Until the 17th century, the Fens—a broad, flat swath of marshland in eastern England—were home only to game-hunters and fishermen. Eventually, though, their value as potential agricultural land became too enticing to ignore, and the Earl of Bedford, along with a number of “gentlemen adventurers,” signed contracts with Charles I to drain the area, beginning in the 1630s. A series of drainage channels were cut, criss-crossing the wetlands of Cambridgeshire and Norfolk. The plan was a qualified success; a vast area was now farmable, though wind-powered pumps were needed to keep the water at bay.

The most notable feature of the Fens is their pancake-like topography. It’s said that if you climb the tower of Ely Cathedral on a clear day, you can make out the silhouette of Peterborough Cathedral, some 30 miles to the northwest. Indeed, one could see even further if it wasn’t for the curvature of the Earth.

Enter one Samuel Birley Rowbotham, a 19th-century inventor and quack doctor who went by the name “Parallax.” Rowbotham believed that the Earth was flat, and that the Fens were the perfect place to prove it. In particular, he set his sights on the Old Bedford River, one of the 17th-century drainage cuts built under the tenure of the Earl of Bedford. The river—it’s really a canal—runs straight as an arrow for some 22 miles, from Earith, Cambridgeshire, to Downham Market, Norfolk, where it meets the River Great Ouse.

If the world were actually round, Rowbotham argued, its curvature should be plain enough to keen-eyed observers who positioned themselves along the length of the canal. In his view, the Earth was actually disk-shaped, with the north pole at its center. The sun, he reasoned, was about 400 miles from London; the stars were no more than 1,000 miles away. (Nor did he believe the Universe was as old as scientists were saying; he was also a young-Earth creationist.)

It’s one thing to believe the world is flat; it is yet another to convince the scientific establishment. One of Rowbotham’s followers, a man named John Hampden, sought out a reputable scientist that he could drag into the debate.

Oddly, that man ended up being Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of natural selection. In 1870, Hampden wrote to Wallace proposing a £500 wager on the shape of the Earth (roughly £60,000 in today’s money). The plan was to carefully measure the curvature of the water’s surface on the Fens—assuming there is any—and settle the matter once and for all. Wallace, much to the chagrin of his fellow scientists, accepted the wager.

Wallace and Hampden met in early March, 1870, at Downham Market, at the northern end of the Old Bedford River, ready to perform the great experiment. A team of assistants erected six-foot-tall poles, with colored markers at the top, at one-mile intervals along a six-mile stretch of the canal, between Downham and the small town of Welney. If the Earth really was curved, the middle markers ought to be raised relative to the end markers by several feet; as Wallace wrote, “with a good telescope curvature will be easily seen if it exists.”

Case closed

The ancient Greeks knew that the world is round; observing the Earth’s shadow during a lunar eclipse, as Aristotle noted, makes it pretty clear. There were other hints that, whatever shape the Earth might be, it couldn’t be flat: As a sailing ship sails over the horizon, its hull disappears from view first; then its sails, and the top of its mast last of all.

None of this was as compelling as the testimony of those who sailed all the way around; in 1522, Ferdinand Magellan’s crew pulled it off (though Magellan himself didn’t make it; he was killed during a battle in the Philippines). Just two decades later, in 1543, Copernicus published his groundbreaking work On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, arguing that the Earth was just like the other planets; viewed from the right perspective, our whole world was just a little ball floating in space. When Yuri Gagarin orbited the planet in his Vostok spacecraft in 1961, no one was surprised that his voyage took him in a circle. Five and a half years later, the astronauts on board Apollo 8 travelled so far from Earth that our home planet was reduced to a marble suspended in the blackness of space, famously captured in Bill Anders’ “Earthrise” photograph. His fellow astronaut Jim Lovell remarked that, from the distance of the Moon, he had no trouble hiding the Earth behind an outstretched thumb.

The case, in other words, has been closed for some time.

And yet, a survey conducted last spring found that a solid 16 percent of Americans aren’t sure of the Earth’s shape—with flat-Earth support running highest among millennials and those with lower incomes. The doubters have a smattering of celebrities and self-promoters on their side, from rapper B.o.B. and NBA basketball star Kyrie Irving to amateur rocketeer Mike Hughes, who last year launched himself about 1,875 feet into the air in a homemade rocket and parachuted back to Earth.

The modern flat Earth movement is a peculiar mix of seemingly-harmless fun and, perhaps, something darker. Presumably, some flat Earthers are just in it for the “clicks” and “likes”; as writer Thomas Beller suggested recently in the New Yorker, it’s possible that flat-Earth-ism is, for some, “a bit of droll performance art.” But Michael Marshall, who attended a recent flat Earth conference in Birmingham, UK, found that the majority of attendees were sincere. Writing in the Guardian, Marshall described the event as “a raucous departure from scientific norms where people are free to believe literally anything.” The notion of an egg-shaped Universe was put forward, as was a rather creative “Pac Man” theory of the Universe, in which those who disappear off to one side of space might reappear from the other.

And yet, to describe flat Earthers as anti-science is an oversimplification. One gets the impression that they’re not against science as such; it’s just that they’re deeply skeptical of mainstream science, and overly enthusiastic about their own fringy alternatives. Many of them believe in “research”—so long as it is their own. And, of course, the Internet is king. For better or for worse, the Internet gave everyone a “voice”—flat Earthers included.

Here one finds a parallel to the Rowbotham case from a century and a half ago: Rowbotham was able to spread his ideas thanks to his popular public lectures and, especially, Victorians’ easy access to cheap pamphlets and books (and a highly literate population). Every fringe theorist needs an amplifier; Rowbotham had the penny press, and today’s mavericks have the Web. Social media, in particular, has empowered the voiceless millions. In the universe of Facebook and Twitter, no opinion is so outlandish that it is immune from being picked up and spread around; if anything, outlandishness is rewarded.

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