My dear friend Suzanne took the above photograph during one of our visits. Perspective makes the grass look almost as tall as me -but it’s waist-high at best, possibly shorter. I was completely entranced by the mountain, so I didn’t notice the exact height. But I’d probably remember slogging through something trying to poke me in the eyeballs. And, of course, the volcano towers over us all, even though it’s off in the distance up and across the broad valley.
In light of Shaq claiming the earth is flat, I figured it was time to publish this article here. Is it always a bad idea to make a wager with a flat earther? Cuz I’d love to bet Shaq that a high-altitude flight would prove the earth’s quite round.
The next matter was a much more serious one, and cost me fifteen years of continued worry, litigation, and persecution, with the final loss of several hundred pounds. And it was all brought upon me by my own ignorance and my own fault—ignorance of the fact so well shown by the late Professor de Morgan—that “paradoxers,” as he termed them, can never be convinced, and my fault in wishing to get money by any kind of wager. It constitutes, therefore, the most regrettable incident in my life.
Sir Charles Lyell, father of modern geology, shared Wallace’s ignorance. They may have steered a much different course had they known the history of the men they hoped to defeat.
19th century Britain was one of the epicenters of the scientific revolution. But with progress comes pushback. Alarmed believers strove to shore up the Bible’s authority, some going much further than others. Not many of them went to greater extremes than Samuel Birley Rowbotham.
Known as Parallax, he was a Biblical literalist, young earth creationist, and quack who believed in a flat, disc-shaped Earth. The North Pole stood at its center, and that was it; in his cosmology, there was no such beast as a South Pole. He backed his contentions with bad math, bogus experiments, and Bible verses. He revived the ancient flat-earth idea and gave it a modern patina of “science,” then used the result to stir up controversy for cash.
One of his many popular lectures on the subject converted William Carpenter, who loved the idea more for its poke in the eye it gave to the scientific establishment than for reasons of biblical fealty. Determined to rid the world of round-earth ideas, he wrote a scathing book called Theoretical Astronomy Examined and Exposed under the (mis)nom(er) de plume Common Sense.
This book soon came to the attention of the man who was to vex Alfred Russel Wallace so sorely. John Hampden, a Protestant rector’s son and all-round arch-conservative, had plenty of leisure time for engaging in argument. His father had left him independently wealthy, although, perhaps suspecting his eldest son would prove prone to causing controversy, stipulated in his will that John would be reduced to a meager £50 per year if he ever did anything to sully the venerable name of Hampden.
John Hampden wasted little time doing just that. After dropping out of Oxford, he occupied himself by publishing various tracts demanding that the Church of England be reformed “on strict Protestant lines.” A staunch biblical literalist “bent on defending Genesis to the hilt,” he was ripe pickings for Carpenter’s flat-earth crusade. Upon reading Theoretical Astronomy, he became convinced the earth was flat, and he had the Bible verses to prove it. Putting his tract-making skills to work, he quickly produced pamphlets such as The Popularity of Error and the Unpopularity of Truth: Shewing the World to be a Stationary Plane and Not a Revolving Globe, purporting to prove the pancake-osity of the planet.
This was the era of steam-powered printing presses and vastly expanding public interest in science, fed by vigorous journalism – a veritable Information Age rather like our own. Like our modern creationists, John Hampden looked on in horror as the masses slurped up all the science they could hold, including the round-earth heresy. He made it his mission to eradicate such ideas from the public consciousness, even when his bombastic techniques horrified his flat-earth grandfather Parallax. Sounding like the Borg of Hampden, he declared that spherical earth theories had to go: “All further resistance is useless.”
And he was willing to wager his money on it.
On January 12th, 1870, Hampden threw down his gauntlet in the weekly journal Scientific Opinion.
What is to be said of the pretended philosophy of the 19th century, when not one educated man in ten thousand knows the shape of the earth on which he dwells? Why, it must be a huge sham! The undersigned is willing to deposit from £50 to £500, on reciprocal terms, and defies all the philosophers, divines and scientific professors in the United Kingdom to prove the rotundity and revolution of the world from Scripture, from reason, or from fact. He will acknowledge that he has forfeited his deposit, if his opponent can exhibit, to the satisfaction of any intelligent referee, a convex railway, river, canal, or lake. JOHN HAMPDEN
Alfred Russel Wallace saw the ad. Though it must have seemed like the easiest of easy money, he was cautious, and consulted a man whom he held in the highest esteem.
Before accepting this challenge I showed it to Sir Charles Lyell, and asked him whether he thought I might accept it. He replied, “Certainly. It may stop these foolish people to have it plainly shown them.”
Poor Wallace, like Lyell, thought that Hampden only needed to be shown some proof in order to accept the plain fact that the earth is round. He knew nothing of Hampden and his ilk, or he may never have accepted the wager. But in addition to wanting to win a cool £500, he believed “that a practical demonstration would be more convincing than the ridicule with which such views are usually met.” He was about to find out that practical demonstrations have absolutely no effect on these truest of true believers.
The first signs that Hampden was determined to win by crook if he couldn’t manage a victory by hook came when Wallace wrote in response to his advertisement, graciously accepting the challenge. Wallace offered to prove the earth’s curvature by measuring “the convexity of a canal or lake.” As for where this was to be done, he was amenable to any suitable stretch of water. “A canal will do if you can find one which is nearly straight for four miles without locks; if not, I propose Bala Lake, in North Wales, as a place admirably suited for the experiment.” He thought any of the editors of several popular science or sporting journals could would be suitably unbiased referees; if not them, then perhaps “any well known Land Surveyor, or Civil Engineer, or any Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.”
Hampden at first seemed quite above-board about the thing, agreeing that Mr. John Henry Walsh, editor of the Field magazine, should serve as referee. Walsh was an ideal choice, as he knew neither of them, was a non-scientist with no skin in the globe-vs-flat-earth game, and had prior experience deciding wagers. But shortly after funds were placed in Walsh’s hands to guarantee the wager, Hampden demanded a referee of his own.
Wallace didn’t see a problem with this, writing back:
Your wish to have a second referee is quite reasonable, and I accede to it at once, only stipulating that he shall not be a personal acquaintance of your own, and shall be a man in some public position as Editor, Author, Engineer, &c.
Hampden, having no scruples in his crusade to prove the earth flat like he was certain the Bible proved, wasted no time in choosing William Carpenter. Yes, that William Carpenter. The one who had converted him to flat-eartherism, with whom he was monetarily entangled, and who could only just be called an author. Having thus secured a referee biased wholly in his favor, Hampden proposed a straight six-mile stretch on Old Bedford Canal for the location of the experiment.
Wallace didn’t know that this same stretch had already been used by Parallax in his own attempts to prove the earth flat – which feat he’d managed by holding his telescope a mere eight inches above the water, thus allowing refraction to interfere with his measurements and give the impression that he was sighting along an utterly flat stretch of water resting on a flat earth. It was a classic example of a poorly-designed experiment yielding invalid results. Hampden was loading the dice as much as he could manage.
So that was how Alfred Russel Wallace, venerable naturalist and science legend, ended up that March on a cold canal in Norfolk, England, squinting through telescopes in a valiant but vain effort to prove the shape of the earth to committed creationists. Since Walsh couldn’t be there for the whole week of experiments, a surgeon and amateur astronomer named Mr. Martin Wales Bedell Coulcher acted as Wallace’s referee. All the interested parties watched Wallace’s painstaking experiment, which had been designed to correct for refraction.
The iron parapet of Welney bridge was thirteen feet three inches above the water of the canal. The Old Bedford bridge, about six miles off, was of brick and somewhat higher. On this bridge I fixed a large sheet of white calico, six feet long and three feet deep, with a thick black band along the centre, the lower edge of which was the same height from the water as the parapet of Welney bridge; so that the centre of it would be as high as the line of sight of the large six-inch telescope I had brought with me. At the centre point, about three miles from each bridge, I fixed up a long pole with two red discs on it, the upper one having its centre the same height above the water as the centre of the black band and of the telescope, while the second disc was four feet lower down. It is evident that if the surface of the water is a perfectly straight line for the six miles, then the three objects—the telescope, the top disc, and the black band—being all exactly the same height above the water, the disc would be seen in the telescope projected upon the black band; whereas, if the six-mile surface of the water is convexly curved, then the top disc would appear to be decidedly higher than the black band, the amount due to the known size of the earth being five feet eight inches, which amount will be reduced a little by refraction to perhaps about five feet.
This experiment showed curvature, as it could not fail to do. Hampden’s mentor and referee Carpenter signed the sketch of the results produced by Mr. Coulcher, affirming it indeed showed what they both had seen.
However, he declared those results were unable to prove the earth was a globe “because the telescope was not leveled, and because it had no cross-hair!”
Wallace, being at pains to ensure that there would be no doubt about the results, proceeded to recalibrate the experiment to Carpenter’s specifications, and ran it again.
At his request to have a spirit-level in order to show if there was any “fall” of the surface of water, I had been to King’s Lynn and borrowed a good Troughton’s level from a surveyor there. This I now set up on the bridge at exactly the same height above the water as the other telescope, and having levelled it very accurately and called Mr. Carpenter to see that the bubble was truly central and that the least movement of the screws elevating or depressing it would cause the bubble to move away, I adjusted the focus on to the distant bridge, and showing also the central staff and its two discs…. We then fixed a calico flag on the parapet to make it more visible, and drove back with the instruments to Old Bedford bridge, where I set up the level again at the proper height above the water, and again asked both the referees to make sketches of what was seen in the level-telescope. This they did. Mr. Carpenter’s was rather more accurately drawn, and Mr. Coulcher signed them as being correct, and both are reproduced here.
This new setup showed the same thing as the first: the earth was indubitably curved. No reasonable person could doubt it. Alas, Wallace was not dealing with reasonable persons. They responded in true creationist fashion: by completely refusing to deal with reality.
Mr. Hampden declined to look through either telescope, saying he trusted to Mr. Carpenter; while the latter declared positively that they had won, and that we knew it; that the fact that the distant signal appeared below the middle one as far as the middle one did below the cross-hair, proved that the three were in a straight line, and that the earth was flat, and he rejected the view in the large telescope as proving nothing for the reasons already stated.
They were at an impasse. At first, Hampden refused an umpire to decide between the referees. Eventually, he agreed to have Walsh review the results, and both sides sent in sketches and reports. Walsh weighed the evidence, decided it did indeed prove the earth was spherical, and published both materials and his conclusion in the Field.
Hampden threw a fit. Carpenter wrote “a long argument to show that the experiments were all in Mr. Hampden’s favour.” This diatribe didn’t sway Walsh. He declared Wallace the positive winner, and, despite Hampden demanding his money back, gave the winnings to Wallace.
Unfortunately, British law didn’t protect gentlemen’s interests when it came to bets, even if the wager was strictly along scientific lines, and would eventually force Wallace to give the money back. Of course, by then, that amount was offset by the judgements entered in Wallace’s favor against Hampden, who had embarked on an extraordinary 15-year campaign of abuse and libel that landed him in both jail and court several times. He sent vitriolic letters to everyone he could think of, including Wallace’s wife:
“Mrs. Wallace,—Madam, if your infernal thief of a husband is brought home some day on a hurdle, with every bone in his head smashed to pulp, you will know the reason. Do you tell him from me he is a lying infernal thief, and as sure as his name is Wallace he never dies in his bed.
“You must be a miserable wretch to be obliged to live with a convicted felon. Do not think or let him think I have done with him.
Death threats were beyond the pale of English law, as were various and sundry libelous statements and a refusal to desist when court-ordered to. Wallace won several actions, but Hampden declared bankruptcy, probably to prevent him from collecting damages. In the end, with all the court costs, and despite being the wronged party throughout it all, Wallace’s woeful wager cost him several hundred pounds and no end of trouble.
Still, he’d done his best to, as Lyell said, “stop these foolish people.” He’d learned a valuable lesson we would be wise to heed today: don’t accept wagers from men who are religiously motivated to believe in easily-disproved notions such as the idea of a flat earth. And he’d shown with an elegant little experiment that the earth is definitely round, which our images from space gorgeously support.
Over at Rosetta Stones, I’ve got an article up talking about phreatic eruptions and the recent excitement on Etna. I of course had to have a photo to go with it. The glorious problem in selecting said photo is that I run across so many awesome photos that don’t really illustrate the article, but are too good not to share. So it’s my great pleasure to share them with you here. And stay tuned at the end for some awesome video footage of phreatic eruptions and what happens when people get caught in them!
People. You have to meet these geoscientists! They are awesome. Their work is fascinating. And they are ensuring that we have a whole new generation of kids who will adore the good science of rock-breaking.
My conservative Christian former best friend used to say that too much prayer rots the brain. Earth Science 4th Edition provides clear evidence of this right from the blurb at the start of the “Oceans and Seas” chapter. They begin talking about desalination by saying wow, there’s more people on Earth than ever! Yay! “God didn’t place a limit on how many people should inhabit the earth.”
I really wish the Bible had a verse placing strict limits on the total population, and ordering dominionists like the BJU believers to adhere to a strict “One child, no conversion, no evangelizing, and for My sake put a condom on that thing!” policy. Because it seems they believe that God wants as many people stuffed onto the planet as possible, limited resources be damned. They acknowledge the fact that a huge population makes things like having enough drinking water for everyone a serious issue. But they pretend that’s all fine, since we invented desalinization plants. Breed away! God placed no limits on population, so let’s have humans stacked a dozen deep over every square inch of the planet! Fuck logic and sense, yo!
Fools like this are why I’m one of those atheists who thinks we really need, as a species, to do away with the idea of holy books* all together. We can’t be trusted with it.
Dominion is a strong theme at the beginning of this chapter. “Oceans for Man’s Use” is the very first section. After giving us lots of facts about the oceans, like their size and how they help regulate the earth’s temperature, and how most of our oxygen “comes from photosynthetic organisms living in” them, they tell us it’s important to exercise dominion over them.
Oy. These people are massive control freaks. Instead of caring for or partnering with things, they want to exercise jackbooted thuggery over it all. In a “good and wise” manner, they hasten to assure us. Considering they think it’s a bonza idea to fill Earth with people until there’s no room for anything else, I’m not believing they’re qualified to judge what’s good or wise.
I’m dead before we begin. They’re just… I mean… well, look at this shit:
We know that there was at least one continent where everything lived when God created the earth. Creationary geologists think that the continent foundation or basement was probably the rock we call granite, which makes up the deepest rocks under the continents today.
They yammer about how they can totes see the “key geologic phases of the earth” if they just look at the strata “from a biblical viewpoint.” They think they see the vast majority of rocks either forming in or being redeposited by the Flood. They have no real idea how minerals precipitate from a solution to form masses of rock. They don’t know how consolidation happens. The things they think happened in a single Flood year don’t happen that fast and/or in those kinds of conditions (here’s one example). We’ve studied this. We’ve done experiments. We know.
Of course, they admit the Flood didn’t create the entire geologic column. There was that mythical post-Flood ice age, carving valleys and dumping glacial detritus all over the place. Never mind that we have evidence for multiple ice ages – just put on your Biblical Blinders, kids, and you’ll see there’s only one!
United States volcanoes sure have been busy grabbing our attention this spring! Both Mount St. Helens and Mount Hood have experienced earthquake swarms (which, darn it, is completely normal activity and not a sign of imminent eruptions). Kilauea had some exciting new lava breakouts recently. And Mauna Loa just got bumped from normal to advisory status due to an increase in seismic activity (although it’s not quite signalling an eruption – yet).
These volcanoes are quite different from each other, but they share two things in common: they’re pretty popular, and their eruptions can have some pretty serious effects on urban areas.
You may have these or other volcanoes as neighbors. It pays to be aware of what they’re up to and what they’re capable of. You’ll definitely want a plan for coping with any of their shenanigans! So here are six easy steps all of us living near active or potentially-active volcanoes can follow to keep safe and happy. Continue reading “Dealing With Volcanoes in 6 Easy Steps”→
Here’s how to deal with the fact that a great orange buffoon is getting sworn into our highest office: go see Hidden Figures. Just go. Go see black women fighting misogyny and racism and Jim Crow while doing badass math. You need to see that right now.
*This review is mostly spoiler-free*
Take your children to go see it. Yes, even the young ones. Yes, even the teens. Look: I was in a theater full of little kids and teenagers, and they were sitting there beside unrelated adults up to the age of probably-watched-John-Glenn-orbit-live-on-teevee-with-their-own-kids, and apparently they were all riveted. I have never been to a movie that full of young folk who were so extraordinarily quiet. I’ve never been in an auditorium packed with nearly 400 people of all ages and had such an uninterrupted experience. The kids will do fine, and they need to see this.
Hollywood put out a movie about black women doing math, and it was spellbinding. I never thought they’d try. And since they tried, I never thought they’d do it with so much math and so few explosions. They had exploding rockets, but seemed almost embarrassed to mention them. There was a love story, but only because one of the real women this movie is based on actually got married in the middle of our race to space. It wasn’t shoved in just to hook our emotions, and you get the feeling they’d rather be doing more math. The movie stayed remarkably true to actual, historical events.
You’ll get to meet three of the most extraordinary women in our country’s scientific history: Katherine Goble (later Johnson), Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. You will get to see them be math nerds. You will get to see them have interests other than marriage and children. Hell, you’ll even get to see one of them fix a car. In a dress. Did you know women could fix cars while wearing dresses? Well, now you do.
You’ll get to see three black women star in their own story, as heroes, not as sidekicks and inspirations to white people. This wasn’t a story about white people learning how not to be racist gits (although several white people learned this, the movie isn’t about them). This wasn’t a story about three career women trying to also balance their roles as wives and mothers (although they were). This wasn’t a story about men learning how to deal with career women, women smarter than them, and figuring out how not to be sexist gits (although this all happens).
Take your seasickness prevention pills and weigh anchor, my darlings. We are embarking on a long voyage, and I’m afraid it isn’t the lovely salt sea, but an ocean of creationist bilge we be sailin’. BJU has got a lot to say about oceanography. A good portion of it is utter bunkum. And there’s three bloody chapters of this shite.