Being a Treatise on the Many Configurations of the Earth
What shape is the Earth?
It is round, says the fool. He knows nothing except what he is told. He is blind, living in the ignorance of received wisdom.
It is flat, says the wise man. He knows that science is another tradition, one that encumbers us. He has taken the first step towards creating his own reality.
I don’t know, says the enlightened man. What shape do you want it to be?
It seems a simple enough thing to agree upon. We all live on Planet Earth, and presumably its shape has not changed in the countless eons since it spun itself like candyfloss from the primordial ether. We are smart creatures: we have eyes, and brains, hands for calculation and mouths to communicate our findings. Surely we can reach consensus on a matter as elementary as the shape of our shared home.
The wild proliferation of theories about the Earth’s shape is a sign, not of a lack of evidence, but of a surfeit. Everywhere you look there are subtle clues, but rather than hint at some grand cosmic design, lately they all seem to be at loggerheads. They confuse and contradict. We cannot be sure of anything anymore, not the most basic truths we once took for granted, and so we revisit the oldest mysteries in search of a new answer.
The Round Earth
aka the Globe, the Sphere, the Consensus
Contrary to what you may have thought in school, humans have “known” the Earth was a sphere since antiquity. They even had a pretty good idea of how big it was. Eratosthenes took known information (the distance between two points, the relative position of the sun at the same time in each) and calculated the size of the Earth with astonishing accuracy. Columbus knew the Earth was round (though he didn’t know how big it was). Today you know the Earth is round. Or you think you know. Photos taken from space, the existence of satellites, calculations of spin and gravity and mass… you’ve never been to space. You’ve never seen a satellite in orbit with your own eyes. You accept that the pages and pages of calculations are true, that the scientists know what they’re doing, but your knowledge is all secondhand. Still, it remains the best theory, if only by default.
The Flat Earth
aka the Disc, the Table, the Antiquated View.
The Earth is flat. It is a table, and along its surface, we scurry to and fro like ants on the kitchen counter. Encased in a dome or walled off by great towering cliffs of ice, we are ensconced in our little domain. Long a byword for science denial, Flat-Earthism may be on the rise. Certainly in the age of social media it is easier for the acolytes of the Flat Earth to find each other and be emboldened by the camaraderie. Colorado is a hotbed: perhaps due to the topography of the state, it is easy for them to believe that the world is a flat plane extending in every direction. The community is not without its controversies; currently, a dispute on the history of Earth’s forests is threatening to schism the tight-knit group. Whatever you may think of their evidence, though, the Flat-Earthers are not simply denialists. They create an alternative science, a cosmology every bit as complex as the mainstream one, peppered with strange logic and appeals to common sense. We can’t be spinning at more than a thousand miles per hour. It’s not possible. There’s something else going on here.
The Concave Earth
aka the Hollow Earth, the Dyson Sphere
The Earth is round, all right. What other shape could it be? But we don’t live on the outside. No, we inhabit the inner Earth, the hollow Earth, the land of Jules Verne. The proponents of this theory base in on a scattering of data points: old maps, anecdotes from balloonists during the early Age of Flight, and measurements taken with a bizarre device called the Rectilineator. We live in a convex Earth, a bubble in space. The theory branches into bizarre directions: a massive pane of glass in the sky to absorb the Sun’s rays. The Sun itself is a light bulb. Taken together, these theories imply an artificial origin to our home. Was the Earth created? By whom, and at what point? A religious tinge colors many of the alternative-Earth hypotheses, but this one seems to point towards a more mundane origin: aliens, maybe, or a prehistoric race of Man. Fitting, since the Hollow Earth is the realm of pulp fiction. Nazis, dinosaurs, Sleestaks, the Hollow Earth is larger than life, a world in a shoebox with a desk lamp for a sun and a plexiglass sky.
The Square Earth
aka Ferguson’s Earth
In 1893, a man named Orlando Ferguson put forward his own theory: our Earth was “square and stationary,” bounded at its corners by angels who held back the four winds. I consider this to be distinct from Flat Earth because, well, look at it. That’s not flat. The Earth is a gentle bowl, undulating back and forth; surely it curves, but not into a full sphere. I admire this masterful attempt to reconcile the flat and spherical Earths, though it seems Ferguson was ineffective at spreading his gospel. His evidence lacks the scientific veneer of the other pseudo-Earths, instead relying on Scripture, and thus lacks mass appeal.
aka Terrestrial Miscellany
Gene Ray proposed “nature’s simultaneous 4 day rotation in 1 Earth rotation.” It is unclear whether his cubical dogma extended to the shape of the Earth as well, but I can’t see why it wouldn’t. There are other Earths out there: two-dimensional Earths, holographic Earths, Earths that crackle with secret power and hum in subterranean frequencies. Occulted Earths that spin in silence. An infinity of Earths, each awaiting its master. Without us, the Earth is just a rock in space; we tell the Earth what it is.
We teem in our multitudes across the face of the planet. The seas are boiling, the skies are clouding with carbon, the temperatures rise as the ice caps shrink. Is it any wonder that we would try to imagine ourselves a new home? The only perfect world is an empty world, a stone moving in a curve towards final universal closure. Until that day comes we will continue to invent, and the Earth spins on.