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How Round Is the World?

30 May 2016

Invention of Science

When I was a schoolboy we were taught that when Columbus sailed to America, almost everyone believed the world was flat and if you sailed too far from the coast you would eventually sail off the edge of the world. This ridiculous piece of fiction is typical of falsehoods that school teachers teach when they know little or nothing about their subject. But a recent jewel I just finished reading, The Invention of Science, helps set the story straight on a wide variety of subjects our teachers never got right, such as Aristotle's errors, how he set back the pursuit of knowledge for more than a millennium, the real reason Columbus' "discovery" of America was so important, and the real reason Amerigo Vespucci's influence made him more important than Columbus.

The Invention of Science is an encyclopedic work of such scope that it is tough to discuss in one sitting, so I'll restrict my discussion to the more salient subject of Columbus, Vespucci, and what science and society of their day really thought of the nature of the world.

Most people of the fifteenth century understood the world is round, for all the obvious reasons. It was known among Greek "natural philosophers", as early scientists were known, because Eustarchus estimated the earth's circumference, and with surprising accuracy. But when people today think of the earth being round, we think of something quite different from what was imagined in 1492.

The most educated people in the world of 1492 thought in ways far different from what we expect today when we look back. When Columbus discovered America he was in a sense discovering discovery. There were no words for 'discovery' because the concept, along with 'invention', simply did not exist. As Portuguese sailors began embarking on voyages of discovery, the word discobrir was finally arrived upon, and quickly passed to the other languages of Europe.

Invention and discovery were unheard of because Aristotle taught that all knowledge was already known; to medieval Europeans no new knowledge was ever uncovered, it was merely rediscovered. So there were no discoveries, no inventions. But beginning with Columbus' discovery of the "new world", that changed rapidly. Soon all of Europe was forced to accept that something fundamentally new had come to the world of European knowledge.

Columbus himself had no idea what he had wrought. He died believing he had found a western route to Asia, not that he had found a new continent. He was a noteworthy sailor not because he dared to sail to the edge of the flat earth, which no one believed, but because his navigation instruments were so primitive that few captains had the courage to sail so far from coast. This limitation went back to the times of the Greeks and Romans, but changed when the compass came into use.

What Europeans believed about the Earth's constitution was far stranger than mere flat earth theory. Earth was known to be a world, but not recognized as a planet like Mercury, Mars, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn. This is one reason why it was easy for them to believe the Earth could be at the center of the universe, as Aristotle taught. And while Earth was known to be round, it was not considered a sphere - it was seen as two spheres!

The ancients suspected that Earth's land masses constituted one sphere, which floated on a separate, larger ocean sphere - a two-sphere concept. Even stranger was the belief that the seas loomed above the land masses. When you stand on the beach and look at the ocean, it seems as if you are looking up, but it's all a matter of perspective. The misunderstanding changed as Renaissance artists discovered how to use perspective to improve the realism of their works. Once perspective was understood, it became easier to understand that the lands stood higher.

This new understand of the relationship to land and sea was significant in undermining belief in the Biblical account of the flood that supposedly inundated the entire world. When the seas were believed to stand higher than all land, it was easy to believe it could cover all land; indeed, it was hard to understand why the land was not always flooded. Once the land was known to sit higher, it raised questions about the validity of the flood story in Genesis.

The Invention of Science is so rich with detail and information on so many subjects that it is a shame to cut short the discussion with these brief highlights, one word for each page of the tome. It is a work to be read, reread, and, like Aristotle's knowledge, continuously rediscovered.


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