A short while ago, I was asked to write a feature on how you might go about proving that the planet Earth is round, not flat.
I thought it was a joke.
I mean, surely we proved that long ago with Magellan’s circumnavigation back in the early 16th century, right? At least that’s what I remember learning in middle school. Granted, if you want to get all technical about it, Isaac Newton refined our understanding of the earth’s shape from a sphere to an ellipsoid—a three-dimensional figure with elliptic planes. But that was in the late 17th century, specifically in 1687 with the publication of the Principia.
Three hundred and thirty years later, there can’t still be anyone who thinks the earth is flat...can there?
Apparently, they’re out there. Take a look, for instance, at this video from “conspiracy vlog” channel ODD TV, which launches into various notions of why, in fact, we might just be taking our belief in the planet’s roundness for granted, because it was a lesson taught to us long ago that we never thought to question.
A quick Google search also turns up something called The Flat Earth Society, which takes the polar projection map of the Earth shown here as a literal picture of the world we live on—even going so far as to suggest that the Antarctic ice wall around the circumference is what holds back the oceans from running off the edge. Now, maps like this are used for directional antenna aiming high-frequency communications, as well as analog instruments for recognizing stars and constellations. The flag of the United Nations even uses a similar projection, showing all the countries of the Earth on a two-dimensional plane. But that doesn't mean we live on a flat surface!
The Society, by the way, is a nonprofit organization that you can opt to join in relative anonymity—probably a wise move, given the potential for ridicule when your name appears on its online membership registry. (Member 00001, incidentally, is British musician Thomas Dolby, perhaps best known for his early-1980s' hit, “She Blinded Me with Science.”)
So maybe that’s my problem: I’ve been blinded by science, my eyes closed to what the Flat Earthers refer to as “several readily apparent proofs of the planet’s flatness.” These seem to rely fairly heavily on what can be empirically observed: the horizon always rising to meet eye level; the inability to casually discern a curvature; water at rest appearing flat; and so on. There is also the assertion that we couldn’t possibly be on a ball rotating in space at 1,000 miles per hour, or we’d, you know, be able to feel it.
And there’s a strong adherence to conspiracy theories, which are used to explain away things like the Moon landing: The U.S. government faked it as part of a plot to maintain superiority in the space race with the Soviet Union—and, by extension, NASA’s photographic evidence of a round earth is not to be trusted. Even gravity is dismissed as a false theory; in its place is a counter explanation about the earth constantly moving upward—if you jump upward, you briefly go faster than the earth, but it soon catches up and meets your feet.
Well, heck. How am I supposed to argue with a frame of reference tailor-made to dismiss scientific reasoning at every turn?
I’m thinking that playing by the same rules might be the way to go. In other words, if Flat Earthers are going to rely on what they can glean via their own five senses above all else, then offering up some observable evidence is probably the best way for their conclusions to be roundly dismissed (see what I did there?).
With that in mind, here are a few simple ways you can gather evidence for living on a round planet:
- Go watch the sunset. Twice. I don’t mean over the course of two days, but literally the same sunset twice. Your next vacation to a beach spot with a long, unobstructed view of the horizon might work best. Lie down on the beach at sunset, and you’ll see the sun disappear—from the bottom up, you might note. Just as the last rays disappear, jump up and you can watch...the sunset again! Pretty clear evidence of the earth’s curvature. Either that, or the sun is a ball that bounces.
- While we’re on the subject of balls, grab a medium-sized one. You’ll also need a highly-sophisticated piece of electronics (also known as a table lamp). Get yourself to a room that can be made dark, put the ball next to the lamp (a bright one works best) and turn off the other lights in the room. Note how half of the ball is illuminated, while the other half remains dark. Well, that’s just how time zones work here on Earth! When it’s daytime here, it’s nighttime elsewhere. You could even replace the ball with a globe and rotate it to get a rough approximation of the where and when.
- On a related note, another Flat Earther conspiracy theory holds that the sun is not nearly as far away as those nefarious scientists would have us believe—instead, it’s just above us, shining like a spotlight in different places at different times of day. But because I also do work as a stage actor, I know a little something about spotlights. If one was shining on a different part of the stage, I’d be able to see that from afar, and walk into it (there’s even an expression in the theater world: “Find your light!”). By extension, if the earth were flat, you’d be able to stand in an area of darkness and look off to the distance to see a nearby area lit up like a Broadway star. But it doesn’t work that way, because the earth curves like a ball. (Is it possible the Flat Earthers just never played with balls when they were kids?)
- Here’s one for which you could use a fancy pair of electronic binoculars, though ordinary ones (or even just your unaided eyes) will also do. Find a large area and a tall observation point looking out over it. Start at the base and use those binoculars to stare as faaaaar as you can see. Then climb up to your observation point and do the same thing. You can see farther! This wouldn’t happen if the earth were flat; you’d get the exact same view, albeit from a different height. But since the earth is round, by climbing up higher you take in more of what’s sitting on top of the curvature in front of you.
- Finally, here’s one that does require some fancy electronics: Go out and capture star trails with your digital camera. This is going to involve a little more technical know-how than I can go into here, but there are plenty of tutorials online with shooting tips (and some really beautiful photos, too). The point is this: Those star trails are going to be rotating in different directions depending where you are on the planet. In the Northern Hemisphere, they’ll rotate counter-clockwise; in the Southern Hemisphere, it’s the opposite. If you’re lucky enough to live in (or at some point visit) an area near the Equator, you’ll actually see stars rotating simultaneously around both poles, in opposite directions! If the earth were flat, we’d all see the same stars—and if they moved at all, they’d all move in the same direction.
Here’s hoping that’s enough to convince you, but, if not, there’s plenty more evidence you can find online, like this video designed specifically to debunk more of ODD TV’s flat-earth claims.
But, hey. Don’t just take my word for it. You can take the word of those faithful few (billions) of us throughout history who have believed in the round-earth concept since the early Greeks first conceptualized it, long before Magellan set off to prove the obvious.