Originally created 12/06/98

Earth's shape still debatable, group says

Astronaut Neil Armstrong thrilled the world on July 20, 1969, when he set foot on the dusty surface of the moon for the first time and proclaimed, "one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."

Not only was the historic lunar landing an inspiring technological achievement, it also laid aside a number of age-old myths about the shape and size of the Earth and its place in the solar system.

Since ancient times, many people had believed that the Earth was flat, not round, as Christopher Columbus and other 15th-century explorers would later prove. Even though the Greeks had assumed the world was spherical, many scholars continued to hold the notion that it was flat and that the North Pole lay in the center of the pancake-shaped plane. Another common assumption was that the Earth was stationary in space and that the sun and stars revolved around it.

Medieval thinkers pointed to the Bible to prove their theories about a flat Earth. How could the Holy Book speak of the "four corners" of the Earth if the Earth were a sphere without corners?

Belief in a flat, stationary Earth did not die out, even after Ferdinand Magellen circumnavigated the globe in 1519. Even today, while satellites hurdle around the planet and men walk in space, there are people and organizations that insist that the Earth is actually flat. One such organization is the International Flat Earth Research Society, founded in 1800 in Great Britain and the United States. According to its current American president, Charles Johnson, Neil Armstrong never actually walked on the moon. "It's all one big lie," Mr. Johnson said. "It's nothing more than a piece of clever stage-managed science-fiction trickery."

Even Armstrong's famous words -- "one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind" -- was a phrase that could have come only from the pen of a scriptwriter, according to Mr. Johnson and fellow Flat Earthers.

What about the pictures reputedly taken in space showing the Earth to be a rotating sphere? "They are just too ludicrous for words," said Mr. Johnson, who argues that the sun circles the Earth instead of the Earth revolving around the sun -- a notion that most people take for granted.

The society, whose membership is currently estimated to be about 2,000, dismisses much of accepted modern thinking about the shape of the Earth as sheer nonsense and is convinced that the entire human race is being subjected to the greatest hoax in history.

From its headquarters in Lancaster, Calif., the society wages a war of words through newsletters and pamphlets against the evils of science.

In the 1940s, another group of Flat Earthers led by Wilbur Glenn Voliva of Zion, Ill., proclaimed that the Earth is shaped like a pancake, with the North Pole at the center and the South Pole distributed around the circumference. Ships are kept from falling off the edge by a wall of ice, Mr. Voliva explained.

Mr. Voliva, a fundamentalist preacher, scorned "so-called fundamentalists who strain out the gnat of evolution and swallow the camel of modern astronomy." He also believed that the stars were small, flat bodies and not very far away. The moon, he said, was lighted from within, and as for the sun, "the idea of a sun millions of miles in diameter and 91 million miles away is silly."

Like other Flat Earthers, Mr. Voliva believed the sun is only 32 miles across and not more than 3,000 miles from Earth.

"God made the sun to light the Earth and therefore must have placed it close to the task it was designed to do," Mr. Voliva reasoned. "What would you think of a man who built a house in Zion and put the lamp to light it in Kenosha, Wisconsin?"

A small, comfortable universe, familiarity, and what passed for common sense were the hallmarks of the Flat Earth appeal.

Another Flat Earth fanatic was John Hampden, an English engineer who offered 5,000 pounds to anyone who could prove the world was round. When Alfred Russell Wallace, the noted British natural scientist took up the challenge, Mr. Hampden refused to give in, saying that Mr. Wallace had faked documentary evidence.

Randall Floyd is a syndicated writer and author living in Augusta.


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