What Did Plato Think the Earth Looked Like?

The first color image of the earth, taken by the Apollo 8 astronauts in 1968.CreditNASA, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
The first color image of the earth, taken by the Apollo 8 astronauts in 1968.CreditNASA, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“Hey, don’t take that, it’s not scheduled,” Frank Borman said, joking to his fellow Apollo 8 astronauts, Bill Anders and James Lovell, on Dec. 24, 1968. They were orbiting the moon, farther from Earth than any humans had ever been. On the fourth pass, they were confronted by an extraordinary sight that jolted them out of their regimented procedures. There, seen through a small window, was Earth itself, rising out of the void.

For a split second, the astronauts were dazzled by the luminescent blue sphere, whorled by a white cloud cover. Then, as they were trained to do, they went back to work. As it turned out, Mr. Anders was the one who snapped a color photo, just after his fellow astronauts, Frank Borman and James Lovell, called his attention to the greatest photo op in history.

A spherical earth of air, land and water dominates this illustration, taken from a Latin poem, the “Vox Clamantis,” or “The Voice of One Crying Out.” It was written by the English writer John Gower in support of the Great Rising, a peasant rebellion of 1381. In this image, the author shoots his arrows at the earth, but adds that it will not harm the righteous.CreditCreditGlasgow University Library
A spherical earth of air, land and water dominates this illustration, taken from a Latin poem, the “Vox Clamantis,” or “The Voice of One Crying Out.” It was written by the English writer John Gower in support of the Great Rising, a peasant rebellion of 1381. In this image, the author shoots his arrows at the earth, but adds that it will not harm the righteous.CreditCreditGlasgow University Library

The color film proved to be the key; a similar photo had been taken two years earlier, but without the dazzling blue. When the photo was republished on the cover of Life magazine, and beamed out on America’s color TVs, billions of others had to same chance to look back at Earth in all its cerulean glory.

That this life-giving place was the same thing as Creation was a message the astronauts reinforced on the same day, with their reading from the Book of Genesis. At the end of a bitterly divisive year, it was a rare chance, unscheduled, for all of the inhabitants of the planet to remember that they were united by factors beyond their control. Evangelicals, scientists, Americans, Russians, Chinese, Vietnamese: All people on Earth marveled that it was possible. The mission was a miracle, and so was the planet that hovered there, above the tiny spacecraft.

The 13th-century Ebstorf map was rediscovered in a convent in Ebstorf, Germany, around 1830. Its creator, probably associated with the Ebstorf monastery, superimposed the body of Christ and depicted atypically realistic islands and rivers. He also populated the map's margins with monsters. The original was destroyed by Allied bombing during World War II.CreditGervase of Tilbury
The 13th-century Ebstorf map was rediscovered in a convent in Ebstorf, Germany, around 1830. Its creator, probably associated with the Ebstorf monastery, superimposed the body of Christ and depicted atypically realistic islands and rivers. He also populated the map’s margins with monsters. The original was destroyed by Allied bombing during World War II.CreditGervase of Tilbury

The study of Earth had been far from the minds of NASA’s architects at the beginning of the space program; the whole point was to escape it. But as the astronauts kept sailing deeper into the night, they could not help looking backward at the shrinking planet. In this film, Frank Borman compares it to the size of his thumbnail.

A great deal of earth science has come from that discovery; perhaps self-discovery is a better phrase. NASA’s spacecraft and their cameras have helped to locate ancient monuments and crop circles covered by forest canopies; oil leaks in the oceans; the disappearing Aral Sea; crazy weather, shrinking glaciers and other signs of a planet that has changed a great deal since 1968.

Psalter World Map, c.1265. Considered one of the great medieval world maps, it is believed to be a copy of the map that adorned King Henry III’s bed chamber. Jesus Christ appears above the earth, and various astronomical features create the impression of a planet suspended in space. As with most medieval European maps, Asia is shown at the top, Africa to the bottom right and Europe at the bottom left.CreditBritish Library
Psalter World Map, c.1265. Considered one of the great medieval world maps, it is believed to be a copy of the map that adorned King Henry III’s bed chamber. Jesus Christ appears above the earth, and various astronomical features create the impression of a planet suspended in space. As with most medieval European maps, Asia is shown at the top, Africa to the bottom right and Europe at the bottom left.CreditBritish Library
This innovative map, from 1530, shows the earth in the shape of a human heart. Combining features of both a map and a globe, its artist, Peter Apian, reveals the recent discoveries across the Atlantic. Surrounded by figures representing the winds, this earth also appears to be suspended in space.CreditThe British Library
This innovative map, from 1530, shows the earth in the shape of a human heart. Combining features of both a map and a globe, its artist, Peter Apian, reveals the recent discoveries across the Atlantic. Surrounded by figures representing the winds, this earth also appears to be suspended in space.CreditThe British Library

Largely for that reason, many of the budgets for earth science, including NASA’s, are in danger of being slashed by government officials who are uncomfortable with the science that the cameras reveal. The astronauts were braver; they accepted all of the information, terrifying or miraculous as it might be, that confronted them. Their courage continues to light a way forward.

Sadly, NASA is one of the agencies affected by the government shutdown. About 95 percent of its employees will not be able to work until its funding is restored. High-priority missions will continue, including a close encounter with a distant object called Ultima Thule, scheduled for 33 minutes past midnight on New Year’s Eve. But the longer the impasse continues, the worse it will be for a program that depends on normal politics for its remarkable science.

The "Shanhai Yudi Quantu," or "Complete Terrestrial Map," was printed from woodblocks and published in the "Sancai Tuhui," a Chinese reference book, in 1609. China is centrally located.CreditWang Qi/Collection of the Asian Library in the University of British Columbia
The «Shanhai Yudi Quantu,» or «Complete Terrestrial Map,» was printed from woodblocks and published in the «Sancai Tuhui,» a Chinese reference book, in 1609. China is centrally located.CreditWang Qi/Collection of the Asian Library in the University of British Columbia

For millenniums, humans had wondered what it might be like to look back at themselves from a great distance. As this gallery shows, it was a universal human aspiration, uniting people from all parts of the world. To a surprising degree, many knew, or at least intuited, that Earth was a sphere, and not flat at all. Plato likened it to a leather ball made from a “patchwork of colors.” Around the time Christ was born, the Roman poet Ovid described the planet as “poised in the enveloping air, balanced by its own weight.” In other words, exactly as the astronauts saw it.

Hinged outer panels of "The Garden of Earthly Delights" by Hieronymus Bosch, 1490-1510, showing the state of the globe at the end of the third day of creation, when the separation between light and darkness, heaven and earth, water and land has already taken place (Genesis 1:1-13). Bosch depicts the earth’s surface as a disk, but integrates it into a sphere, the lower part being filled with water.CreditMuseo del Prado
Hinged outer panels of «The Garden of Earthly Delights» by Hieronymus Bosch, 1490-1510, showing the state of the globe at the end of the third day of creation, when the separation between light and darkness, heaven and earth, water and land has already taken place (Genesis 1:1-13). Bosch depicts the earth’s surface as a disk, but integrates it into a sphere, the lower part being filled with water.CreditMuseo del Prado

Flat-earthism has not entirely disappeared, despite the achievement of science, and sophisticated forms of denial still occlude the atmosphere. But as these images show, the planet was round all along, equally home to all of its inhabitants, unique and irreplaceable.

Ted Widmer is a distinguished lecturer at the Macaulay Honors College of the City University of New York and a fellow of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.

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