Who really thought that the Earth was flat? Although Aristotle’s physics fail to make mention of what gravity exactly is or why it functions in the way it does his belief is that the Earth is the center of the universe, because that is the most natural of places for it, and that all earthly material comes towards this center from all sides necessarily implies that the earth would form in to a three dimensional rotund shape, though not necessarily a sphere (Magruder Page 7). If the Earth is flat is taken quite literally, then there can be no up and down, or no left to right. We must all exist in a plane; we are all elements of two dimensions, with no depth. Is only the underside of the Earth flat? If so, then why? Why do these unearthly objects fall from the stars? Do they not reach the other side? And, also, can we dig through the Earth to the other side? If up and down are absolute then could we eventually dig a well into the abyss or would there be turtles all the way down?
If the Earth were flat than Glasgow would be lit up at the same time as Tokyo. How could the Norse explain the difference between the length of their day and that of the Romans? Surely the Roman soldiers noticed a slight difference in the work day from their Latin homes to that of the English Isles. The great travelers of the first millennium noticed that their travels from the western world to the east took many more weeks than the return trip home. Oresme presented the story of the three priests: one leaving east, another west, and the third staying home. When they all met back up again they all calculated different amount of days from their departure to Easter Day. This would not at all be possible if the earth were flat (Magruder Page 17). Oresme clearly pictured the earth as spherical; how else would two priests leaving in opposite directions be able to meet back up once again, in the same place.
Eudoxus of Cnidus as far back as the fifth century B.C.E. calculated the celestial bodies as being spherical (Crowe 21-22). It is hard to imagine that the beauty of the sphere could be applied to the otherworldly objects and not itself be applied to that of our own planet. The flat earth did not persist into the middle ages; Dante’s fictional travels through the center of the earth took him down one side and up the other inherently requiring the earth be of a spherical shape (Magruder Page 13). Open ocean travel was taking place for centuries even before the beginning of the Middle Ages. Crows’ nests and Semaphore-esc towers did not magically begin to surface in the Renaissance. These heights were realized as necessary to overcome the curve of the horizon well before the Enlightenment and the creation of the Scientific Method. (Magruder Page 5). If the surface of the Earth were not curved lighthouses would not need to scale to the ceiling to warn incoming boaters of rocky shore ahead. Smoke signals would not be necessary for communication over vast, mountain less planes when a mirror or well lit fire could suffice.
Gamow falls into the epitome of historical inaccuracies when he assumes the majority consensus is correct. That being, until recent times, the people of Earth believed the world to be flat, or rectangular, in shape. He appears to have no knowledge of his own field’s original great contributors: Aristotle, Ptolemy, etc. Galileo and Copernicus were not the first by a long shot. Gamow has done a great disservice to himself and his constituents by not following the so-oft touted Scientific Method. His beliefs are flawed and so being his sources must be called into question.
Crowe, Michael J. Theories of the World: From Antiquity to the Copernican Revolution (Toronto: General Publishing Company, 2001).
Magruder, Kerry. “Shape of the Earth.” 09 Aug. 2005. 20 Aug. 2008 <http://hsci.cas.ou.edu/exhibits/exhibit.php?exbid=45&exbpg=1>.
This article originally written August 25th, 2008 for OU HSCI 3013 - History of Science to Newton.