, Level, a Plain World.
- We maintain that what is called 'Science' today and 'scientists' consist of the same old gang of witch doctors, sorcerers, tellers of tales, the 'Priest-Entertainers' for the common people. 'Science' consists of a weird, way-out occult concoction of gibberish theory-theology...unrelated to the real world of facts, technology and inventions, tall buildings and fast cars, airplanes and other Real and Good things in life; technology is not in any way related to the web of idiotic scientific theory. ALL inventors have been anti-science. The Wright brothers said: "Science theory held us up for years. When we threw out all science, started from experiment and experience, then we invented the airplane." By the way, airplanes all fly level on this Plane earth.
Charles Johnson died on March 19, 2001, leaving the fate of the Flat Earth Society uncertain, though a BBC news interview with leading Flat Earth proponents revealed that attempts at re-establishment in different parts of the world are currently under way.
Physics of a Flat Earth
The modern Flat Earth Society describes the Earth as being a disc with a diameter of about 40,000 km (24,900 miles) and a circumference of 126,000 km (78,225 miles). The sun and moon are both discs about 52 km (32 miles) in diameter (although some sources say that the sun and moon are spheres) and are about 4,800 km (3,000 miles) above the Earth, and the stars about 160 km (100 miles) above the sun and moon.
The Flat Earth Society also maintains that the Earth is accelerating upward at a rate of 9.8 m/s², thereby simulating gravity. This upward momentum is caused by a form of dark energy. Gravity cannot exist on a flat Earth since the disc shape would eventually collapse on itself. However in a few Flat Earth models, other planetary bodies such as the moon and the sun are alleged to have gravitational pulls, causing the gravitational force on an object to decrease as it increases in altitude. This also allows spacecraft to "orbit".
The planetary bodies above the Earth revolve above it, thereby causing sunrise and sunset to occur. As the sun moves farther away, it shrinks until it is no longer able to be seen. The same phenomenon occurs with the stars to cause their movement.
The sinking ship effect is explained by a series of perspective laws, in which a ship on the horizon intersects with the vanishing point, causing it to appear as if it is sinking. The Flat Earth Society holds that there are multiple first hand accounts of the hulls of ships reappearing after the image is viewed through a telescope or binoculars.
The exact explanation for lunar eclipses in the Flat Earth theory is vague. However, two commonly accepted hypotheses are the Shadow Object Theory (that an object undiscovered and undetectable by science obscures the moon causing moon phases and lunar eclipses) and the Reflection hypothesis (the sun's light reflects off the Earth and reflects back to the moon, with some areas of the Earth being less reflective than others, thus producing shadows). There is also a minority which believes moon phases are caused by weather patterns on the moon.
As the sun orbits over the Earth, the Flat Earth theory maintains that the sun's orbit radius changes, causing it to be directly overhead different locations at different times of the year. There is no explanation of the mechanism that exists to cause this.
Flat Earth Society also does not have an answer for the apparent discrepancies that arise in surface distances between a round Earth map and that of the flat Earth equivalent. The map of the flat Earth severely distorts the distances and appearance of land masses in both hemispheres. In the southern hemisphere (outer disc) the distances on the flat earth appear extended while the opposite is true for the northern hemisphere (inner disc).
This becomes apparent with the distance between New Zealand and Chile. The exact distance between Auckland, New Zealand and Santiago, Chile is 6011 miles on a round Earth map. That same distance using the flat earth map appears to be between 20,000 – 30,000 miles. No distances are given by the Flat Earth Society.
The Flat Earth Society in popular culture
- In the 1980s, talk show host Wally George often sparred with and ridiculed members of the Flat Earth Society on his show Hot Seat. Australian talk show host Don Lane also had Flat Earth Society advocates on his show.
- A 2007 tourism commercial for Newfoundland and Labrador states that the Flat Earth Society believed that Newfoundland and Labrador was one of the four corners of the world.
- California-based punk rock band Bad Religion include a song entitled "Flat Earth Society" on their 1990 album Against the Grain (as well as their compilation album All Ages), written by Brett Gurewitz. A prominent feature of the song is the refrain "lie, lie, lie", indicating a strong denunciation of the society and its theories. The band has produced similar songs criticizing other movements it views as pseudoscientific.
- It was satirised in the Terry Pratchett novel Small Gods, set on a flat Discworld, in which a monotheistic religion (Omnianism) asserts that the world is a sphere. Other books, such as the Dragonlance Chronicles, also make mention of a flat Earth, though whether this is interpreted literally (as in The Chronicles of Narnia) or as an indication of a society's ignorance (as in the Asterix Adventures) varies from one author's work to another.
- In the Video Game Assassin's Creed the flat earth society is mentioned in a conversation between Desmond and Warren. Warren is arguing that people believe whatever is accepted in books regardless of whether it is true or not. When he says that people used to believe the Earth was flat, Desmond replies that some people still do, and Warren says "And they write books about it".
- In the movie Hopscotch, Walter Matthau's character stated he was leaving everything he owned to the Flat Earth Society should the CIA kill him.
- Archival documents: (No longer available, but can be found at The Wayback Machine) The Papers of the Flat Earth Society, University of Liverpool Library, Special Collections and Archives, reference GB 141 FES. The collection comprises in 31 boxes and folders the papers of the Flat Earth Society during Samuel Shenton's involvement with the society (1956-1971). The material includes incoming and outgoing correspondence, promotional material such as leaflets and posters, magazines, manuscripts, lecture material including maps and diagrams, photographs, press cuttings, notes, books on astronomy and the Earth, and various other ephemera.
- Earth Not a Globe Online text of Samuel Birley Rowbotham's 1881 treatise on Zetetic (Flat Earth) Astronomy.
- $5,000 for Proving the Earth is a Globe, Oct. 1931 article from Modern Mechanics and Inventions about Voliva and his flat earth cosmology.
- The Flat Earth Professor Donald Simanek's web page on the history of flat earth movements.
- The Flat-out Truth: Earth Orbits? Moon Landings? A Fraud! Says This Prophet by Robert J. Schadewald. Science Digest, July 1980. A very detailed look at the Society and its leader. Schadewald was president of the National Center for Science Education and an expert on alternative earth movements.
- Looking for Lighthouses by Robert J. Schadewald, Creation/Evolution #31 (1992). This article explains the use of lighthouse data by Samuel Rowbotham.
- Scientific Creationism, Geocentricity, and the Flat Earth by Robert J. Schadewald, from the Skeptical Inquirer, Winter 1981–1982. Describes the movements leading to the Flat Earth Society and discusses parallels with creationism.
- The International Flat Earth Society By Robert P. J. Day, 1993. Documents the full Flat Earth Society newsletter. Part of the Talk.Origins archive on the Evolution/Creationism archive.
- Holding, James Patrick, 2000. Is the ’erets (earth) flat? TJ 14(3):51–54.
- Russell, Jeffrey Burton, 1997. Inventing the Flat Earth : Columbus and Modern Historians ISBN 0-275-95904-X
- Russell, Jeffrey Burton, 1997. The Myth of the Flat Earth (No longer available) (summary of above book).
- Flat Earth Society Inc. Flat Earth Society Home Page
- Raymond Fraser (2007). When The Earth Was Flat: Remembering Leonard Cohen, Alden Nowlan, the Flat Earth Society, the King James monarchy hoax, the Montreal Story Tellers and other curious matters. Black Moss Press, ISBN 978-0-88753-439-3
- Martin Gardner (1957). Fads & Fallacies in the Name of Science, Dover Publications, ISBN 0-486-20394-8, chapter 2, pg 16-27
- James Randi (1995). An Encyclopedia of claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, St. Martin's Press, ISBN 0-312-13066-X, pg 97-98. (Available online)
- Robert Schadewald (1981). Scientific Creationism, Geocentricity, and the Flat Earth, Skeptical Inquirer, vol 6, #2, Winter 1981-82, 41-48.
- Ted Schultz, editor. (1989). The Fringes of Reason: A Whole Earth Catalog, Harmony Books, ISBN 0-517-57165-X, pg. 86, 88, 166.
- William F. Williams, editor. (2000). Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience, Facts on File, ISBN 0-8160-3351-X, pg 114-115.
- Benjamin Deeb (2005). Planet Earth: Alternate Theories of Shape and Size, NYR Press, ISBN 0-5173-4859-X
- Christine Garwood (2007) Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea, Pan Books, ISBN 140504702X