Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Flat Earthers

The term "flat-earther" is figuratively used to refer to people who cling to out-dated belief systems and by doing so, reject commonly held ideas, principals, observations, logic, and facts. Who woulda thunk that approaching the third decade of the third millennium of the Common Era, that term would also be used to literally describe an ever growing number of people?

Yes Virginia, there are still people in 2019 who believe the earth is flat.

Well it seems they do anyway, it all could be an elaborate joke, a hoax if you will, but most people who study the Flat Earth movement think its adherents are serious.

But what about this photograph?

Photograph of Earth (allegedly) made by the crew of Apollo 17 on December 7, 1972, during their (alleged) trip to the Moon. This remains one of the most reproduced photographs in history.

"Fake News!" say the flat-earthers. According to them, the space programs of the USA and the USSR in the fifties, sixties and seventies, and later other countries and private entities, are all elaborate hoaxes, part of an enormous conspiracy designed to keep the truth of the actual flatness of the earth away from the minds of the unsuspecting public. The photos allegedly made from space they say, are all fake, "Photo-shopped" (using contemporary terminology), to string along the gullible. No, we never went into space say the Flat-earthers because there is no such thing as outer space.

"Globalist" is the flat-earther term for those of us who buy into the conspiracy of scientists, governments, NASA, the airlines, and scores of other agencies and businesses to make us believe that the earth is round.  What we globalists call the cosmos,  the sun, the moon the stars and the galaxies beyond them, are all part of a self-contained enclosure, (my word not theirs), with the flat earth at the bottom, kind of like the gravel liner to a bird cage.

Their concept of the earth looks like this:

This is an illustration of the conception of the flat earth as published on the web site of the Flat Earth Society. As you can see, it is a disc centered upon the north pole with the longitudinal lines projecting outward from the pole. In this conception, Antarctica which is at the perimeter of the disc encircles the entire planet and as the theory goes, its 150 wall of ice encircling the earth is what contains the planet's oceans. It should be pointed out that this is merely one of several concepts of the flat earth. Some of them have the earth expanding outward infinitely. 

Giving them the benefit of the doubt, for argument's sake let's just say they're right about the conspiracy and we can't use the photographs as evidence. Without the photographs, might they have a valid argument that the earth is indeed flat?

Well let's just say they have a lot of splainin' to do.

The idea that the earth is a sphere is ancient, perhaps going back three millennia or more. It is assumed that the great mathematician Pythagoras around 500 BC, understood the spherical nature of the planet, but he was very unlikely the first. Two hundred years later, the head of the library in Alexandria,  a mathematician (among many other things) by the name of Eratosthenes, performed a simple observation to prove Pythagoras correct. Eratosthenes had been told that in Syrene, a city south of Alexandria, at precisely noon on June 21, the summer solstice, the day of the year when the sun reaches its highest point in the sky in the Northern Hemisphere, the sun was directly overhead, and therefore cast no shadow. As this was something unheard of in Alexandria, after confirming the validity of the observation, on a subsequent cloudless summer solstice at precisely noon in Alexandria. Eratosthenes measured the angle of the shadow of the sun's light cast by a stick and found it to be seven degrees. There could be only two plausible explanations for this discrepancy. Either the two observers were not parallel to each other, which would indicate they were standing upon different portions of a curved surface, OR the observers were standing on the flat surface of the earth, parallel to each other. If the latter had been the case, the sun would have to be ridiculously close enough to the surface of the earth to create this discrepancy.

Not surprisingly, the flat-earthers who themselves are not ignorant of math, have calculated that the sun is only about four hundred miles from the surface of the flat earth, a little more than the distance between Chicago and Cleveland! By comparison, modern globalist measurements put the distance between the earth and the sun at about 93 million miles, a heck of a lot of trips to Cleveland and back.

Well that second idea probably didn't occur to Eratosthenes because by his time the Greeks had already figured correctly that the sun was much farther away than Cleveland, (even from Alexandria!). By assuming the earth is round and that the sun is significantly far enough away, taking the seven degree angle difference between the two measurements, and the distance between where the measurements were taken, by using simple geometry, Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the earth. His results although not perfect, came within ten percent of present day measurements made with satellites, not bad for a stick, a protractor and some logic. Some centuries later, Arab and Indian astronomer/mathematicians independently performed similar measurements to much greater accuracy.

Flat-earthers argue that empirical observations are tantamount to our understanding of the universe, rather than relying upon logical constructs and theories made up by others. In other words, if the earth looks flat, it must be flat. But you needn't rely on easily repeatable experiments made in locations hundreds of miles apart to directly experience the curvature of the earth. For example, Chicago is located on the southwest shore of a large, but not enormous body of water, Lake Michigan. If you  stand on the edge of the lake just east of Chicago's Loop and look toward the southeast, on a clear day you can see the bend of the shoreline at the foot of the lake, and follow it until it disappears below the horizon. Beyond that, if the conditions are right, you can see the plumes of smoke from the steel mills of Gary, Indiana, but you can't see the mills themselves as they are below the horizon. If we look due east into the lake, we only see the horizon, not the shore of the other side of the lake some sixty miles away. Obviously if we got in a boat and sailed east, the Michigan shoreline would gradually appear  bit by bit on the horizon, Another example are the water intake cribs built about 2.5 miles out into the lake. From the shore, the cribs appear to be sitting directly upon the horizon. But from the vantage point of one of the tall buildings along the lake, say the John Hancock Building, one can see the lake extending miles beyond the cribs. Higher still from an aircraft, you can make out the entire outline of the southern shore of the lake.

Empirical observations such as these have been made for millennia, the ancient mariners whose lives depended upon an understanding of such things, quickly understood that the shore quickly disappearing below the horizon as they set out to sea did not mean that they were about to fall off the edge of the earth.

Another controversial opinion of the Flat-Earthers is that the earth is fixed in space and the celestial bodies we see in the sky move around above us.

One thing the ancients knew intimately were the stars. If there is a constant in life on this planet, it is the stars and their relationship to one other. Their random arrangement in our sky inspired humans to group them together into what they called constellations. The ancients derived meaning from the "pictures" drawn by these groupings. Many cultures used the outlines of the constellations to illustrate their own mythical creation stories, The ancient astronomers of Greece and Rome handed down to us their constellations which still have great meaning to people who follow the pseudo-science of astrology. But the constellations also continue to used be used by astronomers who use them as a road map to the sky.

Despite the fact that the stars are all moving at tremendous speeds, an ancient astronomer could be transported to today and would barely see any change in the constellations from his own day.  But there are objects in the sky that do not remain fixed in position as compared to the stars. The Greeks called them wanderers, or planets, and there were seven of them, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus, Mercury, the Sun and the Moon. From our point of view on Earth, these objects' positions change in relation to the stars but at much different rates. The range of the movement of the "planets" is restricted to the region of the sky that is roughly above the earth's equator. (This fact would become important in describing the true nature of our solar system). The twelve constellations that correspond to this region of the sky are known by astrologers as the signs of the zodiac. The brightest of these "planets" is the Sun, our own star. Over the course of one year, from our point of view on Earth, the sun "travels" trough each of the constellations of the zodiac. Obviously when the sun is "up" we can't see the stars nor the constellation the sun is in front of, but astronomers knew the sky so well that by inference they knew exactly where the sun is in the sky. The astrological "sign" of a particular time of the year corresponds to the constellation the sun is in front of during that time. For example at this writing. (I happen to know this because my birthday is this week), the sun is in front of the constellation Sagittarius*, therefore I am said to have been born under the sign of, well you get the idea.

The second brightest object in our sky, the Moon, moves through the zodiac at a much quicker rate than the sun, making a complete cycle through the constellations in roughly 28 days. The Greeks correctly surmised that just as nearby objects appear to be moving faster than far away objects when we look out the side of a moving vehicle, (the phenomenon known as parallax) the relatively fast motion of the moon compared to the sun means that the moon is closer to the earth than the sun. Due to pure happenstance, from our perspective the sun and the moon appear to be roughly the same size.  This combined with the fact that the sun is farther away from the earth, led the Greeks to correctly surmise that  the sun is much larger than the moon, 

The parallax rule applies to the other five planets as well, the relatively nearby ones, Venus and Mars move through the zodiac relatively fast while the more distant ones, Jupiter and Saturn take their sweet time. Finally Mercury which is always seen within close proximity to the sun (because of its position as the closest planet to our star), moves through the zodiac at the same rate as the sun. Not surprisingly, the Greeks were also able to figure the relative distances to the planets as well.

The Greeks were able to figure this all out using logic, they had no proof of course. There were even Greeks who came up with the crazy-radical idea for the time, that it was the Sun and not the Earth that was the center of the known Universe.  Aristarchus, a contemporary of Eratosthenes is credited as the first Greek to postulate the idea of a helio-centric universe, he also proposed that the Universe extended far beyond the solar system and that the stars were actually very distant versions of our own sun. From a globalist perspective, he was right. But the idea of helio-centricism had been kicking around for centuries before that. The earliest citation I could find goes back to the 9th Centruy BCE. Yajnavalkya, an Indian philosopher of the Vedic tradition wrote:
The sun strings these worlds – the earth, the planets, the atmosphere – to himself on a thread.
However no less a figure than Aristotle flat out rejected the theory of a heliocentric universe on the basis that it lacked the empirical observational data to back it up.

Aristotle's notion of a spherical earth at the center of the universe with all the celestial bodies revolving about it, would hold court for nearly twenty centuries after his death.

The controversial topic of helio-centricism was revisited by the Polish astronomer Nicholas Copernicus in the first half of the 16th Century. It felt logical to many that the Earth really was terra-firma, a perfectly static (albeit globular) body in the midst of a universe that happily revolved around it. But there was a problem, the motion of the planets through the sky. The sun and the moon maintained a consistent forward motion through the constellations of the zodiac. But it was the motion of the other planets that was peculiar. Most of the time they too would move in the same direction through the sky as the sun and moon but at times their motion would slow down and reverse direction or retrograde. It was as if they had a will of their own. That idea was perfectly adequate for people who assigned metaphysical powers to the celestial bodies. But to the Renaissance mind of Copernicus, who many credit as being the father of modern scientific inquiry, that answer was not adequate, there had to be a rational explanation for the erratic motion of the planets.

That explanation was simple, the Sun was the center of the system of the planets. Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn all revolved around it, not around the Earth. Only the Moon revolved around the Earth while the two of them, essentially a double planet, also revolved around the Sun. It all made perfect sense, the Earth rotating on its axis roughly every 24 hours, half that time facing the sun the other half not, accounted for the cycles of day and night. The moon revolving about the earth roughly every 28 days accounted for its movement through the sky in that same period of time. The phases of the moon, new, first quarter, full, third quarter and everything in between could be explained by the daily change in the relation of the moon, to the earth and the sun. The apparent yearly motion of the sun through the sky could now be explained by the earth's revolution about the sun every year. The seasons are perfectly explained by the tilt of the Earth's axis with with respect to the plane of its orbit. And most significantly, the erratic motions of the planets as viewed from Earth can be easily explained by concentric orbits of each planet, including the earth. No they weren't going backwards and forwards, it was just our point of view depending upon the planets' relative position in their orbits that made them appear to move that way. This picture illustrates the occasional "retrograde" motion of Mars as seen from the viewpoint of Earth:

A diagram of the relative orbits of Earth (the blue dot) and Mars (the red one). To understand this better, it would be helpful to extend the bottom line at position "a" several inches to the right with a point on the end for a reference, representing a distant star. In position a, from the viewpoint of the earth, Mars would line up with that star. In the next two positions, b and c, Mars appears from Earth to be advancing to the left of the reference star. As Earth's orbit catches up with Mars at d, then overtakes it in position e, Mars appears to be heading backwards, right to left, back toward the reference star. Then as the Earth begins its more acute orbit in positions f and g, Mars now appears to be heading back in the direction of left to right.

Copernicus' solution, by way of Yajnavalkya and Aristarchus was elegant, simple and rational, who could possibly object?

Yeah right.

Copernicus understood the danger of making his theory public, so much so that he waited until he was at the end of his life in 1543 to publish his work on the subject, On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, so as not to be charged with heresy by the Church.

More than a half century after the death of Copernicus, Galileo Galilei with the help of the new-fangled invention the telescope, whose design he improved upon significantly, discovered never before realized attributes about some of the inhabitants of the sky. As anyone with a new telescope or a pair of binoculars knows, after one gets tired of (or busted for) spying on the neighbors, one of the most interesting things to look at is the Moon. And you guessed it, in 1609, Galileo was the first person to have observed the craters of the moon. He next turned his telescope on the more distant planets and the following year he discovered four of the moons of Jupiter. He also discovered the rings around Saturn, spots on the sun, and that the Milky Way is made up of individual stars, (not gas as was previously assumed). Perhaps the most significant thing he discovered, at least in terms of describing the true nature of the solar system, were the phases of Venus which cannot be detected without a telescope. The fact that we never see the entire disc of the planet, (except during a total solar eclipse), proves that the planet revolves around the sun and not the earth.

Galileo was a fervent and vocal advocate of the Copernican model of the solar system which was still widely debunked by both the Church and fellow scientists alike. To the Church, the idea not only conflicted with Scripture, but also lessened the significance of what it considered God's greatest creation, humankind, and its home. Scientists were also skeptical because if the earth revolved about the sun, then the visible angle of the stars (the ones that are visible year-round) would change every six months due to the change in position of the earth. As they could not measure any difference, contemporary astronomers such as the estimable Tycho Brahe, rejected the theory. What Tycho did not take into account was that the stars were much too far away for any such measurement to be made with the instruments of the time. It wouldn't be until the 19th Century before reliable measurements could be made six months apart that would confirm once and for all the earth's revolution about the sun.

But in Galileo's time, insisting that the sun and not the earth was the center of action was still grounds for heresy and in 1633, Galileo was charged, forced to renounce his findings, and ended up spending the remaining nine years of his life under house arrest.

Meanwhile, Galileo's contemporary, Johannes Kepler, also an advocate of heliocentricity, was hard at work in Prague, using his mentor Tycho Brahe's fastidious observations of astronomical events, to accurately calculate the orbits of the planets about the sun. (Tycho's own model of the universe was a combination of heliocentric and geocentric theories). These remarkably precise observations led to one of Kepler's greatest (he had many) contributions to science, his three laws of planetary motion. In case you're interested here they are:
1. The orbit of every planet is an ellipse with the Sun at a focus.
2. A line joining a planet and the Sun sweeps out equal areas during equal intervals of time.
3. The square of the orbital period of a planet is directly proportional to the cube of the semi-major axis of its orbit.
It was Isaac Newton (bet you knew I'd eventually get to him!) who used Kepler's Laws of Planetary Motion to help define his general laws of motion and the role of the unifying force of Nature that governs the laws of physics from the proverbial apple falling from a tree to the orbits of planets. He called that force, drum roll please, gravity. Newton's discoveries would be checkmate, a slum dunk, game, set and match for helio-centrism. Any argument that Newton's work was merely theoretical was put to rest in 1758 when British astronomer Edmund Halley used Kepler and Newton's formulas to successfully predict the return of the comet that would eventually bear his name. Neither Halley nor Newton would be around for that auspicious event, but it would cement their reputations for eternity. Newton's three laws of motion (you can look them up) would form the backbone of Physics for more than two centuries and they continue to be applied in the design of everything from pendulum ball toys to the launching of satellites. And they define in no uncertain terms how and why the earth and the planets revolve around the sun, and why the earth, the planets and the sun are all globes.

Naturally, to the Flat-Earthers, Issac Newton and his forebears were all hacks.

Typical Flat-Earthers, at least judging from their web site, are not stupid. They are well versed in science and everything mentioned above, they just choose not to accept it. And yes, they have counter arguments to many of the theories regarding the cosmos. Those they cannot argue, they choose to ignore.

The (flat) world view of the Flat-Earthers might be considered an example of motivated reasoning, that is, developing one's opinions based upon pre-conceived notions,  emotions or ideology rather than upon discernible facts, especially those that happen to be inconvenient. Motivated reasoning is the engine that drives all the conspiracy theories of the world, and the "Round Earth Conspiracy" has to be one of the most expansive and outrageous of conspiracy theories. I'm not entirely sure why anyone would be honestly motivated or passionate about the earth being flat. It could stem from a deeply religious conviction that mankind and the earth must be at the center of the universe. It is true that scientific discovery in the past three thousand odd years has continuously painted a picture of the universe growing bigger and bigger, while the earth keeps growing smaller and more insignificant.

Or it could possibly be simple contrarianism that drives them.

Whatever the reason, a lot of thought and work has gone into the herculean task of trying to convince folks that the world is flat. To that end the Flat-Earthers have found a formidable if unwilling ally to their cause, Albert Einstein.

Newtonian physics for all its brilliance in accurately predicting the mechanics of the universe has one serious flaw. It describes gravity as the unifying force that drives the motion of objects big and small, (albeit not too big nor too small), but it doesn't attempt to explain what gravity is, other than a mysterious force that attracts one object to another. Einstein who was a great admirer of Newton found a paradox in his predecessor's logic. It had to do with the speed of light which had been determined by the physicist James Maxwell to be absolute. Einstein added to this that the speed of light was absolute irrespective of the motion of the source that produced the light. This contradicted Newton's laws of motion. From this realization, he concluded that time was the missing ingredient and that time itself could expand and contract in relation to the relative velocity of an object. Einstein created an entirely new model of the universe including time as an integral dimension.

This four dimensional "space-time" model described in Einstein's theory of General Relativity described the effect of massive objects, such as planets and stars, warping space to such an extent that objects approaching the massive object entering the curved space fall toward the object. Consequently General Relativity negates Newton's assumption that gravity is a force (like a magnet) that acts upon falling objects, but rather that the "falling" object is simply following a path laid out by the curved space surrounding a more massive object.

"Voila!!!" I can hear the Flat-Earthers cry,"...we knew all along that gravity was a myth!" Thus did they latch onto General Relativity's theme that gravity is a non-existent force, (without accepting all that other complicated stuff). Their current concept of the earth-as-birdcage-liner model is that the entire bird cage-cosmos, flat earth, sun, moon, planets and everything else except the bird, is in a constant state of upward acceleration at a continuous rate of 9.8 meters per second squared (the rate of acceleration caused by gravity on Earth). This is what makes objects appear to be falling to the surface of the Earth when actually it is the other way around, the surface of the earth is rising to meet the object.

Minus the several steps of faulty logic it took them to get to this point, the scenario is somewhat plausible, (well at least the fake gravity part), even from the perspective of Newtonian physics.

On the Flat Earth Society web site, there is a link to this PBS video (complete with Flat-Earth commentary) which attempts to explain the "illusion" of gravity:

Relativity as its name implies, states that all motion is relative to the observer. In other words it is equally valid to say either that an apple is falling to the ground, or that the earth is (hard as that may be to imagine), rising up to meet the apple. This is the inspiration for the model of the flat earth accelerating "bird cage" model. At one point in the video, the narrator mentions that very scenario. And the Flat-earth commentator uses this to point how General Relativity supports the flat earth model.

But of course it does not. What the Flat-Earth commentator misses is the narrator stating in his very next breath: "but of course the earth is round."

Apparently the Flat-Earthers also missed the subsequent series of videos that go into more specific details of Einstein's concept of space-time, none of them compatible with any model of a flat earth, geo-centric universe.

Yet another example of inconvenient facts being ignored.

There is no room in any serious inquiry be it science, history, politics, philosophy, law, or any other field of endeavor, for motivated reasoning. Inquiry must always begin with a question. True that question usually is followed with a presumption, theory or hypothesis that can either be proven or disproven. It is the disproven part that is the most important, as any reasonable search for understanding must be accompanied by the acceptance that we might be wrong.

In a way, the Flat Earth Movement is a good thing because it encourages us to challenge even our most fundamental ideas and beliefs. It was after all. once taken for granted that gravity was a real force until Einstein showed that was not necessarily true. It was once taken for granted  that the orbits of the planets were circular with the sun at the center, even by Kepler who was very much driven by spirituality, until he challenged his deeply held beliefs when his careful observations proved otherwise. And of course it was once taken for granted that our terra firma, Earth, at the center of the universe, "stands firm, never to be moved" (Chron 16:30).

Scientific inquiry above all else is not sacred and should always be held subject to scrutiny, no matter how established it may be. So should the rebuttals. It's not good enough for example to state for example that "Evolution is merely a theory." It is not. There are well established empirical facts that clearly back up the evolution of the species. If one day we find new verifiable ideas or facts that contradict what we think we already know, then we can make reasonable decisions for or against, but not before. The same goes for climate change which is an established, verifiable fact. The extent of human contribution to climate change may be debated, yet there is a very strong likelihood agreed upon by the vast majority of the scientific community that what we do, does in fact affect the environment, again based upon verifiable observations and facts, not simply opinions. We are foolish to assume otherwise.

The problem arises when our inquiries begin not with questions, but with answers, followed by a relentless effort to find arguments to validate those answers at the expense of valid arguments that support conflicting answers.

The bottom line is this: question everything, and be open to everything. It's far better to evaluate what we don't know rather than to over-estimate what we do know, and especially, what we think we know.

* This statement actually needs to be amended. In the past two millennia, the tilt of the Earth's axis has shifted meaning that from this planet, the sun no longer is in front of Sagittarius on my birthday. I can't remember in which direction the shift has taken place but today the sun would either be in front of Scorpio or Capricorn. From some reason, modern day astrologers have failed to take this into account.

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