Flat Earth Week, Day 6: A Fort of Ignorance


Oh Lord.

I would say that this meme was created to troll the Flat Earth Society rather than support it, except that this meme comes directly from the Flat Earth Society’s online forum, where it was posted by John Davis, one of the site’s administrators.  If John Davis is a troll, he’s undercover, and he’s in deep.

Charles Hoy Fort is the author of The Book of the Damned, a dense tome that is right up Flat Earthers’ alley.  The first three sentences of Fort’s non-fiction work are:

A PROCESSION of the damned.

By the damned, I mean the excluded.

We shall have a procession of data that Science has excluded.

Fort’s book is all about the stuff that science supposedly ignores because it doesn’t fit into the mainstream.  Damned delves deep into the paranormal and pseudoscience, tackling such varied topics as UFOs, strangely glowing skies and the weird things that fall from them, mysterious locations, fairies, poltergeists, and vanishings.

The quote in question comes from Chapter 3 of Damned.  Although Fort’s writing style is quite difficult to decrypt, his major thrust in this chapter seems to be documenting numerous cases of strangely-colored detritus falling from the sky.  He also laments the fact that science refuses to recognize the extraterrestrial origins of this peculiar precipitation (or even that it exists).

Early in the chapter, and seemingly apropos of nothing, Fort makes two confusing detours, first into Darwinism, then into the shape of Earth.  I’ll not spend much time discussing Fort’s position vis-à-vis Darwinism, except to say that he mischaracterizes it as a tautology in danger of being abandoned by the scientists that once supported it.  (In reality, Darwinism was being strengthened in 1919, when Damned was published, by the developing field of genetics.)

In his second digression, Fort says:

Or that Columbus never proved that the earth is round.

Shadow of the earth on the moon?

No one has ever seen it in its entirety. The earth’s shadow is much larger than the moon. If the periphery of the shadow is curved — but the convex moon — a straight-edged object will cast a curved shadow upon a surface that is convex.

All the other so-called proofs may be taken up in the same way. It was impossible for Columbus to prove that the earth is round. It was not required: only that with a higher seeming of positiveness than that of his opponents, he should attempt. The thing to do, in 1492, was nevertheless to accept that beyond Europe, to the west, were other lands.

I offer for acceptance, as something concordant with the spirit of this first quarter of the 20th century, the expression that beyond this earth are — other lands — from which come things as, from America, float things to Europe.

It was not required for Columbus to prove that Earth is round because everybody in 1492 already knew that Earth is round.  Remember, Erastosthenes not only knew about the shape of Earth, but made a somewhat accurate measurement of its circumference seventeen centuries prior to Columbus’s voyage.  The story that Columbus alone believed in Earth’s rotundity was invented from whole cloth by Washington Irving for his 1828 book A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus.  Irving was a writer of fiction who highly romanticized (and in many cases fabricated) the story of Columbus’s life in order to instill his American audience with nationalist pride.  Unfortunately, Irving’s myth-making talents worked too well: Many people swallowed the Irving story hook, line, and sinker, without a hint of skepticism.

Is Fort parroting the Irving-inspired Columbus myth?  To be honest, it’s hard to tell.  Reading Fort’s prose is similar to learning calculus from somebody with a severe concussion.  For that matter, I’m not even sure what Fort thinks about the shape of Earth.  He does offer a half-hearted explanation for the seemingly curved shadow of Earth as an optical illusion caused by the concave surface of the Moon, but maybe Fort is just playing devil’s advocate.  It’s possible that Fort does not really believe Earth is flat, but enjoys pointing out how it could be flat, if you really wanted to prove that.

For what it’s worth, though, the Moon is not concave.  If you need convincing, simply ask any of the surviving Apollo astronauts that landed on its surface and orbited around it.  Of course, if you don’t believe Earth is round, you’re not likely to accept the word of Apollo astronauts.  Is there a way to prove the Moon’s convexity for yourself?

Yes, but it’s difficult.  You need a camera and a lot of patience.  The trick involves taking photographs of the Moon over the course of a month, during which you’ll witness the phenomenon called lunar libration.

See, the Moon’s orbit around Earth is not perfectly circular; it is slightly eccentric.  In other words, as the Moon orbits around Earth, it gets closer to and then further away from our planet.  According to Kepler’s laws of orbital motion (which you probably also dismiss as false if you’re a Flat Earther), an object in an elliptical orbit moves faster when it is closer to its primary, and slower when it is further away.  So as the Moon moves around Earth over the course of a month, it speeds up and slows down.

The Moon is tidally locked with Earth, which means it rotates once on its axis in the same amount of time that it orbits around Earth.  A consequence of tidal locking is that the Moon always keeps the same hemisphere facing Earth.  Well…nearly the same hemisphere.  As the Moon speeds up in its orbit, it moves a little bit faster than its rotation can keep up, and when it does, we see just a little extra sliver of the Moon’s trailing hemisphere.  When the Moon slows down, we see a little extra sliver of its leading hemisphere.  Due to libration, we can actually see about 59 percent of the Moon’s surface over the course of a month, rather than the 50 percent you would expect if libration did not occur.

You can also witness a small amount of libration over the course of a day.  As Earth rotates you beneath the Moon, you see the Moon from slightly different perspectives.  Compare a highly-detailed picture of the Moon taken shortly after moonrise with a picture taken just before moonset, and you might be able to spot the tiny difference.

Even if the Moon were concave, we would be able to distinguish the difference between a round shadow and a curved shadow.  There are many, many concave surfaces on Earth, and artists have spent generations studying the subtle interplay of light and shadow upon various geometries.  If the Moon were concave, we’d have known long ago.  If Earth were flat, we’d have figured it out by now.  Neither premise is true.

One thought on “Flat Earth Week, Day 6: A Fort of Ignorance

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