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Jack Smith

A Flat-Earth Fanatic Gets on the Ball

January 25, 1988|JACK SMITH

When the big windstorm cleared the skies last week, I saw my chance to find out once and for all whether the Earth is round or flat.

Recently I had expressed my belief that the Earth is round, but a reader, Jack Findlater, asked why I had never questioned that belief as I have so many others.

I agreed I could not prove the Earth was round. My belief was based on faith. "So it's easy for me to reject the notion that it's flat. . . ."

Consequently, I telephoned the head of the Flat Earth Society, Charles K. Johnson, of Lancaster, and asked him, "Are you kidding? Or do you really believe the Earth is flat?"

He said, "The whole idea of the Earth being a spinning ball is just ridiculous. We have studied the Earth and found it flat."

He scorned Pythagoras and all the other scientists who have determined that the Earth is round, and dismissed the photographs from Apollo as fakes. "The whole thing was a game they cooked up to produce more jobs."

After printing that interview, I received several provocative letters.

My friend and colleague Don Dwiggins, the aviation writer, pointed out, rather flatly: "Argument over whether Earth is flat or round sounds like confusion whether pancakes are flat or round . . . depends on how you look at it."

Dwiggins said I probably thought that the sun rises and sets every day. "I contend that the sun does not rise and set every day. In fact, it stays put, while the Earth sets and rises, so we get earthset in the A.M. instead of sunrise, and earthrise in the P.M. instead of sunset."

Earlier, commenting on an ad for a flight of the Concorde, on which one allegedly could see the curvature of the Earth, I had written: "Though I have seen that phenomenon in photographs, I will probably never be quite sure that the Earth isn't flat until I see it in reality."

Allan S. Hjerpe, whose letterhead identified him as proprietor of the Pacoima Moat & Drawbridge Service (Specialists in Crocodiles, Piranhas, and Green Scum), shared my uncertainty.

He said, "The Earth could be shaped like a giant Frisbee--round and with a curved surface, but not a globe. I find that I accept at a gut level that the Earth is a sphere, but it is an act of faith. I've never seen anything with my own eyes which would convince me of this. Taking the word of astronauts is like taking another's word about his religious experiences. . . ."

"You may be interested to know," wrote Bill Anderson of San Marino, "that, due to the rotation of the Earth, while sitting at your computer on Mt. Washington you are traveling east at roughly 1,000 miles per hour. This pales into insignificance when you take into account that the Earth is traveling something in excess of 60,000 miles per hour in its orbit around the sun--not to mention the procession of the sun within the Milky Way galaxy, and the meandering of the galaxy itself in some unfathomable direction in the universe. . . ."

As for Johnson and the Flat Earth Society, Arne Myggen, a Danish newspaper correspondent, once interviewed him in a Lancaster McDonald's (Johnson's choice) and attests that Johnson betrayed "not a flicker of a sense of humor."

Myggen is convinced that Johnson is absolutely sincere. "I had one more question. If the world is flat, what is there on the other side? He gave me a brilliant disarming answer and at the same time had a look in his eyes of the utmost earnestness. 'I don't know,' he said."

Which brings us back to the weather and my proposed experiment. Bruce Shulte of San Pedro wrote that all I had to do was go down to Cabrillo Beach, in San Pedro, and look across the channel to the Isthmus of Catalina Island, which has a height of about 30 feet above sea level. Because of the Earth's curvature, he said, I wouldn't be able to see it. I would see nothing but the ocean's bulge. However, if I were to climb San Pedro's cliffs, which rise to 100 feet, I could clearly see the isthmus. "The effect is most dramatic with binoculars on a clear day."

Alas. The windstorm is over. I looked out my window this morning to the peninsula and saw the usual. Low coastal fog.

Now I may never know.

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