Friday, April 30, 2010

Over the Edge

"They called me mad, and I called them mad, and damn them, they outvoted me."
~ Nathaniel Lee

In his April 28th blog for the New York Times, the excellent Timothy Egan wrote about "Desert Derangement Syndrome," his take on the state of things in the state of Arizona. At one point he describes members of the "birther" movement as "flat-earthers." When a friend mentioned she wasn't familiar with the term, I began wondering what the Flat Earth Society has been up to; clearly, its once-powerful publicity machine has broken down.

The idea that the earth is flat was widely believed until about the 400 B.C., when Aristotle among others proposed that our planet is actually a globe. The fact that Christopher Columbus and then Magellan failed to fall off the earth's edge removed the remaining doubt for most people.

The discoid earth notion was revived in the 1800s by British Inventor Samuel Rowbotham, whose interpretations of Biblical passages convinced him that, despite all evidence to the contrary, the Earth really is flat after all. He wrote a book about it, Zetetic Astronomy: Earth Not a Globe, and attracted a group of ardent followers who formed the Universal Zetetic Society, precursor to the Flat Earth Society. (Are you getting a headache yet?) The image at right is an artist's interpretation of the Society's belief that the earth is a disk and that Antarctica forms an ice wall around its outer limits.

In 1956 — yes, that recently — Samuel Shenton, whom Wikipedia describes as a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and the Royal Geographic Society, must have left his peers speechless when he took up Rowbotham's cause and formed the modern-day Flat Earth Society.

One might have imagined that space flight, particularly NASA's unforgettable photos of "the big blue marble," would have ended the debate, but this is not the way things work with science deniers. Space flight just gave conspiracy theorists and fellow loonies more fuel. Flat Earth Society members have been among the leading proponents of the notion that the Apollo 13 moon landing in 1969 was staged with the help of Stanley Kubrick.

According to Wikipedia, the Flat Earth Society claimed 60 members as of March 2010. I'm sure there would be more, but likely candidates are no doubt too busy obsessing about President Obama's birth certificate and denying climate change.

Meanwhile in the loony-loving state of Alaska, an alternate Flat Earth Society has sprung up. I like to think a polar bear with a laptop and a sense of humor is behind it. Please take a moment to enjoy its wonderfully absurd mission statement and an interesting page of "evidence."

"There are some people who live in a dream world, and there are some who face reality; and then there are those who turn one into the other."
~ Douglas H. Everett

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