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May 28, 2018 | by  | in Super Science Trends |
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Super Science Trends

So It’s Come To This: A Flat Earth Column
The flat earth “theory” was the subject of one of the earliest scientific wagers, in which a bet is made on the outcome of an experiment. In March of 1870, Oxford dropout and flat Earth creationist John Hampden issued a challenge in the journal Scientific Opinion, stating that he would pay £500 to whoever could prove to him that the world was round. The challenge specifically was to “exhibit, to the satisfaction of any referee, a convex railway, river, canal, or lake”. Basically, demonstrate curvature, you eggheads.

Hampden’s challenge was taken up by one such egghead, the co-discoverer of the theory of evolution and experienced surveyor Alfred Russel Wallace, who thought it would be easy money. They each appointed a referee and agreed to meet at Bedford River, an artificial canal in Cambridgeshire and a suitably “flat” body of water to their liking. The experiment went like so: Wallace set up a telescope on a bridge that was 13 feet (4m) above the waterline of the canal, then placed another marker 13 feet above the waterline on another bridge six miles down. At the midpoint between each bridge, he fixed up a pole with two discs on it, with the top disc set at 13 feet and the bottom disc set four feet lower for reference.

If the Earth was flat, the bridge marker, disc, and telescope should all be perfectly level with one another. When observed through the telescope, the disc was slightly higher than the telescope and the bridge marker. Even accounting for light refraction, this demonstrated clear curvature between all three points, despite the flatness of the water on which they appeared parallel to the naked eye. Both referees agreed that Wallace had won the bet, but Hampden refused to accept the results, saying that they proved nothing, and only held more steadfastly to his beliefs. So much so that he underwent a 15-year long campaign of abuse and libel to slander Wallace, including sending him death threats. It’s about ethics in scientific experimentation, after all.

And this obstinance in the face of evidence continues today, as people from all around (aflat?) the world are reinvigorating this debate. Where the religious, like Hampden, fought against scientists because their research undermined the word of the church, the current generation of flat Earthers base their movement on a broad distrust for institutions. They pride themselves on being independent thinkers, which to them means “believe nothing from actual scientists because they’re all biased” and “do your own research”. Said research has gone to some amusing lengths though. In March of this year, California limousine driver “Mad” Mike Hughes launched himself 1,875 feet in a homemade steam-powered rocket emblazoned with the phrase “Research Flat Earth” to draw attention to the “cause”, with the eventual hope that he’ll get to space to affirm the truth with his own two eyes. This May, a Flat Earth Convention was held in Birmingham, where prominent flat Earth believers offered such hypotheses as Antarctica actually being a 164 ft ice wall that stops the oceans pouring out into space.

I could sit a flat Earther down and tell them about how Eratosthenes of Cyrene determined the Earth was round in the 3rd century BC by measuring the shadows cast by a vertical pole during the summer solstice, but they’d just ask me who’s been filling my pockets. Flat Earth theorists like to see themselves as rebels against scientific authority, when really, they’re a metastasization of putting social capital on critical thinking without the training to use it responsibly or ethically. We’re both interested in truth, but as for our understanding on what truth is, we’re worlds apart.

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