We’ve been to the moon, we’ve sent rovers to Mars and we all know that the earth is a sphere.

All of us, apart from a movement that shortly gained traction a few years ago and died down soon after. The flat earth movement asserted that modern science was incorrect and that common sense dictated the earth was flat. While this belief was largely based around a misunderstanding of gravity and a severe underestimation of the earth’s size, its followers were in good company. After all, the earth was believed to be flat by scholars around the world until just a few hundred years ago; Christopher Columbus himself had to fight European scientists when he asserted that it was possible to reach India by sailing around the earth!

….but did he really?

The first definite record of humans studying the curvature of the earth was produced by Greek philosopher and chief librarian at Alexandria, Erastothenes. Around 200BC, he made astonishingly precise calculations about the earth’s circumference. While his exact method has been lost, his later peers developed his findings with examples that we still have.

The earth was believed to be flat by scholars until a few hundred years ago

No one knows when humans caught on to the curve; this knowledge predates Eras-thothenes. Pythagoras himself postulated that the earth must be round around 500BC, and Aristotle agreed with him. And, even before these two, Pheonician sailors may have made observations about the angle of the sun changing due to the curvature of the earth, when they circumnavigate Africa ‒ quite the feat!

In the dark and middle ages, knowledge of the earth’s spherical nature can be found in several scholarly texts. Few scholars have argued for a disc-shaped earth model since then. So, why do we think people in the middle ages believed the flat earth theory? The idea of the flat-earth-defending Catholic was started in 1830 by a French writer. His goal: to discredit religious scholars. It gained popularity from 1870 onwards, when the historical conflict between religion and science became common rhetoric. Romanticised stories such as the one of Christopher Columbus helped to solidify the myth in popular culture. Our ancestors were wrong about many things but when they looked out at the horizon trying to comprehend just how big the earth is, they likely thought the same as you.

Sound bites

• Cutting 20 per cent of sugar from packaged foods and 40 per cent from beverages could prevent 2.48 million cardiovascular disease events (such as strokes, heart attacks, cardiac arrests), 490,000 cardiovascular deaths and 750,000 diabetes cases in the US over the lifetime of the adult population, according to a new study by the researchers from the Massachusetts General Hospital.


• Researchers from the University of Kent have discovered a universal mathematical formula that can describe any bird’s egg existing in nature ‒ a significant step in understanding not only the egg shape itself, but also how and why it evolved, thus making widespread biological and technological applications possible.


For more science news, listen to Radio Mocha on Radju Malta and www.fb.com/RadioMochaMalta/

Did you know?

• Brushing your teeth is the only time you are brushing your skeleton.

• Mars constantly makes a humming noise.

• Some hummingbirds use a type of light we can’t see to find food.

• A 550-million-year-old fossilised digestive tract was found in Nevada, making it the oldest known digestive tract ever.

For more trivia see: www.um.edu.mt/think

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