A British man named Samuel Shenton, then in his early twenties, was doing research in the British Library at Bloomsbury when he came upon a book called Zetetic Astronomy: Earth Not a Globe. Published in 1881 by a man named Samuel Rowbotham, the gist of the 430-page book is summed up neatly by its subtitle: The Earth, Rowbotham proposed, is flat.
Prior to the book’s publication, Rowbotham—the type of man to call himself “Parallax,” decide the Earth is flat, and take off on a journey to tell everyone about it—traveled around England in the mid-1800s, sharing his theories with the public. He became more convincing (relatively speaking) as he went; early on, Rowbotham reportedly once ran away from a lecture in Blackburn when he was asked, “Why, if the Earth is flat, do ships’ hulls disappear over the sea horizon before their masts?” But by the time Zetetic Astronomy was published, Rowbotham had gained some level of notoriety as well as a number of devoted followers.
One of them, Lady Elizabeth Blount, founded the Universal Zetetic Society after Rowbotham’s death in 1884. Blount’s group had a religious bent, believing that the Bible told of the Earth’s planarity; the argument that it was round was a scientific diversion meant to debunk religion. The group circulated a few regularly printed journals and magazines for several years, but membership largely died out by the early 20th century.
Believers in the Earth’s flatness are nothing if not resilient, though. When Shenton found Zetetic Astronomy, he drew from it ideas that would inform his contemporary version of a theory debunked, as far as very nearly everyone else was concerned, by the early Middle Ages. He founded the Flat Earth Society, the modern movement, in 1956. Shenton only enjoyed about a year of plausible deniability before the Sputnik satellite was launched, but he was undaunted. He denied the mission, stating that the Earth, a flat disk embedded in a planar universe, could not be “orbited.” Shenton died arguing his cause, and the organization’s subsequent president, Charles K. Johnson, did the same. He died in 2001, leaving the Flat Earth Society (then up to about 3,500 members worldwide) to die out with him.
It was gone just three years.
ACCORDING TO THE FLAT Earth model of the universe, the sun and the moon are the same size: 32 miles across. (For reference: 32 miles is the length of Manhattan’s coastline. The size of the sun is commonly understood to be closer to 865,000 miles across, and the moon, 2,000.) The Earth does not orbit around them, as it does not orbit; instead, the sun and moon move in rotating spheres some 2,500 miles above us.
The Flat Earth also finds the North Pole at the center, and, at the outer limits, Antarctica. What we think of (“think of”) as the southernmost continent, they believe to be an ice wall wrapped around the Earth’s perimeter like a frame. Flat Earth believers contend that this ice wall (they vary on the height; the average seems to be something like 150 feet tall) “keeps the water in.” As in, keeps our ocean water from pouring off the edges of our flat planet.
There is some division among Flat Earth believers as to what lies beyond the ice wall. Some believe the Earth to be an infinite plane, and within this tenet lies a subdivision further—either it has edges that cannot be reached, or it doesn’t have them at all. But more popular is the belief that our planet is finite, and crossing over Antarctica’s limits would mean leaving it entirely. In other words, you can fall off, into the adjacent outer space. Like on the Rainbow Road course in Mario Kart.
The Flat Earth community is not without its log of so-called scientific experiments, but they’re not worth getting into. They mostly have to do with testing water levels. There’s not a lot of evidence to go on, and Flat Earth believers can keep going because they do not care. They’re confirmation bias given human form. Their predominant operating theory is that the Earth is flat simply because it looks that way when you go outside. It feels flat. The sun and the moon are small because when you go outside and look into the sky, you can pinch them between your forefinger and your thumb. Their view of our planet is delightfully simple, determinedly built on the conviction that the things we believe can also be logical and true. And though I neither condone nor believe what they do, I get that.
DANIEL SHENTON, THEN A 27-year-old man from Virginia, of no relation to Samuel, became president of the Flat Earth Society in 2004. He started a Web forum, which still makes up most of the group’s presence and activity. The group officially re-launched in 2009, at which point they began accepting new members. Here is some trivia that might come in handy at a hip bar someday: The first person to join the new Flat Earth Society was musician Thomas Dolby, known for the 1982 hit “She Blinded Me With Science.”
Despite whatever unifying and rallying capacity the Internet can be said to have, the current iteration of the Flat Earth Society lags substantially behind its predecessors. This is no big surprise; confirmation bias might apply to existing believers, but it’s hard to recruit fresh blood for a cause that relies so heavily on our not-knowing when we’ll only keep knowing more.
Per their website, the current number of Flat Earth Society members is (haha) 420. Among them are a few who continue in the Samuel “Parallax” Rowbotham tradition of nicknaming: William “Fruitbat” Cox joined in 2009, Tom “Solar-Powered” T. joined in 2010. A great many members are included anonymously.
I worry about them, a little. Their website is buggy in places and empty in others; the “Flat Earth Shop” and “Flat Earth Wiki” lead only to 404 errors, and this page of filler text just reads like a cry for help. Daniel’s blog hasn’t been updated since 2010. I emailed both Daniel and Michael Wilmore, FES’s vice president, to check in—just, I don’t know, to kind of see how Flat Earth stuff is going these days—and felt sure I wouldn’t hear back.
It was only on Twitter that I could find reassurance that the current leadership of the Flat Earth Society has yet to give up. @FlatEarthToday, run by Wilmore, updates regularly, often carrying out short conversations with users looking to fight. It’s there you can still find insistence that “round earthers,” as they call us, are suckers for the grandest of all cover-ups: the shape of the very thing we live on. (“Why would people cover up the shape of a planet?” is a frequent Twitter inquiry. “Money and/or power,” Wilmore says.) Shenton doesn’t update nearly as often; his most recent tweet, in February, told followers he’d been in hibernation “working on something big.”
A day later, Shenton wrote back. He told me FES is “still very much alive.” They’re actually launching a new, sleeker site a few days from now. Chances are it won’t reveal any major reversals or shifts. Around this time last year an account called @fuzybear tweeted to Shenton, “Is the world still flat?” He replied: “I just checked. Still flat!”