Monday, September 26, 2011

Columbus and the Flat Earth

The role of the "flat earth" in history is often taught wrong in grade school. People before Columbus already figured out that the earth was round. What they disagreed about was how big it was. Some people thought it was so big that if you sailed west to get to the East, you would be so long on the sea that your supplies would run out and you'd never make it. The other people said it wasn't so large, and you could reach the East in fairly short order by sailing west. The first group, who opposed funding Columbus' journey, were, of course right. What no one realized was that there was a whole different continent between Europe and Asia. Columbus didn't figure it out either. He thought he got to the Indes, which is why Native Americans are called Indians. The guy who did figure it out was Amerigo Vespucci, for whom the Americas are (in my opinion rightly!) named. 

12 comments:

Bilbo said...

Yes, I remember wondering, "How did Columbus convince Queen Isabella that the world was round AND that it was small enough to sail around?" So I did some research and found out exactly what you just wrote: The New World owed its discovery to a man who made some significant false assumptions when doing his calculations of how big the world was.

Ryan Anderson said...

Yes, but what did "Moses" think?

kbrowne said...

Bilbo,

Please forgive me if this seems like a bit of pedantry but the 'New World' did not owe its discovery to Columbus. It had already been discovered a long time before and there were plenty of people living there.

What Columbus did was to introduce the Europeans to the Americans and that was perhaps not altogether a good thing for the Americans.

Crude said...

What Columbus did was to introduce the Europeans to the Americans and that was perhaps not altogether a good thing for the Americans.

Don't you think you're downplaying the accomplishments of native Americans with this? What really happened was that in 1492, native Americans discovered Europeans and Europe. But biased textbooks just don't report on this momentous discovery.

Bilbo said...

Hi Kbrowne,

You're right of course. My apologies. As Flip Wilson observed, the natives probably said to Columbus, "We don't want to be discovered. Just discover yourself out of here."

Bilbo said...

Flip Wilson on Columbus

Esse Participatum said...

http://web.maths.unsw.edu.au/~jim/medmyths.html

"-In the Middle Ages it was believed the earth was flat.

There's a whole book devoted to refuting this one: J.B. Russell's Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians (New York, 1991) (review; also `The myth of the flat earth'.)
The facts are that the Greeks knew the earth was spherical from about 500 BC, and all but a tiny number of educated persons have known it in all times since. Thomas Aquinas gives the roundness of the earth as a standard example of a scientific truth, in Summa theologiae bk. I q. 1 art. 1"

Summa Theologiae Bk I Q 1 Art 1 ad 2 "Sciences are differentiated according to the various means through which knowledge is obtained. For the astronomer and the physicist both may prove the same conclusion: that the earth, for instance, is round"

Jim S. said...

I blogged about the flat earth myth several months ago here. I'm still just dumbfounded that people take it seriously.

Joel said...

I "learned" that Columbus proved the world was round in elementary school. I hear they still teach it in some quarters.

Matthew D. Schultz said...

I'm still just dumbfounded that people take it seriously.

Well, we wouldn't want to pretend anything pre-Enlightenment was correct, that being the Christian "Dark Ages" and all.

One Brow said...

Joel said...
I "learned" that Columbus proved the world was round in elementary school.

I learned it was Magellan. Of course, it was one of those public schools, so what can you say?

One Brow said...

Jim S. said...
I blogged about the flat earth myth several months ago here. I'm still just dumbfounded that people take it seriously.

I have a couple of small quibbles with your post. I don't think Washington Irving has the reach to convince all of Europe of a legend in only 40 years. Also, there are many more depictions of a flat earth in the Bible than a couple of expressions.

Overall, it was a good post.