Gateway to the Classics: The Earth and Sky by E. S. Holden
The Earth and Sky by  E. S. Holden

The Earth Is Not Flat

Well, Master Frank, as you wish to learn something about astronomy, suppose we begin our first lesson. Astronomy is the science that tells us about the sun and the moon and the stars as you know already.

But let us first talk a little about the earth. By and by we will talk about the stars. They are so very far off that we shall have some trouble to understand much about them. But we are living on the earth, and if we take pains we can find out a great many things about it. And what we find out will be interesting, too.

Of course, you  know that the earth is not really flat, though it certainly seems to be so. It is really a huge ball, larger than anything you can imagine. You know that very well. But just knowing a thing is not enough. You must be able to say why  you know. And that is not so easy. Taking pains and knowing why is pretty much all of science, and we might as well begin at once.

I am going to ask you what you would do if I should introduce you to one of those little Eskimo boys that Lieutenant Peary found living on the flat ice in the arctic regions, and if I should say, "Now, Master Frank, here is a little boy of your own age who doesn't believe the earth is round at all. He speaks English, you know. And he is quite a bright boy, too. But he says the earth looks  flat, and that it must really be  flat"—what would you say to that? How would you make him understand? It will not be of the least use to tell him that all the people you know—papa, mamma, Aunt Clara, and your school-teacher—say that it is certainly so.

He would probably say that these are very nice people, but that his eyes tell him that the earth looks  flat. And shall he not trust his own eyes? It will be of no use to say that he is stupid, and that he has got to believe what he is told. He is not stupid. He just does not know. And we have got to teach him.

If we really know about it ourselves, we can do that by taking enough pains. But I think it will take quite a long time. Suppose we try it together. You could do it by yourself, no doubt. But perhaps we can do it more quickly if we both try. Recollect that this little Eskimo boy will not believe a single thing unless we can make him see with his own eyes that it is just as we say it is.

There is one thing that we might do that would certainly convince him, though it would take a long time and would cost more money than we could possibly spare. We might make him sail quite round the world in a ship, and come back to us here and tell us where he had been, and how he happened to be back where he started from. Just let us see how we might do this if we only could.

In the first place, we should have to go to the bank and get a great deal of money—as much money as would be needed to hire one of the ocean steamships, with her captain and all her men, for three or four months. And we should have to buy coal for the engines and food for the men, and all sorts of fittings for the ship. If a rope should break, or be lost overboard, there must be a new one all ready to put in its place.


A large steamship, fit to sail round the world

Then we should have to go down to a seaport and find a steamer to hire. No doubt one could be found. There are always plenty of them. We should have to tell the captain just what we wanted him to do. "The whole ship and all the men on it are wanted, Captain, just to take this little Eskimo boy round the world and to bring him back to New York."

"But why in the world," the captain would probably say, "do you want this little boy to take this long voyage of twenty-five thousand miles?"  "Oh, just to prove to him that the world is, in fact, round and not flat." I suppose the captain would be astonished, don't you? But he would have to go, all the same. We should put our boy on the ship, and he would sail away out of the harbor, past Sandy Hook lighthouse to the east.

You and I can follow on the map the way the ship would go. In the first place they would sail to the east, across the Atlantic Ocean, through the Straits of Gibraltar, till they got into the Mediterranean Sea; and then nearly the whole length of this sea to the Suez Canal; and down the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean; and round the end of India to the Pacific; and, always sailing toward the east, across the Pacific Ocean and around Cape Horn into the Atlantic again, and finally back to Sandy Hook once more. They would have to stop for more coal and for fresh provisions at quite a number of places, and they could hardly arrive at Sandy Hook before three or four months.


Two hemispheres of the earth. You must try to trace out the track of a ship sailing round the world.

In the meantime you and I might amuse ourselves in many ways, and almost forget our ship, and the little boy. But finally there would come news that the ship was coming in, and we should go down to the wharf to meet it. What a lot of things our little boy would have seen in his long voyage! What a wise boy he would have become! He would certainly know one thing, at any rate. He would know that you could sail quite round the world, and that it was so large that it took something like four months to make the voyage.

But this would be a very costly way to teach a single boy, and to teach him so little, after all. There are much better ways, and we shall have to think about them.

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