Flat earth question

Whenever my sister-in-law has a question from her small children she can’t answer, she has a standard answer, “Go ask your Uncle TV.”

Usually I can come up with something, even if totally lame, but it is something. The other day I was stumped. I said I would have to, “think about it.” This roughly translates to pass it on to the “teeming millions.”

Anyway, they were watching the Fox television program about the moon landing and apparently someone in the family equated the fuzzy thinking of the program to those pre-Columbians who thought the world was flat. My nephew and niece immediately wanted to know how anyone could think the world was flat (it got them away from the program at least).

Here’s the question. “Uncle TV, why did they think the water wouldn’t fall off the edge if a a ship on the water could fall off the edge?”

I suggested they probably thought it did, but the water merely came up on the other side of the flat earth. “Then why wouldn’t the ship come up there too?” was the response.

I tried saying they might believe there was a special gravity for the water that didn’t include ships, but that didn’t sell too well either. Finally I said the people were probably extemely religious and they believed the water did go over the edge ships and all, but God just kept making more. Still not a big sell.

The final comment from the kids was, “Those people were probably just really dumb, huh?”

Any suggestions?

I don’t know about those “pre-Columbians” (and it should be remembered that educated people believed the Earth to be spherical even before 1492), but I saw a map figured out by the good people at the Flat Earth Society. It showed the North Pole at the center, with the continents spread out around (like on the United Nations flag). At the borders the ocean was supposed to gradually solidify into ice, so no navigator need have any fear of falling off.

Not just even before, but long before. The ancient Egyptians knew, for example.

As for how to answer the kids… Well, the belief that the world was flat was based on faulty logic (if it can be called logic?) to begin with. I’m not sure there’s any way to answer their questions that would satisfy them. Speaking for myself, when I tried to picture a flat Earth, I did not imagine the water falling off. I kind of imagined it being like a plate filled to the brim (but not overflowing) with water. I.e. the Earth had sides, sort of, to hold the water, but the sides ended at water level so that ships could sail past (and fall off), without there being a waterfall.

Tell the kids that people just didn’t have an answer, so they let their fears get the best of them. We have been guilty of the same thing within the past century:

Astronomer #1: I can’t see a thing on Venus.
Astronomer #2: Why not?
Astronomer #1: Because it’s so cloudy.
Astronomer #2: Clouds are made from water.
Astronomer #1: Well the surface must be awfully wet.
Astronomer #2: Hmmm If the surface is wet then there is probably vegetation, ferns, etc.
Astronomer #1: And if there’s vegetation then there’s probably life munching on it.
Astronomer #2: And if there is life munching on the vegetation, there’s probably a food chain leading up to dinosaurs.

Observation: I can’t see a thing on Venus.
Conclusion: Dinosaurs.

And you can usually find the ‘broken link’ in a faulty chain of reasoning. In the example of Venus, clouds don’t have to be made of water. I think Venusian clouds are sulphuric acid, carbon monoxide, and other noxious chemicals. The chain of reasoning breaks down once you perform a spectrograpic analysis on light reflected from Venus, find spectral lines where they would not be for Earthly clouds, and realize that those clouds would hold in plenty of heat.

Anyway, you can just say that the people who thought the world was flat were just basing their theories on limited observational evidence and had no reason to improve their worldview. Of course, ancient people, such as the Ancient Greeks and Egyptians, not only knew the world was round but estimated its diameter to within a few hundred miles.

I doubt that anyone ever, if they really thought about it, actually believed that the Earth is flat.
Tell the kids that religion sucks. :wink:
Here, for your enlightenment, is a link to the real F.E.S.
You can even join!!!

This inspires considerable disappointment in me, concerning the educational system in CA, at least. We had a textbook in the eighth grade that showed illustrations, ostensibly from the 15th Century, showing the earth as flat with a “Sea of Darkness” around the known continents.
In the ninth grade, however, our General Science teacher showed us how the Greek astronomer Eratosthenes calculated the Earth’s circumference, which by modern equivalents would come to about 21,500 miles. His calculations involved two wells. The sun shone directly into the bottom of one; and with the angle of the sun’s shadow inside the other and the distance between ther two, he did the calculations–presuming the Earth to be a sphere. (cf. Job 26:7, Isaiah 40:22.)
However, according to George Stimpson in Book about a Thousand Things (1949), “the knowledge that the Earth was spherical was suppressed by the Catholic Church.” It remained for explorers–not so much Columbus but Magellan and Sir Francis Drake, to show the Earth is round in that they circumnavigated it. (The Spanish court opposed Columbus’ plans, not because they thought the Earth was flat, but because they knew that he would have to travel much more than the 2,000 miles or so westward from Europe to Asia. Nobody in Europe knew about the Americas, of course, but they were sure that Columbus’ ships would have to travel 10,000 miles or more across an endless sea and he and his crew would starve to death long before they sighted land. Whatever the Church may have thought about it, the Spanish court did not fear Columbus would ‘fall off the edge,’ like these explorers made up by Mad Magazine supposedly did:
CHRISTOPHER NUMUNBUS: “Sailed west from Europe looking for a short route to the Spice Islands. Through poor navigation, discovered Sweden.”
AMERIGO NUMANUCCI: “Read of discoveries of kinsman Christopher Numunbus, was convinced it proved Earth was flat, and spent rest of life searching for edge.” :smiley:


As to the Classical knowledge that the earth was round, they know that…

As to Venus having dinosaurs, I am now prepared for that discussion…

As for religion sucking, I’ll leave that for them to discover. With questions like they are asking now, can their doubting religion be that much in the future?

As to there being an educated elite that knew, or was pretty certain that the world was round. They also know that.

But come on people, the bulk of the population at the time believed the earth was flat. Don’t we all pretty much agree with that. Although, I’m willing to bet when Columbus got back everyone was standing around the bars saying, “Oh, yeah, I knew that. It was Pablo, that stupido who thought the earth was flat. Go Columbo. Isabella rocks!”

But when people sat around and discussed it what did they think (or imagine)? Thanks for the ice on the edge thing and the surface density response. They are a start.

Thanks for all your responses.

Actually, I suspect the average peasant who might have thought the Earth was flat didn’t have any clearer concept of what happened “at the edge of the Earth” than the average person today does about what happens at the “edge of the Universe.” They would simply think of it as some unexplainable mystery whose details were understandable only by God (or today by cosmologists).

The Viking worldview was similar to Nimue’s idea. Old Scandinavian maps show the Ocean ringed by land. That’s why the Norsemen weren’t afraid to sail westward. They “knew” that, sooner or later, they would come to another island or continent.

As for other cultures, the fear was not so much falling off the edge, but getting so far from land that you would run out of food and drinking water. Not to mention getting eaten by sea monsters.


Yes, the clouds are concentrated sulfuric acid.

If I implied that I subscribe to the Venus/dinosaur line of reasoning, I must clarify. The thrust of my post was simply that, when no other readily available answer is at hand, people will often fall back on generalizations & assumptions. The only other clouds we knew about at the time were our own, so we made a huge leap of faulty logic, which is now - in hindsight - pretty easy to pick apart.

You must remember that science is a self correcting process. Observations & long held beliefs are often taken at face value until some better understanding comes along.

I was trying to say that the pre-Columbians (that’s Christopher Columbians!) fell back on religious belief, myth, fear & superstition. They probably just took it on faith that the world was flat, and with no means by which to prove otherwise, didn’t even think about questioning it.

I wouldn’t use the word dumb to describe our ancestors. Ignorant is a better word. They were in the youth of scientific discovery & understanding- just as your children are in their lives. Our ancestors had it all that much harder because they didn’t have Uncle TV to ask.

Will it be fair for our descendants 500 years from now to look back upon our momentous “stupidity” for not realizing that the universe is closed, or open, or whatever it turns out to be?

Our descendants will see farther than us not because they are smarter, but because they stand on our shoulders.

That is all very true. I just commented on how one broken link in any chain of reasoning invalidates everything that was based on that link, including the conclusion.

I think we all know that science is a process of self-correction that builds on past information. Like a palace: We have built a palace on the ground of observation, used the foundation stones of basic logic (deductive reasoning), and used continued observation plus the verification process of the foundation to construct the palace itself. Some structures we build collapse, others must be modified. But we always change things somehow with the goal of making the biggest, most stable, most comprehensive palace we can.

I agree with you, Attrayant. But how do you explain the Flat Earthers without using the word “dumb”?
I can understand faith, while not sharing it, in Noah’s Ark, H&H, miracles, and even the Ascention. But a flat Earth? These people appear to be completely serious!
Or are they simply after attention?

I was referring strictly to the flat earthers of 600-some odd years ago (I was trying to stick to the OP’s question of why the world was not accepted to be a sphere until it was proven). Now those present day Flat Earthers? Closed-minded, obstinate, old fashioned, um… uh… oh hell. Yeah they are dumb all right!

I’d just like to say that Attrayant’s example is the only thing I can remember about Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.

I can distinctly remember his voice as he said “Observation: nothing. Conclusion: dinosaurs.”


Is that really the only thing you remember from Cosmos? Then watch it again.

There will be a quiz Monday morning.

It played on TV about 15 or more years ago. It’s never replayed, and I of course don’t have it in any other form.

I seem to remember Carl walking around on a giant calendar of the evolution of the Universe too.

And of course, he said “billions and billions” a lot.

I hope the quiz is multi-choice.

“…and they throw down their gloves and sticks and charge at one another across the ice. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I’d say we no longer have a hocky game here…”

Some believers in a flat Earth had a different view than the ‘ring of land’… they believed that the Earth was flat and extended in all directions infinitely, so there was no edge. Just ocean forever.

TV time, I would recommend reading the short essay, “The Relativity of Wrong,” by Isaac Asimov, reprinted in the book of the same title ( Doubleday, 1988). The essay is a good one explaining the development of theories to account for natural phenomena, and argues that the flat earth theory made considerable sense for the average person, prior to the development of a) sophistcated mathematics, and b) the need to worry about such things. Asimov points out that the actual deviation of the curvature of the Earth from flat was only about 1 degree, so the flat earth was a reasonable approximation. (And yes, the Greeks worked it out, with a reasonable approximation of the measurement - but the famous “two wells” experiment strikes me as a pretty sophisticated one for a society that did not have clocks, nor quick means of communication - it was probably a cutting edge experiment, for the technology of the day.)

dougie_monty, can you give any more information on the RC church suppressing knowledge of the earth being round? I was not aware of that - I thought their concern was that the earth was immovable, hence the dispute over the Copernican theory.