On Aug. 21, a portion of the United States will be plunged into darkness as the moon blocks out the sun — the first total solar eclipse in 99 years. But astronomers (both professional and amateur) aren’t the only groups excited for this once-in-a-lifetime event. Another, more controversial community believes the upcoming eclipse could provide overwhelming evidence to support their cause. These people are flat Earthers, and they believe the solar eclipse will prove once and for all the Earth is not a sphere.
I spoke with four flat-Earth truthers about the 2017 solar eclipse. Though they didn’t all agree on what, exactly, we might see on Aug. 21, they all believe there’s something fishy happening.
Understanding the flat Earth
If you’re new to the flat-Earth scene, here’s a rundown: Flat Earthers believe the Earth is shaped kind of like a hockey puck and the sun and moon rotate around each other above the Earth’s surface.
Most flat Earthers say the Earth does not rotate. The flat-Earth community is generally split into two camps: religious and nonreligious. The religious side argues the Bible tells them the Earth is stationary and the center of the universe; they also tend to believe the Earth is covered in a glass dome called the firmament. Other flat Earthers believe we’re on an infinite plane surrounded by a wall of ice.
So how does this relate to the eclipse? To many flat Earthers, two key aspects of the Aug. 21 event are irrefutable proof the Earth is stationary.
No. 1: the eclipse’s path. Flat Earthers say the path of totality across the United States — from west to east — means the Earth isn’t spinning at all. If the Earth is rotating west to east, as science says it is, wouldn’t the moon’s shadow pass across the surface from east to west? A 23-minute YouTube video by the channel Flat Earth Talk explains this theory in much greater detail.
No. 2: the shadow. The other aspect of the eclipse seen as flat-Earth proof is the size of the shadow the moon will cast on the Earth. An object’s shadow can’t be smaller than the object itself, flat Earthers argue. So how can the moon’s shadow be smaller than the moon?
Proof of flat Earth during the eclipse
If your head is spinning trying to comprehend these arguments, you’re not alone. I asked a Chicago-based truther named Charlie Flowers, who says he’s a former schoolteacher, to explain more.
Flowers believes we’re living on a flat plane covered by a big glass dome — the “firmament” frequently described in the flat-Earth scene. The sun, moon and stars are all inside the firmament, he said, and there are no planets besides Earth.
Flowers’ theory is based on Biblical interpretation. The Book of Genesis describes God placing a “firmament” over the Earth and placing lights in it.
“The sun is a light,” Flowers said in a phone interview. “They’re all lights. The sun and the moon are the same size and they spin above us and it’s a battery.” He went on to explain that when we see the moon waxing and waning, what we’re actually seeing is the moon losing and gaining electrical charge. “It’s a battery system. The moon is the negative and the sun is the positive.”
“They’re all lights. The sun and the moon are the same size and they spin above us and it’s a battery.”
What about the other planets? “The dome is about 8,000 miles above us, and all the stars are sewn into it,” Flowers said. Anything else that scientists call planets are just “wandering stars.”
“We are the center of the universe,” Flowers said. “We are the universe. God made us.”
While the Bible is key to Flowers’ view of the Earth, not all flat Earthers are religious. Others, like Walt Johnson, a former disc jockey from Louisiana, consider themselves backyard astronomers. Johnson read about the eclipse and tried to complete some eclipse-related experiments at home.
“If you take an object — a ball or quarter — and a flashlight, and you go to the wall and you start shining, trying to make the shadow smaller than the quarter, it never happens,” Johnson said in a Skype interview. “The moon is 2,000 miles wide. The path of totality is 70 miles wide. … You cannot make an object cast a shadow smaller than itself. There is no way to do it.”
Johnson said he set up different light sources in his home and held up objects in front of them, trying to make a shadow that was smaller than the object. “The farther back you get with both light and object, the shadow actually gets bigger,” he said.
He’s not the only person making this argument — it’s all over YouTube.
In one flat-Earth video about the eclipse, a user called Jeremiah Daniel argues that the physics of shadows won’t allow a shadow to be smaller than the object creating it.
Scientists would argue that the experiment above isn’t an accurate approximation of what happens in a solar eclipse.
Will Kinney, professor of physics at the University at Buffalo SUNY, said treating the sun like a “point source” — imagine a small flashlight shooting out a narrow, concentrated beam — doesn’t work. The sun is massive and it’s sending light in all directions. Because of the sun and moon’s size and distance, they look like they’re the same size, but they’re not.
You could re-create the solar eclipse at home, but not like this. The key is to diffuse the light. “What you need is an extended light source that is at such a distance that it’s almost exactly the same apparent size as the thing you’re blocking it with,” Kinney said.
The other main flat-Earth argument is the shadow’s path, from west to east. “Wouldn’t the land in North America be traveling 27 times faster than the shadow coming from the moon?” a YouTube account called ThePottersClay asked in a recent video. “If that is the case, then how in the world is the shadow moving from west to east making its way across America?”
Kinney said that because of perspective, the moon’s shadow is moving a lot faster at the Earth’s surface than the Earth rotates. The moon moves at around 3,400 kilometers per hour and the Earth rotates at around 1,670 kilometers per hour at the equator, according to NASA.
But flat Earthers aren’t easily swayed by these explanations. Their image of the Earth is vastly different from the one described by scientists. Many of them don’t even believe in gravity.
Different flat-Earth theories
“I have a hard time believing that gravity is capable of holding all the water that we have on this earth while it’s spinning at 1,000 to 1,100 mph by the equator,” Robb, a 26-year-old contractor and flat-Earth truther from Nashville who preferred not to give his full name, said in a phone call. Robb said he doesn’t have a firm handle on what his flat-Earth model looks like.
Walt Johnson, on the other hand, believes the Earth is an infinite plane surrounded by ice. That ice is what we refer to as Antarctica. It’s a commonly held theory among flat Earthers that the South Pole doesn’t exist as we know it. It’s actually an impenetrable barrier around the edges of the planet that looks like the Wall in Game of Thrones.
Some people, like Holly Haygood, a 49-year-old graphic artist and web designer in the Midwest, say that the ice wall is actually holding in all of the Earth’s water and keeping it from flowing off the surface. “The ice wall is there to be seen,” Haygood said in a phone interview. “The Arctic is the very center of Earth, which is north. And basically the sun and the moon are above the Earth and circle above the Earth.”
Some flat Earthers believe a giant ice wall is actually holding in all of the Earth’s water and keeping it from flowing off the surface.
All of these theories are explored in hundreds of thousands of YouTube videos. Johnson said he has seen the movement grow on the video-sharing site over the years. “When I started looking at videos, there were maybe around 40,000 or 50,000 hits, back in late ’14, early ’15,” Johnson said. “Now it’s like 15 or 16 million video hits.”
There are plenty of videos explaining how the eclipse proves flat-Earth theories. But for many truthers, the eclipse is far from the most pressing thing on their minds.
The bigger issue to at least one flat Earther? Satanists.
“We live in a world that is made up by Luciferians,” Flowers said. “They use the TV to control our minds and they’re altering us chemically now. They’re lowering sperm counts through chemtrails and GMOs.”
Flowers believes that people at the top of all religions and organizations, including the CIA, are Satan worshippers. “It’s a gigantic cult of witches, warlocks, sorcerers, demon people controlling our planet,” he said. He believes they are trying to hide evidence that the Earth is flat and that it’s his duty to get the truth out.
“If I can wake a few people up, then I’ll be happy,” Flowers said. “But it’s really hard. I’ve tried to wake up my family, and I can’t do it. It’s very, very hard.”
Others, like Haygood, believe fewer people are involved in the conspiracy. She finds the low number of astronauts suspicious and thinks they and the heads of NASA are the ones duping us. “Nobody’s seen the whole picture except for the few people at the top,” she said. “They are conspiring deliberately to hide this knowledge from humanity, and I think that’s an atrocity.”
Distrust in the flat-Earth community
Flat Earthers have a serious distrust of the government and the media, and they believe that there’s a reason that the media is urging people not to look at the sun during the upcoming eclipse. “They say, ‘Do not ever look at an eclipse.’ It’s like they don’t want us to see something in the sky,” argues a YouTube video from a user called Celebrate Truth. “What are they hiding? Are they trying to protect us? Or is it that they’re not wanting us to see clearly, truly, what’s happening in the sky? Maybe their lies would be exposed.”
Doctors agree that looking into the sun during the eclipse can permanently damage your vision — but many flat Earthers will dismiss these stories (and, I found, reports about 9/11) as “fake news.”
Not that there’s much of an overlap between flat Earthers and President Donald Trump’s die-hard, media-bashing base. The truthers I talked to don’t seem to trust many politicians and authority figures — that’s the point. “I don’t support Trump,” Robb said. “I didn’t vote for him. I didn’t vote for Hillary either.”
Johnson urged anyone watching to find their own truth. “Don’t ever believe me,” he said. “Research what I’m talking about — that’s what I want you to do.”