The Flat Earth Game

A particular hobby of mine is arguing about whether or not Earth is flat. I know I’m very unlikely to ever convince a Flat-Earther that Earth is approximately spherical and orbits the Sun, but I still like coming up with arguments for it.

An Introduction to Flat Earth Cosmology

According to the Flat Earth movement, Earth is a flat disk, with the North Pole at the centre, and an “Ice Wall” (known to most of the world as “Antarctica”) around the edge (a few Flat-Earthers claim there are more continents beyond the Ice Wall).

flat earth diagram The orbits of the Sun and Moon in the Flat Earth model
https://aplanetruth.info/23-why-was-nasa-created/flat-earth-images/

The Equator is a circle halfway between the North Pole and the Edge.

The Sun and Moon move around the Earth in circles in 24 hour cycles, moving directly above the Tropic of Cancer on the Northern Hemisphere’s Summer Solstice, the Tropic of Capricorn on the Southern Hemisphere’s Summer Solstice, and the Equator on the Equinoxes. At all other times the circle around which the Sun moves is between the Tropics, presumably according to the latitude at which the Sun is directly overhead on that particular day. This gives us a day/night cycle, since the Sun only illuminates a certain area of Earth at a time, like a spotlight.

The Moon does not reflect the light of the Sun, but gives off its own light. According to some Flat-Earthers, moonlight actually reduces the temperature of objects it falls on, as demonstrated in some highly questionable experiments on Youtube (Of course anyone who has any knowledge of anything about energy or light or anything like that will realise that this is almost certainly nonsense. What in fact appears to be happening is that areas in the “moonshade” aren’t as exposed to the sky, so don’t lose as much heat that way.).

This whole system is contained within a dome or “firmament”, made of glass, water, or some other, similar substance. The stars and planets are lights shining from the firmament.

In this universe, gravity is not a real force (there is simply a physical law that denser materials sink below less dense materials), and there is no such thing as Space (photos taken from Space are fake and astronauts are lying).

Missing the point of Flat Earth

Globe-Earthers arguing with Flat-Earthers often miss the point of the Flat Earth model, failing to realise that it operates within a very different paradigm to Proper Science. Here are some examples of common ways they do this:

Pictures of Earth from Space

This is a mistake often made by Globe-Earthers who are relatively new to the Flat Earth scene. You post a photograph of Earth from Space, claiming that picture proves Earth is round. The problem is that this assumes that whoever claims to have taken the photograph is basically trustworthy. The Flat Earth Movement, however, is characterised by a total distrust of mainstream scientific authorities, especially NASA, who are a key part of a huge conspiracy to hide the true shape of Earth for one of various reasons. Flat-Earthers generally claim any photograph of Earth from Space is “CGI” (and in fairness to them, most of them actually are composites).

Pictures of the “curvature” from high altitudes

Another common Globe-Earth argument is to show a picture of Earth from, for example, a weather balloon, and claim that the curvature of the Earth is visible in it. This is distinct from the “photograph from space” argument, since Flat-Earthers agree that the photographs are taken from an altitude it is actually possible to reach.

The Flat-Earth response is generally that the apparent curvature results from the nature of the camera lens. In this case, they’re actually often right. At the altitudes reached by weather balloons, the visible curvature of the Earth is still very small. It’s well-known that wide-angle lenses result in a seemingly curved horizon, even at low elevations, and this is often the result of most of the “curvature” you see on photographs from GoPros on weather balloons. For example, in this video of a weather balloon launch, you can see the horizon bending all over the place due to lens effects as the balloon goes up.

“Where’s the Ice Wall?”

If you ask a Flat-Earther this, they’ll probably show you a picture of an Antarctic ice shelf meeting the sea, and tell you that’s the Ice Wall. This leads to a very silly argument, since the photo does not illustrate anything except that Antarctica exists, which neither side actually denies. The Flat-Earthers just have the peculiar habit of calling its coastline the “Ice Wall” (As an aside, Flat-Earthers often claim that the Antarctic Treaty says nobody’s allowed to visit Antarctica. This is bollocks).

“Why are the other planets round?”

This one particularly annoys me, because people who ask this have clearly not even tried to understand the Flat Earth model. Possibly the most fundamental tenet of the Flat Earth movement (even more important than the claim that Earth is flat) is the rejection of the Copernican principle (the idea that Earth is not the centre of the Universe). The idea that Earth should be spherical because the other planets are spherical already assumes that the other planets are a bit like Earth, and a basically heliocentric understanding of Earth’s position in the universe, which is not a part of Flat Earth cosmology.

The Flat Earth Game

The key mistake Globe-Earthers make in Flat Earth arguments is approaching the question from within the mainstream scientific paradigm. Earth is not the centre of the Universe, the laws of physics are applicable everywhere and at any scale, scientific authorities are usually trustworthy, etc.

The problem is that Flat-Earthers don’t play by these rules. In order to have a good argument with a Flat-Earther, a Globe-Earther needs to argue within the Flat Earth paradigm. They need to play by the rules of the Flat Earth Game.

In this game, the only experimental evidence that is allowed is that from experiments that you (or others amateurs) are able to perform yourself. Things you can personally observe. Anything that you’ve just learnt in school, or read about, is not acceptable evidence that Earth is round.

Good evidence that the Flat Earth model is wrong

Here are some pieces of evidence that the Flat Earth model is incorrect that are acceptable within the rules of the Flat Earth Game. Flat-Earthers generally struggle to challenge these without just getting things wrong.

Things disappearing over the horizon

One of the earliest ways people have shown that the surface of Earth is curved is by watching distant ships. You will notice that, as a ship moves away, the hull disappears first, and the mast is the last part visible on the horizon.

Shiphorp
A ship partly obscured by the horizon
By Anton [CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

This is difficult to explain on a Flat Earth, but makes perfect sense on a globe.

Another example, that is very easy to observe, is a sunset. The bottom of the sun is very clearly the first part that ceases to be visible, and then the top. If you watch a sunset through a filter that removes glare (I probably don’t need to tell you this, but don’t look at the sun without a filter), you will see that the angular size of the Sun (how much of the sky it takes up) changes very little.

Time Lapse SunsetA time lapse of a sunset, showing the sun being obscured by the horizon.
By Odd Høydalsvik, http://www.hoydalsvik.net/astrofoto/sun/timelapse.html

This is totally at odds with the Flat Earth model’s version, where the Sun recedes into the distance.

On a related note, in the Flat Earth model, you should be able to use a telescope to see the Sun at night. I have yet to see anyone try it.

Stars in the Southern Hemisphere

In the Southern Hemisphere, the stars appear to move in circular paths around a central point (the South Celestial Pole).

Star trail and aurora over Mount Wellington, TasmaniaStar trails seen from Mount Wellington, Tasmania
By Shu1188 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

In the Flat Earth model, all the stars move around the North Pole.

Also, in the Flat Earth model, places in the Southern Hemisphere are a very long way apart, so you shouldn’t be able to see the same stars from Australia as from Argentina. You can, which shows a deep flaw in the Flat Earth model.

Flight paths and shipping routes in the Southern Hemisphere

A trend we’re seeing here is that the Flat Earth model works much better in the Northern Hemisphere than the Southern Hemisphere.

perth joburg flight The route of a flight from Perth to Johannesburg, which makes sense on a globe, but would bend weirdly outwards on a flat Earth
http://flatearthdeception.com/flights-prove-the-flat-earth-deception/
Screenshot from https://www.flightradar.co.uk/

In the Northern Hemisphere, flights and shipping routes are explained quite well. Great circles (the shortest paths between points along the surface of a sphere) on the Northern Hemisphere of a globe become straight lines on the Azimuthal Equidistant Projection used by the Flat Earth model. In the Southern Hemisphere, however, it’s a very different story. The great circles routes followed by ships and planes end up curved outwards towards the Edge, while if they were following straight lines on a flat earth, they would travel towards the Centre and then back out.

Long summer days in the Southern Hemisphere

The Flat Earth model, with the sun close to the Centre in the Northern summer and closer to the Edge in the Southern summer, works quite well for explaining varying day lengths in the Northern Hemisphere. However, it falls apart in the Southern Hemisphere. To explain the varying day lengths in the Southern Hemisphere, the patch of light cast by the Sun has to take on a very odd shape indeed. The argument Flat-Earthers tend to use here is that it reflects off the firmament, but that’s a total fudge, and would lead to times when, in the Southern Hemisphere, there appear to be 2 Suns – a real one and a reflected one.

Conclusions

You can argue convincingly, based purely on things that you or other amateurs can observe, that the Flat Earth model is incorrect. That is not, however, to say that I know with certainty that it is round. My position is that, given the evidence at my disposal – things disappearing over the horizon, the apparent symmetry of the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, the implausibility of a vast, international conspiracy to hide the true shape of the Earth, etc. – the Globe model has far greater explanatory power, and is simpler and more satisfying. These advantages are so great that you would need very convincing evidence to persuade me that Earth is flat, and I’ve yet to see any evidence like that.

Svartskerry: Part 1

See also: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

“How much do you know about what happened at Svartskerry?” Abigail asked, casually stepping off the pier into the little dinghy, bobbing in the murky harbour.

“I don’t know anything except it’s meant to be haunted.” Replied Sophie, tentatively stumbling onboard and quickly sitting down.

Abigail started the engine, and the boat began to pull away.

“It’s haunted as fuck. There’s a pretty cool story behind it as well.”

“Go on.”

“You see what happened was, while the lighthouse was still working, there were two people living there, right? There was the lighthouse-keeper, and his assistant. Now the lighthouse keeper was pretty standard, right? He was just a guy who’d used to be in the Merchant Navy. But his assistant was more interesting. The thing with his assistant is nobody knows who he was. The name he was calling himself was almost certainly fake, and he never told anyone his real name. But he didn’t t in at all. He was very well-spoken, obviously educated. Going off his accent, he was English. But he barely spoke to anyone. He kept himself to himself, and nobody knows how or why he ended up out here at all, working at the lighthouse. I guess they were just desperate for people to work there and didn’t ask many questions.”

“Then what?”

The boat roared through the voe, cutting through the bluegreen-brown waves, as the village became nothing more than a series of white specks beneath the lowering clouds.

Sophie would never admit it to Abigail, but she was starting to feel seasick.

“What’s that, Sophie? You want me to slow down?” Abigail taunted, over the hum of the engine and the roar of the waves against the bow.

“No, keep going. What happened to these lighthouse-keepers?”

The boat turned round a towering, grey headland, and into the open sea. Abigail, standing proudly, feet wide apart, at the helm, with the raging sea breeze whipping cold and salty spray across her face, turned her head back towards Sophie.

“So what happened was the two of them had been working there for a couple of years right? And one winter a storm blew up. You seen the storms out here? Waves 60 feet high crashing against the lighthouse, wind so strong it’s hard to stay standing. etc. etc. So anyway, the light’s on in the lighthouse one of these stormy nights, and in the morning it just stays on. And all day into the next night and the next day, until it starts to run out of fuel. So of course the lighthouse-keepers were meant to put the light out in the morning and light it at night and keep it topped up with fuel, so now people knew something was up.
“The problem was the sea was very rough, and there was no chance of landing a boat there, so they couldn’t get anyone to the lighthouse for a few days. When the sea had calmed down a bit and they got a chance, There was nobody there.

“They looked all over the lighthouse, but they didn’t find any traces of anyone. No bodies, nothing. Sort of a Marie Celeste kind of thing. The strangest part, though, was that the boat that they’d had moored at the jetty was still there. If the boat had been gone, you could have said they left in that, but it was still there. It was still tied up to the jetty. It didn’t look like there was any way they could have left, but there they weren’t.”

The shore was now nothing more than a black stripe on the horizon, beneath the brooding clouds. Abigail laughed as the little boat lurched up and down and up and down, bounding over the choppy water. Sophie tried to bury her head in her coat in an effort to keep of the frigid wind and biting spray.

“A few lighthouse keepers came and went, but none of them could handle it. The place was abandoned in the ’30s.”

Before long, their destination came into view – a mass of black slabs of rock, rising up from the water, and a dirty-white column piercing the menacing sky. Abigail turned off the engine, and the boat just bobbed, silently, as the waves rolled around it. She stepped up to the bow and stood there, like Washington Crossing the Delaware, as she surveyed the rugged skerry, looking for a landing site.

The rocks on the near side of the island had been beaten into a precariously balanced arch, and Sophie became briefly mesmerised by the waves rising up, crashing around inside it, foam racing up into the crevices of the layered rock and then back out. In and out and up and down and in and out…

“Hey! Sophie!” Abigail shouted.

Sophie lifted up her head and looked over to where Abigail was pointing. She couldn’t help but smile as she noticed a big, blubbery seal roll over and slide and drag itself off the rocks into the dark water.

Abigail returned to the helm, and the engine sputtered back into life. She began slowly steering the boat round the skerry, eventually pulling up alongside the rusty remains of an old iron jetty.

She vaulted up onto the bent metal platform. Sophie, eager to stand on firm ground again, tried to stand up.

“Hold on a moment, will you?” Abigail reprimanded her, as she secured the boat to a post, caked in rust, and did the same at the other end.

Sophie took her hand and heaved herself up, staggering onto the uneven surface. Abigail leapt back into the boat and pulled out a carrier bag full of food, a crate of lager, two sleeping bags and a hurricane lamp, passing them up to Sophie.

Slowly and cautiously, to avoid slipping on the rocks that gleamed with rain and spray, the two adventurers scrambled up towards the windswept lighthouse.

The assumptions inherent in all science

Science is very important. If it wasn’t for science, we wouldn’t know very much at all. Science, in a very broad sense (learning about the world from repeated empirical observations) has presumably been going on at least as long as humans have existed, and probably earlier. More formal, rigorous approaches have been developing as civilisation has become more advanced, culminating in what’s now known as The Scientific Method™.

The Scientific Method™ is often considered to be pretty much infallible with regard to determining facts about how the universe works. You make observations. You make a hypothesis to explain them. You use that hypothesis to make testable predictions. You do experiments to check whether the predictions are correct. If the predictions are wrong, you make a new hypothesis. If they’re right, and you can repeat the experiment and get the same results, then you’ve got a theory, and after a while, if nobody can prove it wrong, everyone just sort of accepts that it’s right.

But we’re still actually dealing with a fuckload of assumptions, that we have no real justification for, but we kind of have to stick with if we’re going to be able to do science.

Assumption 1: My senses present the world to me in a way that has some relation to the way the world is

I’ll admit, this one is a bit silly. The problem is, though, it’s very difficult to disprove. Descartes tried it, but just ended up digging himself into a massive hole with an argument about an Evil Demon that’s putting ideas into my mind and couldn’t really get out of it without some very dodgy reasoning.

The philosophical establishment seems to have largely given up at trying to rigorously prove that there’s not a Cartesian Evil Demon. Instead, we’ve got things like George Edward Moore’s argument:

  • p1: *holds up hand* “Here is a hand”
  • p2: *holds up other hand* “Here is another hand”
  • Therefore external objects exist.

Or Wittgenstein’s argument that we can’t disprove global skepticism but we still shouldn’t take it seriously because then we wouldn’t be able to do any philosophy or science or anything really.

Of course, if we don’t know whether there is an external world at all, we can’t do science, so we just assume that our senses are basically reliable (barring known exceptions such as optical illusions, dreams, intoxication etc., and with the help of scientific instruments).

Assumption 2: Induction works

Science is based on the idea that, if something’s happened lots in the past, it’s going to happen again in the future. That’s how you make predictions from a hypothesis. Karl Popper tried to say science doesn’t use induction, but if you’ve ever actually studied science you’ll know that it totally does. That’s why you repeat an experiment lots of times, and the more times you repeat it and get the same result the more seriously that result is taken.

The problem here is that, as pointed out by David Hume, 18th Century Scotland’s greatest troll, there’s no way to know that induction actually works. The fact that the sun has risen every day in the past is not a good reason to believe that it will rise tomorrow. Much like global skepticism, this turns out to be very difficult to argue with. I could say induction has always worked in the past, but that would be circular.

Again, we kind of have to stick with this assumption, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to do science.

Assumption 3: The Cosmological Principle

The Cosmological Principle is the idea that the universe is basically the same wherever you’re looking from. There are no particularly privileged viewpoints. Essentially, it can be viewed as a spatial analogue of the induction principle. According to the induction principle, a physical law that has been observed in the past will also hold in the future. Similarly, according to the Cosmological Principle, a physical law in one part of the universe also holds everywhere else.

Much like induction, this is essential to make predictions about distant parts of the universe, but it is also subject to a similar problem. Empirical evidence of the Cosmological Principle consists of the fact that the universe looks roughly isotropic and homogeneous from Earth, and then the generalisation from that to the idea that it looks isotropic and homogeneous from everywhere because Earth isn’t special. This is clearly circular. We have no good reason to use the Cosmological Principle, but we kind of have to in order to study the universe.

Assumption 4: Occam’s Razor

Occam’s Razor is the well-known idea that a scientific theory should not use more concepts than are necessary to explain what it explains. You should prefer simpler theories. This isn’t especially critical, and is generally overridden when a more complicated theory has greater explanatory power than a simpler one. However, it is still used to choose which of two theories to prefer, all other things being equal.

But there’s no reason to believe simplicity leads to truth. It’s just a rule of thumb, nothing more. It’s used largely arbitrarily, because we need some way of distinguishing between theories and choosing which to investigate. It’s another unjustified assumption that we need for science to work.

Conclusions

We need these assumptions. Sure, science is not totally justified, but we still need science. Without science, we wouldn’t be able to know anything. As Wittgenstein pointed out, if we were to take this kind of skepticism seriously, it would end up getting silly. We wouldn’t be able to function. So we need to assume things. Maybe somewhere else, there are some aliens that have developed a scientific method with different, but similarly arbitrary, assumptions, and come to different conclusions that still work. But we can’t do away with arbitrary epistemological assumptions altogether and expect to have a functional civilisation.

The Chain Gang

“taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN!”

In the distance, a bevy of snare drums beat a harsh and unrelenting tattoo.

“taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN!”

The crowd of onlookers pushed forward against the barrier in front of the pothole-ridden road, each excited breath forming a wisp of water vapour in the crisp, clear winter air.

“taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN!”

Two children darted among the forest of legs, trying to get a better view of the spectacle that was to come, their enthusiastic shouts piercing through the cold above the sharp and ever-approaching beat of the drums.

“taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN!”

A dead-eyed soldier watched the crowd carefully, pacing back and forth in heavy boots, her rifle angled towards the ground.

“taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN!”

Then the grim procession began to come into view. A stern-faced officer goose-stepped at its head, a row of medals on chest, glinting in the low, pale Sun against the dark-green wool of his dress uniform. The tassels on his epaulettes swung in time to the beats of his brightly-polished boots against the rough tarmac.

“taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN!”

Next came the drummers, in a perfect row, each in an identical, maroon beret. The sticks became a blur, vibrating in that beat that just kept going and going.

“taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN!”

It was only then that I saw the prisoners. Each shaven head, bruised and bloody, staring at the manacled feet of the next. They shuffled steadily forwards, occasionally prodded back into line by a rifle-butt.

“taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN!”

And a murmur spread among the crowd, growing to a roar, and becoming a low, steady boo. An incomprehensible shout pierced the monotone every few seconds. Coherence was soon lost, and the air began to writhe with jeers and shrieks and rotting projectiles, as the pathetic chain-gang passed, headed for the train that would take them away to the far-flung North.

“taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN!”

One of the wretched train glanced up, away from the shabby road surface, before catching the eye of one of the ever-vigilant guards and fixing his eyes sheepishly on the ground once more. But in that moment, that one, fleeting moment, I saw, among his gaunt and emaciated features, his eyes. Startling, bright-green eyes.

I had seen those eyes before. You would never forget eyes like that. I couldn’t quite pin down what it was about them, but there was something extraordinary.

I had seen them before, on a wet April afternoon, just outside the station. He had been muttering something. Nobody caught what it was that he said, but that was beside the point. He had breached Protocol.

Within seconds, he was lying on the shiny-wet flagstones with a black boot on his back and blood pouring out of his nose. As he was dragged away, silent, accepting a terrible fate that he must have known, accepting the prospect of suffering that I could not imagine, that was the moment I noticed the eyes.

“taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN!”

And now he was heading back to the station, back to the place where his life had disappeared forever, then to the wild and distant North.

“taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN!”

The others would have been similar. Maybe they had taken too long to answer questions. Maybe they had admitted to an attraction that had turned out not to be reciprocated. Maybe they had greeted somebody who they had not known well enough. Anyway, they were Enemies of Society and had to be removed.

“taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tara…”

The Desert

Lika was like a diamond. Not because she sparkled or looked pretty as an ornament or anything like that, but because she had withstood years being crushed, stretched and twisted, in the intense heat, and had come out unbreakable.

And now there was only the sandy asphalt and the desert night, the clear, navy-blue sky scattered with billions upon billions of flaming balls of nuclear fusion.

Kasim lit a cigarette, and I coughed, as the dusty wind in the open window blew the smoke back into my face.

“If we break down here, it’s 300 kilometres to the nearest town, and it could be days before anyone else comes along here. Can someone just make sure we remembered to pack the water?”

He laughed. Nobody else laughed.

“Just kidding. It’s in the glovebox.”

I caught a glimpse of Lika’s face in a flash of moonlight in the window, before her head moved and was again lost in shadow. She was smiling, but it was not a smile of naivety, it was a smile that had seen just about everything there is to see. And those eyes seemed to hold secrets older than the world itself.

When we had lost Leo, she said nothing. Amid screams of terror and anguish, surrounded by gunfire, she had simply stood there, still and silent, like Shadrach, Mesach and Abednego in Babylon’s fiery furnace. When Kasim had pulled her into the car, she did not resist. She simply accepted what was happening. She let the universe carry her through, observing.

Little Andrea woke up in his mother’s lap.

“When will we be there?” He asked.

“We’ll be there soon, darling, we’ll be there soon.”

Leo was gone, which was lucky, since we wouldn’t all have fit in the car otherwise. But then, if Leo was still with us, we wouldn’t need to be here at all.

I’d seen them with him, but I’d just kept walking.

Lika said nothing. Lika always said nothing.

Kasim had finished his cigarette, and let the still-glowing butt fall from the window. A pinprick of bright red light, borne on the warm desert wind, rose and fell and curled and spiralled, as it drifted away onto the empty sand and darkness.

It was impossible to tell whether it had gone out, or simply drifted out of sight.

The road to the south still streaked on, black against black sand, straight and dark and unending.

Lika was under the bed. I was breathing heavily. The spring rain hammered on the window, running down the street, churning the sun-baked dirt of the town square into a mire of mud and filth. A lizard, escaping the rain, crawled in through a crack in the window. She ran across Leo’s unmoving, unfeeling hand, and onto his bare torso. He moved, and then was still again.

And there was the moon, cold and silent, looking out over everything. Occasionally, it lit up Andrea, sleeping in his mother’s lap. Occasionally, its light fell across Lika’s motionless face. She might not even know what she’d done. There was no way to tell.

For the first time in however many hours or days, the headlights fell on a junction. I didn’t notice which direction Kasim took. All I noticed were the crossroads. I suppose it didn’t matter. Whichever way we went, I would never know the other way.

I dragged Lika out, stood her up, looked her in the eye, whispered in her ear, and let her fall back to the ground. Leo woke up.

“When will we be there?” Andrea asked.

“We’ll be there soon, darling, we’ll be there soon.”

I hadn’t noticed before, but the door was slightly ajar. I could see a narrow strip of the peeling white paint on the wall on the opposite side of the corridor. A thin, slightly diagonal beam of sunlight cut it in two. Footsteps came down the corridor. I could tell instantly whose they were, in that way you sometimes can. There are subtleties in footfalls that you don’t even notice you notice, but they build up to tell you everything. Perhaps we’re more intelligent than we think.

Kasim’s shadow briefly blocked out the sunlight on the back wall, and he just kept on walking.

I smelled smoke in the air. Another house in the town was burning. Everyone just sat there. I just sat there, while all of someone’s worldly possessions were transformed into smoke and ash. But then, what could we do?

The wind picked up, and sand started to blow in through the open windows. We closed all except the front passenger window, where the mechanism jammed. It was no use, so we wrapped whatever cloth we could find over our mouths and noses. I used my kaffiyeh for myself, and Andrea’s blanket for Lika. The kid was asleep. He wouldn’t miss it.

Kasim loved Lika. He never let her out of his sight. But for now she was mine, in the stuffy little room, with the peeling plaster and the cracked window and the occasional cockroach or snake.

And Kasim just kept on walking.

I tied Andrea’s blanket at the back of Lika’s head, over her tangled, black hair, not that she noticed or cared, or that it would do any good. It just seemed like the right thing to do. In the process, I moved her head, she faced me, and in the moonlight, I glimpsed her still, silent face and her eye, her eyes, deep and mysterious, staring into mine. Eyes that had seen so much as to extinguish whatever youthful spark once flashed there, and that now looked at me with a sort of cold knowingness. She’d knew everything I’d done, and she knew I knew she knew everything I’d done, and she knew that I thought I knew everything she’d done, but she also knew I had no idea of anything she’d done.

That was the first time I realised that. I knew nothing of her.

“When will we be there?”

“We’ll be there soon, darling, we’ll be there soon.”

The sun began to rise over the town, as I looked out of the window and saw Leo running, running, running. I never found out what he was running from, only that he was running. I kissed Lika’s cheek, went downstairs, and ran out to meet him. Then he was lying on the bed next to me with a lizard crawling over him.

The sun began to rise over the desert, cutting, golden, through the deep blue and casting strange shadows on the sand.

Saying nothing, Kasim stopped the car, opened the door, picked up Lika, with surprising ease – she did not resist, she just let it all happen. I could have fought back, but I didn’t. Sometimes, there’s no point. Some things are just meant to happen. Some things you can’t fight, some things you shouldn’t fight.

And Kasim just kept on walking.

What are the continents?

Conventionally, there are generally said to be 7 continents: Africa, Antarctica, Asia, Europe, North America, Oceania and South America. In this set-up, all the land on Earth is assigned to a continent, and the boundaries of the continents are often rather arbitrary, or based on a tangled mess of cultural and historical variables that tend to be applied inconsistently. For example, Iceland is generally classed as Europe on the basis that it is culturally and historically Scandinavian, while the culturally Slavic majority of the population of Novosibirsk are held to reside far to the East of the Europe-Asia border.

Continents by colour.png
CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

The conventional, 7-continent view of the world. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

I am proposing a new system, with 6 continents. These continents are defined purely geographically, without trying to work in any cultural notions, and, crucially, the do not include all the land on Earth. This system accounts for the fact that remote, volcanic islands and island groups, such as Iceland or Hawaii, do not necessarily need to be assigned to particular continents.


new continents

The continents, according to my system. Original image source: Canuckguy (talk) and many others (see File history) – Adapted from Brianski‘s File:BlankMap-World3.svg by Canuckguy and originally based on CIA’s political world map, Public Domain, Link

The continents of the new system are as follows:

Africa

Africa is very straightforward. It is pretty much unaltered from the conventional definition. Its only land border passes through Egypt, following the shortest distance from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, fairly close to the Suez Canal.

Antarctica

The same, pretty much. Just the main landmass of Antarctica and its offshore islands. I guess there’s not much cultural baggage here.

Australia

This continent consists of the landmasses of Australia and New Guinea, and their surrounding small islands. in Indonesia, the islands east of the Wallace Line are part of Australia, while those to the east are part of Eurasia, reflecting the extents of the 2 landmasses before sea levels rose a very long time ago and created the archipelago we see today.

Traditionally, these areas are considered to be part of ‘Oceania’, along with New Zealand and the rest of the South Pacific, but Oceania is not a real continent, as will be explained in the section on Remote Volcanic Islands.

Eurasia

Europe and Asia are the same continent. There, I said it.

Conventionally, the border between Europe and Asia is considered to follow the watershed of the Ural Mountains in Russia, the Ural River in Kazakhstan (or, if you really don’t give a fuck, just the border between Russia and Kazakhstan), and the Caucasus Watershed between the Caspian and Black Seas, usually close to (but not exactly following) Russia’s borders with Azerbaijan and Georgia.

This, however, has little geographical, or even cultural or historical, significance. The Ural Mountains are a relatively small (albeit long) mountain range, and the Ural River is not an especially significant river. Normally, these kinds of geographical features would not be seen as the boundaries of continents.

Geologically speaking, there is no meeting of 2 great landmasses, no major fault line, along the Ural Mountains. There’s no bottleneck of land here, like there is between North and South America. If someone with no prior knowledge of the history of Europe and Asia were to look at a map of the world, they would say Eurasia was obviously a single continent.

The only reason they are considered separate is that the Greeks (who were not using the same idea of ‘continents’ that we use nowadays) divided them (along the Don River, far to the west of the Urals). It sort of stuck, especially since it was convenient for the pretty, symmetric, ‘T & O’ worldview of the Middle Ages, with Jerusalem at the centre. And now nobody wants to let it go.

North America

Basically as traditional. The border with South America follows the line at from the Caribbean to Pacific the point where the land stops tapering inwards North-South and starts bulging out into South America.

South America

See above

Remote Volcanic Islands

Many islands can be classified as belonging to a particular continent because they broke away from that continent’s mainland (eg. Madagascar) or they were separated from it by rising sea levels (eg. New Guinea). Others, however, just emerged out of the sea as a result of volcanic activity. Examples include Iceland, or New Zealand, or Hawaii, or the Canary Islands. Some of these, such as Japan, or the Aleutians, are clearly parts of a volcanic chain that continues onto a continental mainland, so can be classified as that continent. Others, such as the Canary Islands, are simply close enough to one continent’s mainland that they can be effectively viewed as that continent’s offshore islands. However, there are some, such as Iceland, or Hawaii, that are too remote to fit these categories. They cannot reasonably be said to belong to a particular continent.

And this is fine. Not everything needs to be classified like that. People like to think about things as if they’re in neat categories, but the world doesn’t actually have to stick to that. Continents aren’t necessarily everything. We’ve put nearly all the land in the world into continents, and isn’t that enough?

This is also why I’ve ditched Oceania as a concept. It originates in the idea that everywhere has to be a continent, so they’ve made up a ‘continent’ that can include all the remote volcanic islands and atolls of the Pacific,too far from any large landmass and stuck in the middle of the Pacific Ocean’s tectonic plate. For administrative purposes, sure, it often makes a lot of sense to group them together, but don’t call it a continent when it isn’t.

The false dichotomy that took over Popular Cartography

In March 2017, public schools in Boston changed their standard map projection from the ubiquitous “Mercator Projection”, in which Greenland is displayed bigger than Africa, to the “Peters Projection”, where the areas of landmasses appear proportionate to their actual areas. This received a lot of praise, including an article in the Guardian saying the move “cut the developing world down to size”. However, the Peters Projection is far from the ideal solution to the Mercator Projection’s distortion problems.

The hard problem of cartography

Maps are flat, but Earth is (unless you belong to certain strange subcultures)round. That is the essence of what could be considered that hard problem of cartography. It follows that it is impossible to perfectly represent the surface of Earth on a flat surface.

So when you design a map of the world (or the moon or the cosmic microwave background or anything else that’s round), you have to compromise. You have to favour one thing at the expense of the other. You can go all out for preserving relative areas, but you’re going to end up distorting shapes. You can preserve directions, but you’re going to fuck up all the relative areas. You can compromise and try to sacrifice a bit of one benefit to get a bit of another. There’s all sorts you can do, which is why people have made so many different map projections over the years.

The Mercator Projection

One such ”projection”, and probably the best-known, was developed by the Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator in 1569, with one crucial selling-point: a constant bearing is a straight line. For reasons that should be obvious, this is very useful for maritime navigation (and during the Age of Discovery, when the Mercator Projection was created, this was the main thing people used maps for). You can draw a line on the map showing your route, and at any point on that line, it’s going to make an angle with the vertical which is the same as the angle at which your compass should be pointing.

The problem, though, is that when you’ve gone all out to make a constant bearing a straight line, you end up with areas being enormously inflated towards the poles (and even going to infinity at the poles themselves). The classic example is the way Greenland appears a similar size to Africa, then there’s also the way Scandinavia appears to be the size of India, and the islands of the Canadian Arctic appear to dwarf the much larger islands of Madagascar, Borneo and New Guinea. An interesting curiosity I once stumbled across is that the Lena River, in North-Eastern Siberia, has the distinction of looking like the longest river in the world in the Mercator Projection.

But, for whatever bizarre reason, the Mercator Projection has ended up as the classic image of ”what the world looks like”.

Peters’ solution

Needless to say, this is far from ideal, and that is what the German historian and filmmaker Arno Peters exploited when he announced, in 1973, that he had developed a ”new” projection, which preserved the relative areas of landmasses.

Peters argued that the equatorial regions compressed by the Mercator Projection are generally poor and marginalised, compared to Europe and North America, which the Mercator Projection stretches.  According to Peters, this led to people’s perception of the world being skewed, and excessive emphasis being placed on these areas.

An equal-areas projection, according to Peters, would help to fix this skewed perception.

In fairness to Peters, the Mercator Projection does inflate the size of Europe while diminishing that of Africa, South Asia, and Latin America, and it’s reasonable to suggest that the ubiquity of the Mercator image of Earth could lead people to place a disproportionate psychological emphasis on the inflated regions. Some credit’s due to Peters for pushing that idea into the mainstream. The problem, though, is that the projection doesn’t actually have half the qualities he claimed as its advantages.

Peters claimed that the projection has “no distortion”. It quite clearly does, as any map projection does. It is a trade-off between different types of distortion, like any other projection. Relative areas are shown accurately, but the shapes of things are all over the place (for example, Africa comes out very long). There is distortion of shapes everywhere except along the standard parallels.

Perhaps worse than all of these is Peters’ claim that he was the first person to come up with the idea of an equal-area projection. Equal-area projections have been around for centuries, with the sinusoidal projection appearing in 1570, a year after the Mercator projection (although it looks very weird).  Cylindrical equal-area projections (formed by wrapping a cylinder around the Earth, projecting onto that, and then unwrapping it, giving you a rectangular map) have been around at least since the Lambert cylindrical projection, first described in 1772, where the standard parallel is the equator. Since then, many cartographers have put different standard parallels into the same formula to produce different projections. These included James Gall who, in 1855, published a cylindrical equal-area projection with standard parallels at 45° from the Equator, identical to the Peters projection.

In fairness to Peters, Gall’s projection was never well-known, and he had probably never heard of it. But even if he is not guilty of intentional plagiarism, his wilful ignorance of the whole history of equal-area projections and his anti-intellectual caricature of the cartographic community as some kind of weird Mercator cult was just straight-up arrogant and irresponsible.

Other projections

Peters projection propaganda typically presents the world of cartography in terms of a dichotomy between Mercator and Peters, with Mercator grossly distorted (it is), and the Peters projection as totally accurate (it isn’t). However, the ways of representing the world on a flat surface are so much more diverse than that. If you want equal areas, you’ve got sinusoidal (which is weird) or Mollweide (which I like because it doesn’t look like it’s meant to be flat). If, like Peters, you’re hung up on the idea that maps have to be rectangular (which actually makes sense if you’re looking for something to blu-tack to your classroom wall), you’ve still got a whole host of ‘cylindrical’ equal area projections (so named because they’re formed by wrapping a cylinder round the Earth, projecting the surface onto that, and then unwrapping it, giving you a rectangular map). In fact, you can make your own cylindrical equal area projection just by multiplying the longitude of a point by the cosine of the standard parallel (an arbitrarily chosen latitude where there is no distortion) to get the x coordinate of that point, and dividing the sine of the latitude by the cosine of the standard parallel to get its y coordinate. Just (unlike Arno Peters) make sure nobody’s already used your standard parallel.

So why do people like the Peters projection?

Most of the hype that has surrounded the Peters projection since the get-go simply comes down to the way it was marketed. Peters, a filmmaker-turned-historian with no background in cartography, did not go through the conventional method for presenting a new map projection. Instead of publishing it in a cartography journal, Peters went straight to the media, presenting to the general public his manifesto for the anti-Mercator revolution.

cylindrical equal areas
Some examples of cylindrical equal area projections, with the standard parallels and aspect ratios indicated, and with Tissot’s Indicatrices showing distortion at different locations. Image source: Wikimedia Commons, created by Eric Gaba.

And of course, actual experts in maps, with their acne, terrible personal hygiene and distinct lack of social skills proved no match in this arena for a sexy, charismatic Hollywood historian. Peters’ unashamedly anti-intellectual wokeness played very well with the general public who, as any cartography enthusiast is likely well-aware, aren’t generally that interested in map projections. It’s easy to see how, for someone unfamiliar with the 400 year pre-Peters history of people trying to come up with alternatives to the Mercator projection, the idea of some kind of cartographic cabal, wearing hooded robes and chanting in Latin while they sacrifice goats to Gerardus Mercator. People like to feel special, and like they know something the so-called “experts” don’t. As such, the Peters cult was able to quickly gain momentum, ending up with many NGOs, including UNESCO, adopting it as standard in an effort to be woke and address the problem of ‘cartographic imperialism’.