Our home in space

Guy Ottewell

Flat earth

I was asked to debate with a representative of the Flat Earth Society. Jim Burnside, of the WFBC radio station, was going to interview the flat-earther for two or three hours by long-distance phone, and wanted a scientist to give the other side — to flatten the flat-earther — so he called the university to ask for an astronomer, and someone suggested me. I said I couldn't promise to crush anybody; that would be better left to those who really were scientists. But Professor Brantley said it would be a waste of time and not something he wanted members of his department to mess with.
     I went and talked with Burnside. He told me about “demographics“, which meant the composition of the station's audience and the pressures to make it fit the firms sponsoring the commercials. “We believe the spending-power is with the young; but the old have more time to listen to the radio, they depend on it for their consolation, they're prone to call the talk-shows; they call repeatedly, they talk lengthily, try to form personal relationships with us; and they talk about taxes and religion, things that are death to the interest of the young. So we have to freeze them off — by treating them curtly, pretending not to remember them, avoiding the subjects they like, and using outside speakers so as to reduce the time available for home-calls.” Hence the quest for guests like the flat-earth man and me. All this made me more hostile to the radio station than to flat-earthism.
     Burnside gave me a copy of the letter from “The Last Iconoclast“, as he signed himself, Mr. Charles Johnson:

     Recieved your letter of 11-4-74. Sorry about your not reaching me phone. Like John of old, we “dwell in a desert place“, the phone line is not up yet here in the antelope valley. Also like John (Elijia) of old I am proclaiming the “end of the present world” the world of science-deciet. The old horse buggy ideas of this world being a “globe” a spinning ball, the old horse and buggy idea that “God and the Bible have been did away with” these two ideas are finnished. In the New Age, as the scripture says, lieing and decieving will not be alowed. The facts, the truth will be known by all, Bible Cosmogony is proved true and correct, astronomical science, so called will be shown to be superstition!
     I would count it a great honor to be on your show I am very, very interested in southern people and I believe Greenville is a center, for the salt of the earth people who believe in God. Of course the earth being flat stands by itself, how ever one may feel about the Bible . . . 
This was on the letterhead of
The International Flat Earth Society of America
successors of Universal Zetetic Society of America and Great Britain
of Covenant Peoples Church
Box 2533, Lancaster, Ca. 93534, U.S.A.
On the right appeared the names of Charles Johnson, President, and Marjory Johnson, Secretary; on the left, S. Shenton, F.R.A.S., F.R.G.S., Honorary President, and (Mrs.) J.L. Shenton, Honorary Secretary, of Dover, England. Across the bottom were Biblical texts (“Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare if thou hast understanding“, Job 38:4, and “To carry research into geophysical matters is the beneficial exercise designed by God for mankind“, Eccles. 1:13 — really?) and, down the side, many little unattributed paragraphs of hostility to “the anti-god planet or globe-earth indoctrination“.
     There was also a clipping from a Long Beach newspaper (with photo of the tall gray-bearded Lincolnesque Johnson), from which I learned that the Zetetic Society was founded about 1800, and converted into the International Flat Earth Society in 1956 by William Shenton. As he had died in 1971 I suspected that the society was reduced now to the elderly gentleman in California and his loyal wife. However, they claimed a membership of a hundred. Perhaps these were in Zion, Illinois, where another source said that almost all inhabitants were members.
     As for the Zetetics (from zÍtein “to seek”), the ancient ones at least were extreme Pyrrhonists; Pyrrho of Elis, who went to India with Alexander and saw the world-indifference of the fakirs, taught that all perceptions are of doubtful validity, therefore the external circumstances of life are unimportant, therefore the wise man should be tranquil. Johnson, I found, was not very tranquil.
     Though I agreed to take a side in the debate, I did not think it either important or possible to crush the other side. I knew it would be like arguing with any other fanatic, with his propaganda at his fingertips and his mind invested against change. I would not have wanted to stamp out the last flat-earther even if I could; besides, I found his world-picture charming.
     It was that the north pole is in the middle of the flat earth, with the lands arranged around it as they are if you draw a map with a simple north-polar projection. And then at the outer edge is a ring of ice. This is Antarctica, which far from being an island surrounded by oceans is a vast icy rampart surrounding the known world and all its oceans; it forms the outer limit to our knowledge, being impenetrable, or at least no explorer has yet penetrated far enough outward through it to find what lies beyond. There could be anything beyond; an infinity of flat earth to explore. How I would love (I think) to be living in a world like that! — the age of exploration not yet over, we are still at the dawn, perhaps always will be!
     We live in the central clearing of the (infinite?) flat universe, and the sun and moon and stars have been set to light and warm it for us. The sun is not very large — in fact it is is “known to be” only thirty-two miles wide — and not very far away (it must at that rate be less than four thousand miles). It travels each day in a circle around the pole (presumably a smaller circle in summer and a larger and therefore faster one in winter, with the equator as the average). Why does the sun appear to set, leaving part of the earth dark? Simply because it gets far away over the landscape.
     I thought of making this world-picture the theme for an Astronomical Calendar cover painting: an aerial view of, in the background, the circular glade which is our known world, and, below in the foreground, a band of intrepid explorers finding a passage through the ring of ice and coming with delight upon the prospect of a world which is new: differently vegetated and inhabited — and illuminated — but otherwise conformal, a second flat glade among the ice, giving therefore promise of a third and fourth and an infinity of others, like the dimensional worlds of the Serialist.
     But there are, to say the least, geometrical difficulties. Apparently the sun illuminates a circular patch of the flat earth under it. The circle is admittedly soft-edged, yet definite in the sense that the sun does come into view at a certain moment and no earlier. For day and night to be equal when the sun is over the equator, the circle must happen to cut the equator-circle at opposite points; which is to say that it must have exactly half the area of the earth-circle, or a radius of, by the Pythagoras rule, the square root of twice the square of the pole-to-equator distance — which is rather more complicated than for the illuminated patch to be simply one side of a globe. Also, if you try to diagram it, you see that the north pole is never out of the circle of daylight; so there is never arctic night, and the sun, which seems to have melted a habitable ring for us out of the surrounding ice, ought to have melted the center of it too. Also, if the sun is about four thousand miles up and flies away over parts of the earth no more than about twelve thousand miles from us, it is hard to see how it appears to go down to the horizon; or why it does not appear to get smaller as it gets more than twice as far away; or why after it has “set“, or rather not set, we cannot even through telescopes see it rolling around the northern horizon from west to east, still giving some light to the sky; also not explained is why as seen from the equator it travels straight over, not in a curve. But perhaps travelers' reports that there is ice or a winter at the north pole, or that on the equator the sun travels straight overhead, are just little lies to support the big one. Or, very possibly, there were features of the model that I did not know of.
     In any case all these features must fit somehow, in ways known or unknown, with a flat earth, since that had been proved. The proof was a measurement made “by a British doctor early in the nineteenth century“. With marker-flags and a telescope, he found that a six-mile stretch of the Bedford Canal (the Bedford Level?) was flat, whereas it should have dropped twenty-four feet if the earth were curved. (Perhaps this referred to the occasions when Alfred Russell Wallace proved the opposite, by setting up markers along a canal at distances of three and six miles and inviting two judges to see through a telescope that the more distant one appeared lower; one of the judges was a flat-earther and denied what he saw; and this got into the popular press.)
     And ships, watched as they sail into the distance and disappear, do not do so by descending gradually below the horizon, as people accept without looking for themselves: instead, they just get smaller and smaller. (Indeed there is no real “horizon“, since the surface too just dwindles indefinitely into the distance.) I had to admit I couldn't remember specifically watching to see how ships disappear. However, I remembered that when crossing the Mediterranean from Cyrenaica I had seen the mountaintops of Crete poking above the horizon when the coastline of it was well below.
     The Russian and American space-programs, the flight of the Apollo to the moon, the apparatus seen by the public on television, images of men in spacesuits climbing out of a machine and walking on a piece of dusty scenery — all this was an official charade, mocked up in a studio, “no more authentic than a Buck Rogers movie. The only moon they landed on was a paper moon.”
     The huge conspiracy dated back at least to the Protestant Reformation, when Christian authority was pushed out by that of science and the state; round-earth theory, displacing man and God from the center of the universe, was smuggled in as the cornerstone of this new “religion”; there was to be no hope of escape from the controlling state and godless dogmatic science. The priests of this religion, the scientists, “start with a theory and ignore any fact that comes along“, unlike the remaining adherents of the truth: “We've already proved the earth is flat. There's nothing more to be said about it.”
     Thus on top of Flat Earth was built a superstructure of paranoid philosophy. But it might be the other way around; the mutterings about scientists might be the key to it. Mr. Johnson might in truth care less about the shape of the earth than about the mounting claims by an establishment of which scientists are part, along with bureaucrats, lawyers, politicians, and other “leaders” and “opinion-moulders“, to control our lives and thoughts. All of them impose on us ever-growing piles of notions, which we are less and less able to handle other than by acceptance.
     I supposed that the main reason why I accepted most of what I was told by science, so little of which I could verify personally, was the cumulativeness and complexity of it, the enormous numbers of people involved, the vanishingly small chance of their all being able to conspire consistently and secretly, and the layers and interdependencies of the structure which would have to be dismantled it it were all a hoax.
     I did my bit of preparation; I got from a travel-agent an International Air Travel Tariff, a big book of the flights between cities around the globe: it showed that distances and times across the South Atlantic were roughly the same as across the North Atlantic, far shorter than they would have to be if the continents radiate flatly from the north pole. Pilots and their passengers would have to find themselves flying either these distances or distances three times greater. But Johnson could say that they were in the conspiracy too.
     To me, as a person aware of the sky, the most glaring objection was the full moon. We see its round face at midnight staring steeply down toward us. If the bright part of it is the half of it on which the sun is shining — and by watching it through the other phases we are compelled to see that it is — then this must mean that the sun is down in the opposite direction, under the ground-level we stand on.
     And there are the eclipses of the moon, when the round edge of the shadow of the earth appears on it; and parallax-measurements; and weather-satellites in synchronous orbits at 22,300 miles.
     And the five-thousand-mile width of partial-eclipse tracks, that is, of the sun-thrown shadow of the moon: how can that be, if the sun and moon are only a few miles wide and not very far away? Of course I have not proved that the shadow is this wide by being on both edges of it at the same time, but I have proved to myself that the predictions are correct by seeing them come true from various positions.
     I was in the studio with the radio man, who acted as moderator, and we talked by telephone link with Mr. Johnson at his home “overlooking“, as the newspaper article had said, “the distinctly flat Mojave Desert.” I might as well have saved myself the trouble of preparing any arguments, since he did not listen, wanting only to harangue. It would have taken a little patience on his part, or anybody's, to pause and understand such arguments as the one about the moon. Perhaps he did catch a glimmer of that; his answer to it was: “The moon is a mystery.”
     He was so rude and irrational that after twenty minutes of our dialogue Burnside said goodbye to him and cut him off, so that the rest of the time would be for listeners calling in their questions to me; rather unfair, and I felt for poor old Johnson and his wife helplessly boiling with rage in the California desert. The callers were all indignant at him, and I found myself trying to re-explain his ideas for him and saying that I rather liked them.
     The geo-flatness belief is a kind of extreme inner subset of geo-immobility, and that of geo-centrism, and that of creationism, each resisting a successively wider and lovelier discovery — that the earth is round, that it rotates, that it revolves around the sun, that the sun is a star, that things evolve. Later I was told that there still existed also a geocentrist society. They called themselves the Tychonians, accepting the backward-stepping model of Tycho Brahe (that the sun goes around the earth and the other planets around the sun) — which, however, Tycho himself lifted from an earlier thinker, Wittick. Indeed, Tycho tried to conceal his plagiarism by sending secret agents around Europe to buy and burn copies of Wittick's work.