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Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea Hardcover – August 5, 2008

4.4 out of 5 stars 10 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Garwood, historian of science at the Open University in England, presents a thoroughly enjoyable first book. Examining the belief that the world is flat from a wide array of perspectives, she makes some important points. She demonstrates quite convincingly, for example, that, contrary to what most people believe, the ancients knew the world was not flat: the earth has been widely believed to be a globe since the fifth century B.C. Only in the 19th century did acceptance of a flat earth spread, promoted largely by biblical literalists. Garwood does an impressive job of comparing those flat-earthers with modern-day creationists. She also makes the case that it's all but impossible to argue effectively with true believers. Modern believers assert that the space program is a hoax. In 1994, on the 25th anniversary of the first manned landing on the moon, a Washington Post poll estimated that approximately 20 million Americans thought the landing was staged on Earth, underscoring that some outrageous beliefs still hold sway. Garwood is respectful throughout, analyzing the philosophical underpinnings of those who have doubted, and continue to doubt, the Earth's rotundity. (Aug.)
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“An energetic, all-inclusive, and amusing account of man’s impressive capacity for self-delusion. Every creationist should read it.” ---Steve Jones, author of Darwin’s Ghost
“Highly entertaining and often hilarious.” ---Sunday Telegraph
“The focus of Garwood’s impressive research is a forgotten episode
in the history of science.” ---New Scientist
“A glorious romp around the world of Flat Earthism.” ---Daily Express
“Garwood’s often hilarious book is a serious look at an aberrant belief and those who took it up in modern times, centuries after the ?at Earth had been scientifically dismissed.  . . . Garwood’s books shows just how doggedly faith in an unscienti?c idea can hold.” ---The Commercial Dispatch
“[A] quirky and highly entertaining slice of intellectual history. Elicits plentiful laughter and astonishment.” ---Sunday Times
“Wonderful . . . dispassionate, and understanding.” ---Financial Times


Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books; First Edition edition (August 5, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312382081
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312382087
  • Product Dimensions: 6.9 x 1.4 x 9.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #373,149 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
You remember the story about the frightened sailors who went with Columbus in 1492, but were sure that they were going to sail off the edge of the world. They almost mutinied, they were so scared. But Columbus got to land rather than to the enormous cataract, proving to the satisfaction of everyone ever since that the world was not flat but round. If you do remember all this, perhaps you also remember being told it was all bosh, but perhaps not; the story of Columbus bravely proving the world was round is such a satisfactory myth that it will probably never die. In _Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea_ (Thomas Dunne Books), Christine Garwood, a historian of science, starts with debunking this myth, but then shifts to the modern flat-earthers, those from the nineteenth century until now who insisted, starting with the Bible as a foundation and attempting to co-opt science in the flat-earth cause, that the "globularists" were involved in a scandalous conspiracy to turn people away from the Bible. Garwood's often hilarious book is a serious look at an aberrant belief and those who took it up in modern times, centuries after the flat Earth had been scientifically dismissed. Flat-earthism may be nonsense, but it was an anti-science stance taken up by those who believed in a literal Bible, and as such, comparisons may be easily drawn between flat-earthers and creationists.

Educated medieval people did not believe the Earth to be flat. In fact, if they studied their Plato, Aristotle, or Euclid, they knew the shape of the Earth. The Columbus story was appealing to those who unnecessarily wanted to promote a view of science in eternal warfare with religion.
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Format: Hardcover
The perils of reviewing books that one has patently never read!

Garwood's book actually goes far beyond the ground covered by Burton Russell's excellent study of the Columbus myth. In fact, the main focus of her book (in chapters 2 through 11 & epilogue) is a different, albeit related, topic - the Victorian public revival of the flat earth idea through flat earth societies that existed in the period 1840-2001. The book is also based on a great amount of original archival research (including a series of unexplored archives of modern day flat earth societies in UK, US and Canada), has 28 pages of end-notes and a bibliography 23 pages long. Contrary to what R.B Cathcart claims, it is an exemplary piece of historical research by a professional historian.

The moral of the story? Bother to read the book before publishing public reviews!!
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The idea of a flat Earth has always been with humanity, and evidence to the contrary has not always been persuasive for those with a desire to believe the Earth is flat. Christine Garwood's fascinating history of belief in the flat Earth lays out ancient ideas from Greek theorists to arrive at a set of assumptions about the nature of the Earth ranging from a flat disc concept advanced by Homer to the sphere envisioned by Pythagoras. This was not formally set until the sixteenth century, but numerous groups have emerged since then to question this conception and flat Earthers exist to the present.

Garwood begins with a bit of debunking of the myth that Western Civilization believed that the Earth was flat in 1491 and it took Columbus with his idea of sailing to India by way of traveling West to break that longstanding tradition. She notes that educated society certainly understood the truth about the nature of the Earth as a sphere and Columbus's bold initiative had less to do with a flat Earth concept than other concerns. Even so, her real contribution is in documenting the persistence of an idea of a flat Earth in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The longstanding presence of this idea is perhaps best explained by the perspective of humanity as it was limited to the surface of this planet. As recently as 1945 belief in a flat Earth was listed as the second of twenty critical errors in history. Garwood introduces such fascinating individuals as Samuel Birley Rowbotham (1816-1884), who took the pseudonym "Parallax," and began what he called "Zetetic astronomy" to promote a flat Earth theory. This "Zetetic" theory has fueled the modern concept of the flat Earth and it persists with formally organized groups to the present.
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Format: Hardcover
The pathways through which the history of scientific progress can be mapped are strewn with the remains of overturned ideas and outdated pronouncements, some cranky and (with hindsight) nonsensical, others perfectly reasonable given the state of knowledge at the time. Newtonian physics, though sensible at the human scale, suddenly fails to convince at a subatomic level, not because of any failings on the part of Newton, but because technological and mathematical advances have allowed modern physicists to probe closer and deeper. Similarly, in biology, many established taxonomic ideas concerning the evolutionary relationships between major groups of flowering plants, mammals and other large clades are, thanks to molecular phylogenetics, shown to be erroneous. And so science advances, from the clearly wrong to the (probably) correct, leaving in its wake the cast off ideas of previous generations.

Except sometimes, when science (or at least fringe perceptions of scientific understanding) takes a backwards stride of such length that one begins to question whether scientific "facts" mean the same thing to everyone. The concept of the Flat Earth may be a unique example of how a fact (the globularity of the Earth) could be established very early in the development of the rational analysis of nature, only to be rejected by a minor, but vociferous, cohort of "true believers". As this fascinating book by Christine Garwood relates, observations by Aristotle confirmed the true shape of the world, and there were no serious challenges to this idea until the 19th Century.
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