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7000 Years of Thinking Regarding Earth's Shape

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Author Topic: 7000 Years of Thinking Regarding Earth's Shape  (Read 607 times)
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« on: June 26, 2007, 12:22:49 am »

Century Astrolabes: The usage and construction of Astrolabes implies an understanding of the spherical earth.  "The astrolabe is a very ancient astronomical computer for solving problems relating to time and the position of the Sun and stars in the sky. ... The history of the astrolabe begins more than two thousand years ago. The principles of the astrolabe projection were known before 150 B.C., and true astrolabes were made before A.D. 400.  The astrolabe was highly developed in the Islamic world by 800 and was introduced to Europe from Islamic Spain (Andalusia) in the early 12th century." 
"The Astrolabe in Europe: The astrolabe moved with Islam through North Africa into Spain (Andalusia) where it was introduced to European culture through Christian monasteries in northern Spain. It is likely that information about the astrolabe was available in Europe as early as the 11th century, but European usage was not widespread until the 13th and 14th centuries." [102]
1120 CE Honorius Augustodunensis - wrote his Elucidarius where he draws analogies between aspects of cosmology and the human body and states that the human head is round in reflection of the roundness of the earth.  And this was no obscure scholarly treatise - it was a handbook for the instruction of lower order clergy.  So as early as the twelfth century we have evidence that the people who were out teaching the peasants had a clear understanding that the earth was a globe.  {Note: Haven't yet obtained a good original supporting quote for this.}
1256 CE Johannes de Sacrobosco (aka John of Holywood) - a monk of English origin.  An author of a handful of widely read medieval texts on mathematics and astronomy.  His astronomical textbook "De Sphaera" (The Sphere) was used at many universities for several centuries.  He describes the earth is a sphere as follows.  The original text, probably written around 1231, was hand-copied for over two centuries by a succession of scribes, and the first printed edition appeared in 1471.
"THE EARTH A SPHERE. -- That the earth, too, is round is shown thus. The signs and stars do not rise and set the same for all men everywhere but rise and set sooner for those in the east than for those in the west; and of this there is no other cause than the bulge of the earth. Moreover, celestial phenomena evidence that they rise sooner for Orientals than for westerners. For one and the same eclipse of the moon which appears to us in the first hour of the night appears to Orientals about the third hour of the night, which proves that they had night and sunset before we did, of which setting the bulge of the earth is the cause."

"SURFACE OF THE SEA SPHERICAL. -- That the water has a bulge and is approximately round is shown thus: Let a signal be set up on the seacoast and a ship leave port and sail away so far that the eye of a person standing at the foot of the mast can no longer discern the signal. Yet if the ship is stopped, the eye of the same person, if he has climbed to the top of the mast, will see the signal clearly. Yet the eye of a person at the bottom of the mast ought to see the signal better than he who is at the top, as is shown by drawing straight lines from both to the signal. And there is no other explanation of this thing than the bulge of the water."   [87]

In the paragraph titled "MEASURING THE EARTH'S CIRCUMFERENCE", he references the works of philosophers Ambrose, Theodosius, and Eratosthenes in measuring the circumference.

"De Sphaera" (The Sphere) became the standard textbook in astronomy until the mid-fifteenth century.  (Side note: While he may have been correct about a spherical earth, in the very next paragraphs he goes on to argue that the earth is the center of the universe and is immobile.)
Century The mid-thirteenth century Norse Koenigsspiegel uses the analogy of the earth as an apple and the sun as a candle to explain night and day.
IMPORTANT: Beyond this point, spherical earth references are so common that it's almost not worth proceeding.  The remaining references serve only to clarify confusion over some arguments in the flat earth debates.  In addition, some simply curiosities are presented, though we are in NO way proposing they support true flat earth belief.
The commonplace spherical earth view is described by a reader.  We have not yet verified all these references ourselves, but we have good reason to trust the source.


There's much symbolism in the globes and orbs representing the earthly power of kings.  Chaucer assuming his nine year old son Lewis understands that the earth is round in his Treatise on the Astrolabe. Medieval Kings held scepters (representations of the mace, the power to smite and deal justice) and the orb (representative of the earth, and their rule over it).  If they held a flat earth view at this point, they may have been holding a spatula instead of an orb.
Medieval travelers who crossed the equator are as follows.  Orderic of Pordenone traveled by sea through India and Ceylon and then through Sumatra, Java and Borneo sometime before 1320.  Polo traveled from China via Java and Sumatra to Ceylon in 1290 (or 1292).  John of Marignolli sailed from China to southern India and seems to have realized that he had crossed the equator at one point in this journey - he is one of several medieval travelers, including Polo, John of Monte Corvino and Jordan of Severac, who noted that the Pole Star was either barely visible or completely invisible above the horizon during their trips.  A Genoese world map of 1457 takes into account information on India, Java, Sumatra and the Moluccas drawn from the travels of Nicolo Conti, who also traveled to Burma and Malaya between 1419 and 1444.  The Portuguese seem to have sighted the north coast of Australia as early as the 1520s.

The idea of a passable equatorial zone was become well known in Europe by the Fourteenth Century, as can be seen by a long a very interesting section in the popular Middle English work The Travels of Sir John Mandeville.  This is a jumble of fiction, fact and curiosities and there was almost certainly no real John Mandeville who undertook these travels, but in Chapter 20 it tells of the island of 'Lamory' (Sumatra) and then goes into a long discourse about how the earth is round and how the Pole Star can no longer be seen once the equator is passed:

And you must understand that in this land and many others thereabouts, the star Polus Arcticus cannot be seen; it stands ever in the north and never moves, and by it seamen are guided. It is not seen in the south.
The work then gives a series of astrolabe readings for the Pole Star from various latitudes and explains that there is a southern equivalent of the Pole Star which is used by navigators south of the equator.  He goes on to describe how the earth can be circumnavigated:
So I say truly that a man could go all round the world, above and below, and return to his own country, provided he had his health, good company and a ship, as I said above.
He goes on to tell an (almost certainly fictional) story of a young Englishman who actually did travel around the whole world:
He passed India and many islands beyond India, where there are more than 5,000 islands, and traveled so far by land and sea, girdling the globe, until he reached a land where he heard his own language being spoken.
The author then conjectures that this was because he had actually reached his own country again by circumnavigating the earth.  He goes on to explain that while people in the Antipodes seem, to those 'of limited understanding', to be 'beneath' us, so we seem to Antipodeans to be 'beneath' them.  He finishes with an account of the circumference of the earth, which he gives as 20,425 miles.  And, this was in a popular, vernacular work written largely for entertainment around 1356.


In Dante's Divine Comedy [98], he assumes his early fourteenth century audience understands that the earth is round.  In Inferno, Canto XXVI, where Ulysses discusses his voyage into the Southern Hemisphere (towards the "other pole").  "Already all the stars of the other pole.  The night beheld, and ours so very low.   [96]
Dante's geography places Mount Purgatory at the antipodes of Jerusalem. The notes to Robert Pinsky's excellent translation do a very good job of describing and explaining all the various references.

"To run o'er better waters hoists its sail; The little vessel of my genius now, That leaves behind itself a sea so cruel;" (Purgatory, Canto I), "Already had the sun the horizon reached; Whose circle of meridian covers o'er; Jerusalem with its most lofty point..." (Purgatory, Canto I, [97])

" 'In exitu Israel de Aegypto!' They chanted all together in one voice, With whatso in that psalm is after written. Then made he sign of holy rood upon them, Whereat all cast themselves upon the shore, And he departed swiftly as he came.  The throng which still remained there unfamiliar. Seemed with the place, all round about them gazing, As one who in new matters makes essay. On every side was darting forth the day. The sun, who had with his resplendent shafts. From the mid-heaven chased forth the Capricorn, When the new people lifted up their faces. Towards us, saying to us: 'If ye know, Show us the way to go unto the mountain.'  And answer made Virgilius: 'Ye believe Perchance that we have knowledge of this place, But we are strangers even as yourselves. Just now we came, a little while before you, Another way, which was so rough and steep, That mounting will henceforth seem sport to us.'  The souls who had, from seeing me draw breath, Become aware that I was still alive, Pallid in their astonishment became." (Purgatory, Canto II,  [97])

It is also said that Byrthferth of Ramsey was teaching young monks the computus and that the Earth was round in the early 11th century (his Enchiridion was being written during 1011).  The passage that deals with this is from AElfric's De Temporibus Anni (actually an Old English work), written around 993 and largely drawing on Bede as its source.  Here's the relevant passage from AElfric  [82]:
AElfric's De Temporibus Anni, i,19-21:

"AEfre heo bith yrnende ymbe thas eorthan, 7 eal swa leohte scinth under thaere eorthan on nihtlicere tide, swa swa heo on daeg deth bufon urum heafdum.  On tha healfe the heo scinth thaer bith daeg, 7 on tha healfe the heo ne scinth thaer bith niht.  AEfre bith on sumere sidan thaere eorthan daeg, 7 aefre on sumere sidan niht."
Byrthferth's Enchiridon, ii.3, 143-148:
"The sun is always revolving around this earth, and it shines just as bright under the earth at midnight as it does above the earth at midday. On the half [see below] where it is shining there is day, and on the half where it is not shining there is night. It is always day on one side of the earth and night on the other side".
(This forms part of a larger section on the divisions of the night that Byrthferth has adapted from AElfric but supplemented directly from Bede.)

Byrthferth's Enchiridon, ii.1, 253-255,:
"Heaven encloses the whole earth in its bosom, and is always turning above us; it is swifter than any mill-wheel, just as deep under this earth as it is above.  It is entirely spherical and whole and adorned with stars."  (Again, though this doesn't explicitly state that the earth is spherical, the passage only makes sense if it is.)
(Also, see other computistic sources such as Hrabanus Maurus or Helperic.  Other widely read thirteenth century authors who discussed the round earth model were Macrobius and Albertus Magnus. [82] )
1310 CE Peter of Abano - In another example of 'creative writing', some authors say Peter of Abano 'revived' earlier theories of a round earth.  [1]  However, it appears clear that spherical earth belief was commonplace by this time, so we recommend that readers carefully evaluate any claims that Peter was 'reviving' these theories.  He was charged by the Inquisition of practicing Black Arts (though these reasons had nothing to do with a round earth). For reader's entertainment only: Sent to prison where he died on the eve of his execution for heresy.  However, as not to escape, "his bones were burned for his heresy" by the Church!  [80]
1327 CE Cecco d'Ascoli (a.k.a. Francesco degli Stabili) -  Italian astrologer.  Also claimed by some authors to have 'revived' earlier theories of a round earth. [1]   However, as mentioned under Peter of Abano, spherical thinking was commonplace.  It is regrettable that d'Ascoli was burned at the stake for some of his beliefs, though the reasons for his demise had nothing to do with his discussions of the earth being round.  It is said that his abrupt end was for accusing the great poet and scholar Dante of heresy while defending astrology against the poet's attacks in the Divine Comedy.
1300s CE Russell states that there was some belief in disc-earth in France, before 1300, seems to allow that 'simple people' believe that one would fall off the earth at the antipodes. [5]  {Note: We have not yet investigated his references on this.}
1455 CE Tostatus - Spanish theologian, reported to have opposed antipodes and "even as late as the age of Columbus, felt called upon to protest against it as 'unsafe.' He had shaped the old message of St.  Augustine into the following syllogism: "The apostles were commanded to go into all the world and to preach the gospel to every creature; they did not go to any such part of the world as the antipodes; they did not preach to any creatures there: ergo, no antipodes exist."  [14]


** Included here only as a reference to works cited in the flat earth debates of contemporary authors.  Opposition to inhabited antipodes does NOT necessary mean opposition to a spherical earth or prove flat earth thinking.  (See Antipodes discussion in Chapter 3)
1521 CE Ferdinand Magellan - Portuguese explorer whose voyage around the world in 1519 provided firm evidence for a round world.  It is claimed by White that some "religious leaders did not fully accept it for two more centuries." [1]  {We have looked and have not found any original quotes to support this claim.} 
There is a quote often attributed to Magellan (though we have not found any of his works to contain it): "The church says the earth is flat, but I know that it is round, for I have seen the shadow on the moon, and I have more faith in a shadow than in the church."  Any help in finding the true source of this quote would be greatly appreciated.
1543 CE Copernicus, Nicholas - Though it was commonly known by this point that the earth was a sphere, Copernicus belabors the point in his book De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres).  He sent this book to Pope Paul III with an introductory letter titled "TO HIS HOLINESS, POPE PAUL III".  This is very curious...
Why does Copernicus feel that he needs to document proof that the earth is a sphere?  Why does he feel compelled to state that the shape of the earth must not be like that proposed by Leukippus, Heraclitus, Democritus, Anaximander and Xenophanes?  Why does he feel compelled to send this to the Pope???  Could it be that stating the obvious and sending it to the Church implies that it was NOT, in fact, obvious?  Using reason, it seems to suggest that even as late as 1543, a spherical earth may not have been a universally held belief... as outrageous as this sounds.  {We are NOT promoting this idea.  It is just curious.}
A possible answer to the above questions was provided by reader:. 
Because at that time it was a standard academic convention that you define and, where necessary, prove all the assumptions or predicative arguments relevant to your thesis, even if they are well understood and universally accepted.  He felt compelled to send this to the Pope because he knew the other part of his theories were going to be highly controversial.  The round earth idea was not.  [82]


Relevant portions from De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) discussing a spherical earth:  [41] 


"The earth also is spherical, since it presses upon its center from every direction.  Yet it is not immediately recognized as a perfect sphere on account of the great height of the mountains and depth of the valleys.  They scarcely alter the general sphericity of the earth, however, as is clear from the following considerations.  For a traveler going from any place toward the north, that pole of the daily rotation gradually climbs higher, while the opposite pole drops down an equal amount.  More stars in the north are seen not to set, while in the south certain stars are no longer seen to rise.  Thus Italy does not see Canopus, which is visible in Egypt; and Italy does see the River's last star, which is unfamiliar to our area in the colder region.  Such stars, conversely, move higher in the heavens for a traveler heading southward, while those which are high in our sky sink down.  Meanwhile, moreover, the elevations of the poles have the same ratio everywhere to the portions of the earth that have been traversed.  This happens on no other figure than the sphere.  Hence the earth too is evidently enclosed between poles and is therefore spherical.  Furthermore, evening eclipses of the sun and moon are not seen by easterners, nor morning eclipses by westerners, while those occurring in between are seen later by easterners but earlier by westerners."

"The waters press down into the same figure also, as sailors are aware, since land which is not seen from a ship is visible from the top of its mast.  On the other hand, if a light is attached to the top of the mast, as the ship draws away from land, those who remain ashore see the light drop down gradually until it finally disappears, as though setting.  Water, furthermore, being fluid by nature, manifestly always seeks the same lower levels as earth and pushes up from the shore no higher than its rise permits. Hence whatever land emerges out of the ocean is admittedly that much higher. "


"Discussing all the new lands that have been found, he refers to America's size, "...America, named after the ship's captain who found it.  On account of its still undisclosed size it is thought to be a second group of inhabited countries.  There are also many other islands, heretofore unknown.  So little reason have we to marvel at the existence of antipodes or antichthones.  Indeed, geometrical reasoning about the location of America compels us to believe that it is diametrically opposite the Ganges district of India." ... Later, he concludes that the earth must be a sphere, not shapes proposed by in earlier times: "The earth together with its surrounding waters must in fact have such a shape as its shadow reveals, for it eclipses the moon with the arc of a perfect circle.  Therefore the earth is not flat, as Empedocles and Anaximenes thought; nor drum-shaped, as Leukippus; nor bowl-shaped, as Heraclitus; nor hollow in another way, as Democritus; nor again cylindrical, as Anaximander; nor does its lower side extend infinitely downward, the thickness diminishing toward the bottom, as Xenophanes taught; but it is perfectly round, as the philosophers hold." [41] 

It is interesting that Copernicus held up publication for nearly 20 years (until his death) of De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium.  Some have speculated that that he believed it would cause conflict with the Church.  Also of interest is that Andreas Osiander, a leading Protestant theologian, handled the publication and anonymously inserted his Preface to look like it was written by Copernicus.  Osiander's Preface stated that the contents of the book should be treated as hypothetical and not intended to represent reality!  He wrote, "For these hypotheses need not be true nor even probable.  ... So far as hypotheses are concerned, let no one expect anything certain from astronomy, which cannot furnish it..."  [41]  This Preface ended up becoming the official position of the Roman Catholic Church!  [56]  Note that this preface of hypothetical theories was probably intended for the controversial aspects regarding astronomy, not the earth's shape.
1626 CE Francis Bacon - Wrote Novum Organum in 1620 criticizes the Church Fathers: "89. Nor did some of the old fathers of Christianity treat those much better who showed by the most positive proofs (such as no one now disputes) that the earth is spherical, and thence asserted that there were antipodes." [51]
1859 CE Washington Irving -  Irving was a writer of satirical fiction.  His book The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828) is often pointed to as an early promoter of the flat earth myth.  In it, Irving portrays Columbus standing before the Council of Salamanca who believed the Earth was flat.  [112]  (See discussion on Irving in Chapter 4 - Flat Earth Myth Invented by Secular Writers?)  His embellishment and stretching of the facts were probably intentional.  He obviously wanted to sell books and therefore wanted to tell a 'good story'.  Was he involved in an evil hoax to make the Church look bad?  We don't think so, but we'll leave you to draw your own conclusions.  We haven't had time to research his sources.  Could it just be a jab at Europe, not Christianity?  There were constant jabs during this time between the 'Evil Empires' of Europe and the 'Lowly British Colonies' of America.
1848 CE Samuel Birley Rowbotham - Read a paper before the Royal Astronomical Society on the evening of Dec. 8, 1848 which presented a "description of several experiments which prove that the surface of the sea is a perfect plane, and that the earth is not a globe." [22] 
Samuel Birley Rowbotham, founder of the modern flat-earth movement, cited 76 scriptures in the last chapter of his monumental second edition of Earth not a Globe. Apostle Anton Darms, assistant to the Reverend Wilbur Glenn Voliva, America's best known flat-earther, compiled 50 questions about the creation and the shape of the earth, bolstering his answers with up to 20 scriptures each. [23] 

"From the foregoing, it's not surprising that flat-earthism has been associated with Christianity since the beginning. Many of the Fathers of the Church were flat-earthers, and they developed a system with which to oppose the Greek astronomy then becoming popular.  As late as 548 A.D., the Egyptian monk Cosmas Indicopleustes was vigorously defending the flat earth in his book Christian Topography."  "The modern flat-earth movement was launched in England, in 1849, with the publication of a 16 page pamphlet, Zetetic Astronomy: A Description of Several Experiments which Prove that the Surface of the Sea Is a Perfect Plane and that the Earth Is Not a Globe! by "Parallax."  For the next 35 years, "Parallax" -- his real name was Samuel Birley Rowbotham -- toured England, attacking the spherical system in public lectures. His completely original system, still known to its adherents as "Zetetic Astronomy," is best described in Rowbotham’s 430 page second edition of Earth Not a Globe, published in 1873.  The essence of Zetetic Astronomy is as follows: The known world is a vast circular plane, with the north pole at the center and a 150 foot wall of ice at the "southern limit." The equator is a circle roughly halfway in between. The sun, moon and planets circle above the earth in the region of the equator at an altitude of perhaps 600 miles. Their apparent rising and setting is an optical illusion caused by atmospheric refraction and the Zetetic law of perspective. The latter law also explains why ships apparently vanish over the horizon when sailing out to sea. The moon is self-luminous, and it's occasionally eclipsed by an unseen dark body passing in front of it. The entire known universe is literally covered by the "firmament" (vault) so often referred to in the King James Bible.  Rowbotham and his followers made "Zetetic Astronomy" a household word in Victorian England, and the movement spread to America and the rest of the English speaking world. Few professional academics embraced it, though there were exceptions. Alexander McInnes, of Glasgow University, was a vehement flat-earther. So was Arthur V. White of the University of Toronto."  [21]
1886 CE John Hampden calls the spherical theory "that Satanic device of a round and revolving globe, which sets Scripture, reason, and facts at defiance." [19]
1887 CE Brockport, N.Y., in March 1887, two scientific gentlemen defended the sphericity of the earth against flat-earther M.C. Flanders on three consecutive nights. When the great debate was over, five townsmen chosen to judge the matter issued a unanimous verdict. Their report, published in the Brockport Democrat, stated clearly and emphatically their opinion that the balance of the evidence pointed to a flat-earth. [19]
1901 CE David Wardlaw Scott - Flat-Earther wrote "I believe the real source of Modern Astronomy to have been SATAN". "From his first temptation of Eve in the Garden of Eden until now, his great object has been to throw discredit on the Truth of God..." [20]
1930s CE Cash offers are another way Bible-Scientists taunt opponents. In the 1920s and 1930s, Reverend Wilbur Glenn Voliva of Zion, Illinois, offered $5,000 to anyone who could prove to him that the earth isn't flat. No one ever collected. [21] 
1980 Robert J. Schadewald - then President of the "International Flat Earth Research Society", Schadewald speaks out on his flat earth views.  Article published in Science Digest, July 1980, "The Flat-out Truth: Earth Orbits? Moon Landings?  A Fraud! Says This Prophet", quotes Schadewald: "The facts are simple.  The earth is flat.  ... 
"You can't orbit a flat earth.  The Space Shuttle is a joke--and a very ludicrous joke.  ...  The known, inhabited world is flat. Just as a guess, I'd say that the dome of heaven is about 4,000 miles away, and the stars are about as far as San Francisco is from Boston."  In a map published by Johnson, the known world is as circular
and as flat as a phonograph record. The North Pole is at the center. At the outer edge lies the southern ice, reputed to be a wall 150 feet high; no one has ever crossed it, and therefore what lies beyond is unknown. [114]   (See also Charles K. Johnson below)
1992 Jeffrey Burton Russell - Medieval and theological historian publishes "Inventing the flat earth: Columbus and modern historians".  Provides convincing arguments that flat earth thinking in the medieval ages is a myth.  However, also proceeds to make accusations:  claims flat-earth myths were created as "incessant attacks on Christianity" by "secular writers"; blames Darwinists trying to defend evolution; spins a conspiracy between a French historian Antoine-Jean Letronne and American writer of satirical fiction Washington Irving.   (For more on Russell, see Chapter 4 - Flat Earth Myth Invented by Secular Writers?)
1992 Rudolf Simek - German author writes "Heaven and Earth in the Middle Ages -- The Physical World Before Columbus"  [93]Covers very similar material as Russell's, above, yet is more technical and comprehensive.  Simek is more concerned with showing the incorrect belief of flat earth thinking than with pointing the finger at Darwinists, humanists, secular writers, etc.  This makes his book a better reference, especially for those like ourselves who are offended by Russell's accusations and placing of blame.
Present... Charles K. Johnson - President of the "International Flat Earth Research Society" known as FLAT EARTH SOCIETY. According to the society: "The International Flat Earth Society is the oldest continuous Society existing on the world today.  It began with the Creation of the Creation. First the water...the face of the deep...without form or limits...just Water. Then the Land sitting in and on the Water, the Water then as now being flat and level, as is the very Nature of Water. There are, of course, mountains and valleys on the Land but since most of the World is Water, we say, "The World is Flat. … One thing we know for sure about this world...the known inhabited world is Flat, Level, a Plain World.  …  The Fact the Earth is Flat is not my opinion, it is a Proved Fact.  Also demonstrated Sun and Moon are about 3,000 miles away are both 32 miles across. The Planets are 'tiny.' Sun and Moon do Move, earth does NOT move, whirl, spin or gyrate."


What to think of Johnson and the Flat Earth Society?  We're not sure!  Will historians 1500 years in the future point back to Johnson as proof that we believed in a flat earth?  Is the society just an example of poor mental health?  Should we view Cosmas and Lactantius the same way we view Johnson?  You decide.
 Should we discuss any more present day flat-earth thinkers?  They are all "quacks" right?!


So, that's Europe... what about other parts of the World.
It is important to note that the entire question of the shape of the earth during the early Medieval  Age appears to be isolated to Europe where some Christian belief in a flat earth existed, as did opposition to the antipodes.  In other parts of the world such as China, India (Romaka Siddhanta - 400 CE, Ibn al Adami - 920 CE), Egypt (Ibn Junis - 1009 CE), and Islam in general, where the was a complete absence of intolerant hostility towards science.  There was not the issue of literal interpretation of Scriptures to hinder the work of geographers and scientists who were trying to answer questions on the shape of the earth and astronomy theories.  (Note: The Chinese were so advanced in astronomical observation that they recorded the supernova of 1054 CE which caused the Crab nebula.  This has been very important in helping modern astronomers to estimate ages of objects and formation in the universe.)

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