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Columbus Did Not Prove The Earth Is Spherical


Columbus Before the Council of Salamanca -- by William Henry Powell (1847)

Columbus Before the Council of Salamanca -- by William Henry Powell (1847)

It's an inspiring story: Christopher Columbus -- a man of reason, adventure, and discovery -- standing before the religious Council of Salamanca, presenting his plan to find a new trade route to India and prove his theory that the Earth is spherical; all the while maintaining an expression of calm courage, as the religious leaders assailed him with citations from the Bible attempting to prove his theory is false.

If you grew up in America, then you were likely taught this story in school. It has become a part of the very DNA of Western thinking...

But it simply isn't true. It's a myth.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting the Earth is flat. Obviously, our planet's sphericity is an observable fact. When I say that Columbus did not prove the Earth is spherical, I mean he did not prove it to anyone in particular....because everyone already knew it was spherical.

Apart from two or three obscure exceptions, virtually all educated persons throughout the Middle Ages (especially churchmen) accepted Aristotle's physics as the correct model of the world. According to Aristotle, all heavy matter gravitated toward the center point of the universe, resulting in a spherical amalgam of hard stuff -- namely, our planet (that also happens to be one of the reasons why geocentrism was the accepted theory for so long).

There are observational reasons that confirmed people's view that the Earth is a sphere, too. The curved shadow of Earth during a lunar eclipse, and the fact that ships gradually disappear under the horizon when sailing away from shore are two examples.

So, where did we get the idea that everyone in the Middle Ages, especially religious leaders, thought the Earth was flat until Columbus proved them wrong?

Well, that's another story entirely, too lengthy for this blog post.

But I will offer at least a partial answer for now: our cultural narratives about scientific progress have led us to distort the past, and have caused us to misunderstand episodes like that of Columbus and others.

I'm passionate about helping people to understand the seductive manner in which our cultural narratives sometimes lead us astray. It's part of the reason why I started this blog.

It's also what led me to create an entire mini-course about the Columbus story and other episodes of perceived conflict between science and faith. The course is called "Four Myths of Science and Religion" and it's free.

If you're interested in learning more about the Columbus story, the Galileo affair, and other icons of our cultural narrative, then CLICK HERE to check out the course. It's completely self-paced, free, video-based, and works on any device!

Enjoy and share with friends!

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