Who discovered that the earth is a sphere?

February 27, 2017 | Author: | Posted in Geography

That the earth is a sphere was one of the discoveries made by Pythag­oras, a Greek philosopher who lived in the sixth century B.C. The researches of Anaximander had prepared the way for the discovery, and the doctrine of the spherical form of the earth was taught by Parmeni­dies, who was associated with the Pythagoreans. Pythagoras himself clearly understood that the sun, moon and planets have motions of their own independent of the rotation of the earth. Plutarch attributed the discovery that the earth is a sphere to Thales of Miletus, who preceded Pythagoras by a generation, but it is now known that Thales, like his contemporaries, conceived the earth as a flat disk.

In the time of Aristotle the arguments employed to demonstrate that the earth is a sphere. were similar to those employed at the present time. The doctrine of the spherical form of the earth later became almost the exclusive property of the Italian schools, and it was not until long after the discovery of the New World by Columbus that it was accepted by people in general.

A book entitled The Metrical Lives of the Saints, written by an English monk at the close of the thirteenth century, says: “As an appel the urthe is round, so that evermo half the urthe the sonne byschyneth, hou so hit evere go.”

Since the time of the Pergamene school of sculpture, which flourished two centuries before Christ, Atlas has been portrayed as supporting the heavens or the terrestrial globe on his shoulders. According to one mythological story, Atlas, as leader of the Titans, tried to storm heaven, and as a punishment for this rebellion Zeus compelled him to bear the vault of the heavens on his head and hands.

But even in ancient times the terrestrial globe was often substituted for the canopy of the skies in portrayals of Atlas. A Roman statue made before the time of Hadrian shows Atlas kneeling and sustaining the globe on his head and shoulders. Atlas was first applied to a volume of maps by Gerhard Mercator (1512-1594), the Flemish mathematician and geographer, because a figure of Atlas supporting the heavens had been commonly used as a frontispiece for such collections. The suggestion was that Mercator’s book contained all the knowledge of the world between its two covers.

During the so-called Dark Ages the knowledge that the earth is a globe was suppressed, and many scholars who knew the truth about its shape discussed the subject only among themselves for fear of persecution. In Isaiah 40:22, reference is made to “the circle of the earth,” but this does not prove that the ancient Hebrew prophet conceived the earth as a globe. He might have used the same figure of speech if he had accepted the theory that the world is a flat disk.

 

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