This Earth

This Earth has been in existence for quite a long while and do I wonder how many folk consider that, also how much this amazing planet has changed over time. We as humans haven’t been here all that long and it is generally believed that as a race, Homo sapiens evolved in Africa during a time of dramatic climate change some 300,000 years ago. Like other early humans that were living around that time we gathered and hunted for food, evolving behaviours that helped us to respond to the challenges of survival in unstable environments. To begin with, we certainly had a few ideas about ourselves and the Earth itself that have proven to be wrong. There have been a number of misconceptions, again now proved to be incorrect, a few of these being as follows. Ancient Greek and Roman sculptures were originally painted with bright colours, but they only appear white today because the original pigments have deteriorated. Some well-preserved statues still bear traces of their original colouration. Also, the tomb of Tutankhamen is not inscribed with a curse on those who disturb it, this was a media invention of 20th-century tabloid journalists. The ancient Greeks did not use the word ‘idiot’ to disparage people who did not take part in civic life or who did not vote. An idiot was simply a private citizen as opposed to a government official. Later, the word came to mean any sort of non-expert or layman, then someone uneducated or ignorant, and much later to mean stupid or mentally deficient.

Oath of the Horatii by Jacques-Louis David in 1784.

According to ancient Roman legend, the Horatii were triplet warriors who lived during the reign of Tullus Hostilius (r. 672–640 BC). Accounts of his death of vary, as in the mythological version of events he had angered Jupiter, who then killed him with a bolt of lightning. But non-mythological sources describe that he died of a plague after a ruling for 32 years. There is also no evidence of the use of the Roman salute by ancient Romans (as depicted in the above painting) for greeting or any other purpose. The idea that the salute was popular in ancient times originated from the painting but it then inspired later salutes, most notably the Nazi salute. Another idea was that Julius Caesar was born via Caesarean section, but at the time of his birth such a procedure would have been fatal to his mother and Caesar’s mother was still alive when Caesar was 45 years old. The name ‘caesarean’ probably comes from the Latin verb ‘caedere’, meaning ’to cut’. Also there is the myth of the Earth being flat. In fact the earliest clear documentation of the idea of a spherical Earth comes from the ancient Greeks in the 5th century BC. The belief was widespread in Greece when Eratosthenes of Cyrene, a man of learning who lived from around 276BC to 194 BC who was a mathematician, geographer, poet, astronomer and music theorist. He also became the chief librarian at the Library of Alexandria and he introduced some of the terminology still in use today. As a result, most European and Middle Eastern scholars accepted that the Earth was spherical and belief in a flat Earth amongst educated Europeans was almost nonexistent from the Late Middle Ages onward, although fanciful depictions appear in some art. However, by the 1490’s there was still an issue as to the size of the Earth and in particular the position of the east coast of Asia. Historical estimates from Ptolemy, also a mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, geographer and music theorist, placed the coast of Asia about 180° east of the Canary Islands. It was Columbus who adopted an earlier (and rejected) distance of 225°, added 28° (based on Marco Polo’s travels), and then placed Japan a further 30° east. Starting from Cape St Vincent in Portugal, Columbus made Eurasia stretch 283° to the east, leaving the Atlantic as only 77° wide. Since he planned to leave from the Canaries, 9° further west, his trip to Japan would only have to cover 68° of longitude. Columbus mistakenly assumed that the mile referred to in the Arabic estimate of 56⅔ miles for the size of a degree was the same as the actually much shorter Italian mile of 1,480 metres. His estimate for the size of the degree and for the circumference of the Earth was therefore about 25% too small. The combined effect of these mistakes was that Columbus estimated the distance to Japan to be only about 5,000km, or only to the eastern edge of the Caribbean whilst the true figure is about 20,000km. The Spanish scholars may not have known the exact distance to the east coast of Asia, but they believed that it was significantly further than Columbus’s projection and this was the basis of the criticism in Spain and Portugal, whether academic or among mariners, of the proposed voyage. The disputed point was not the shape of the Earth, nor the idea that going west would eventually lead to Japan and China, but the ability of European ships to sail that far across open seas. The small ships of the day simply could not carry enough food and water to reach Japan as Columbus’s three ships varied in length between 20.5 and 23.5 metres, or 67 to 77 feet, and carried about 90 men. In fact the ships barely reached the eastern Caribbean islands as already the crews were mutinous, not because of some fear of ‘sailing off the edge’, but because they were running out of food and water with no chance of any new supplies within sailing distance. They were on the edge of starvation. What saved Columbus was the unknown existence of the Americas precisely at the point he thought he would reach Japan. His ability to resupply with food and water from the Caribbean islands allowed him to return safely to Europe, otherwise his crews would have died, and the ships foundered. Since the early 20th century, quite a number of books and articles have documented the flat Earth error as one of a number of widespread misconceptions in the popular views of the Middle Ages and although the misconception was frequently refuted in historical scholarship since at least 1920, it persisted in popular culture and in some school textbooks into the 21st century. An American schoolbook by Emma Miller Bolenius published in 1919 has this introduction to the suggested reading for Columbus Day, October 12th: “When Columbus lived, people thought that the Earth was flat. They believed the Atlantic Ocean to be filled with monsters large enough to devour their ships, and with fearful waterfalls over which their frail vessels would plunge to destruction. Columbus had to fight these foolish beliefs in order to get men to sail with him. He felt sure the Earth was round”.

The semi-circular shadow of Earth on the Moon during a partial lunar eclipse.

Pythagoras in the 6th century BC and Parmenides in the 5th century BC stated that the the Earth was spherical and this view spread rapidly in the Greek world. Around 330 BC Aristotle maintained on the basis of physical theory and observational evidence that the Earth was indeed spherical and reported an estimate of its circumference the value was first determined around 240 BC by Eratosthenes. By the 2nd century AD, Ptolemy had derived his maps from a globe and developed the system of latitude, longitude and climes. His Almagest was the Greek-language mathematical and astronomical treatise on the apparent motions of the stars and their planetary paths. One of the most influential scientific texts in history, it canonised a geocentric model of the Universe that was accepted for more than 1,200 years from its origin in Hellenistic, in the medieval Byzantine and Islamic worlds as well as in Western Europe through the Middle Ages and early Renaissance until Copernicus. It is also a key source of information about Ancient Greek astronomy. The work was originally written in Greek and only translated into Latin in the 11th century from Arabic translations. It is fascinating to consider that in the first century BC, Lucretius opposed the concept of a spherical Earth because he considered that an infinite universe had no centre towards which heavy bodies would tend towards. Thus he thought the idea of animals walking around topsy-turvy under the Earth was absurd. By the 1st century AD, Pliny the Elder was in a position to claim that everyone agreed on the spherical shape of Earth, though disputes continued regarding the nature of the antipodes, and how it was possible to keep the oceans in a curved shape.

Thorntonbank Wind Farm near the Belgian coast.

In the above image of Thorntonbank Wind Farm, the lower parts of the more distant towers are increasingly hidden by the horizon, demonstrating the curvature of the Earth. But even in the modern era, the pseudoscientific belief in a flat Earth originated with the English writer Samuel Rowbotham in his 1849 pamphlet ‘Zetetic Astronomy’. Lady Elizabeth Blount established the Universal Zetetic Society in 1893, which published journals. There were other flat-Earthers in the 19th and early 20th centuries and in 1956, Samuel Shenton set up the International Flat Earth Research Society (IFERS), better known as the “Flat Earth Society” from Dover, England, as a direct descendant of the Universal Zetetic Society. In the era of the Internet, the availability of communications technology and social media such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter these have made it easy for individuals, famous or not, to spread disinformation and attract others to erroneous ideas, including that of the flat Earth. I still smile at the advert I once saw which read “Join the Flat Earth Society – branches all around the world”. To maintain belief in the face of overwhelming contrary, publicly available empirical evidence accumulated in the Space Age, modern flat-Earthers must generally embrace some form of conspiracy theory out of the necessity of explaining why major institutions such as governments, media outlets, schools, scientists, and airlines all assert that the world is a sphere. They tend to not trust observations they have not made themselves, and often distrust or disagree with each other. As so many do over so many things. I think that what can also be difficult to comprehend or imagine is the sheer size of our Earth, our solar system, the Milky Way and beyond. Science has enabled us to see, through microscopes and the like, things which are so tiny that we need devices to perceive them. We do now have telescopes, but even those often use infra-red (which our eyes cannot see naturally) to ‘see’ what is a great distance from our planet. On one of the websites I look at there are often questions raised which are good ones, but equally there are a few which show that the writer seems to have no concept of how large the Universe really is. As an example, one question recently shared was “If telescopes can see billions of light years away, what stops us from seeing detailed images of planet surfaces to check for plants or other life?”. The answer given was that the Andromeda Galaxy is actually about 2.5 million light-years from Earth, but even when we use the Hubble telescope to see the surface of the planet Mars which is only about 0.000042 light-years away, the sharpest image of the surface of Mars is very blurry like the one below. This is because of the relative sizes of the planets. For example the Andromeda galaxy, although incredibly distant, is so large that its relative size, when viewed from Earth, is massive. From here we should understand why distant galaxies can be seen well with a telescope.

The Andromeda Galaxy.
The surface of Mars.

So far as this Earth is concerned, whilst we have generally explored almost the entire continental surface, with the exception of Antarctica that is, there are substantial parts of the ocean that remain unexplored and not fully studied. Even the latest technological advances for mapping the seafloor are limited by what they can do in the oceans. I have mentioned before about a computer app that is freely available and which also utilises a website called What3Words. It divides the world into individual three-metre squares and gives each one a unique three-word address, in order for people to be easily found in emergencies. It also gives people without a formal address access to one for the first time, whether a permanent address or if halfway up the side of a mountain, for example. I think this is especially useful for emergency services to locate people, even in the sea as the UK version includes that. Whether we think this is a good thing or not, it means that everywhere in the world now has an address, even a tent in the middle of a field or a ditch on the North York Moors! The website is https://what3words.com and one example, in this case the entrance to Peterborough railway station, is w3w.co/energetic.copies.rope and clicking this link opens a web page showing a map of Peterborough, with the square allocated by what3words to the railway station entrance. There are no duplications. This program is available on Apple and I believe Google, I think it may be of use to folk on such things as countryside walks or simply meeting up with friends.

In previous blog posts I have written a little about this Earth, its language and transportation by road and rail as well as aviation. Each have their individual benefits and we have certainly come a long way in these things. Sadly however, so many advances have been as a result of wars, with either individuals or groups for some reason wanting to better another. As a result I still struggle to comprehend this human need. Still, it is going on around us and I expect will continue to do so for years to come, long after I am here. Just as those who lived for a time but passed away, so will others. I remember when I was quite young talking to our local vicar after he had talked about heaven and earth and me saying to him how I thought that Heaven must be a very big place, thinking about all the many people who had died over time. I remember the vicar smiling gently and telling me that I was applying Earthly values to Heavenly things. I didn’t understand him at the time, but I learned in time that he was right. It took a long time to realise just how vastly, hugely enormous the Universe is, we simply cannot imagine it. But it exists, at least I believe it does! So when I learn of how certain people in this beautiful Earth are behaving, I think on how their lives will end, new ones will spring up, things will change and I hope, in years to come, we may yet learn to all live peacefully together. You will forgive me if I do not hold my breath on that one though! This world turns, the seasons change, no matter what our individual thoughts or our beliefs may be. There is good in the world, we must believe in it, do all we can, openly and honestly, and be thankful for what we have. We still have a few million years left!

This week…a tale from a few years ago.
I had bought an old Land Rover Series 3 which was quite good, but I found it needed a bit of repair on the steering mechanism. It meant that as I was driving along, rather than steer straight I was correcting it, so the vehicle would seem to almost ‘wander’ from side to side a little! I was driving home one day and was stopped by a local policeman, who stood by the driver’s open window in a way that he could smell my breath – Land Rovers sit quite high up on the road. He asked me if had been drinking or had I only just bought the vehicle. He already knew the answers to both questions, but was checking with me! I assured I had not been drinking but had recently purchased the vehicle, he agreed and even recommended a local garage who specialised in Land Rover repairs. I was advised to get the steering problem attended to as soon as possible and when I took it to this garage, the staff there were sure they actually knew who this policeman was as he himself was the proud owner of a Land Rover and was a regular customer of theirs!

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