Most Cincinnatians don’t know about the legacy of bad pseudoscience that one of our local “scholars” seared into the pages of world history, but nearly two centuries ago, John Cleves Symmes Jr. and his his absurd Hollow Earth theory was nearly as popular and widespread as creationism is today.
The fact that most people today have never heard of “Hollow Earth” gives me hope for humanity.
When I brought up the deeply flawed Hollow Earth theory at the Phil Plait lecture this past weekend, I was pleasantly surprised to hear the old man sitting next to me tell me about the concrete hollow globe memorial to John Symmes Jr. in the Cincinnati suburb Symmes township. The old man mockingly declared the thing pictured to the left “a monument to ignorance”. Exactly! Well played, sir. Well played.
The Hollow Earth theory started innocently enough. The concept was the brainchild of astronomer Edmond Halley (you know him as the comet guy!). Halley theorized that there must be (possibly inhabitable) concentric inner spheres with luminous atmospheres spinning at different rates within the crust of the Earth. Halley was attempting to explain certain mysteries of magnetism and also the northern lights. Other scholars elaborated on Halley’s theory, including the Swiss mathemetician Leonard Euler, who imagined a vast inner sun providing heat and light for an advanced civilization that lives there.
It wasn’t long after Halley and others theorized about Hollow Earth that some of the first ever science fiction fantasy novels were published about it, starting with the satirical Neils Klim’s Underground Travels written by Ludvig Holberg. Holberg’s book started a series of books invoking strange utopian lands with odd creatures and customs. A typical Hollow Earth novel was Symzonia: A Voyage of Discovery by the pseudonymous Captain Adam Seaborn, which purported to tell the true tale of a journey to an inner earth.
Symzonia obviously contains in it’s title a reference to John Symmes Jr., a veteran of the war of 1812 who insisted that there were large holes at Earth’s north and south poles, and that if you entered these holes you would descend into an inner planet. At the time, the arctic was a vast mystery in a post-exploration era, so it is no surprise that these theories existed. Such legends and mysteries typically come at the confusing early stages of natural curiousity: aliens were popularized after flight and space travel, bigfoot followed the fossil discoveries of early hominids, and JFK and 9/11 government conspiracies respectively followed Watergate and lies about WMD.
Symmes lectured across the country about his theory. He was either mocked and ignored or earnestly believed. Yet, few really listened to his ideas until his disciple Jeremiah Reynolds petitioned the government to mount an expedition to Antartica. Though the explorers didn’t find a utopian colony or an inner earth, they did come back with a true concept of Antartica’s continental scale. Quite a discovery in the name of pseudoscience! Reynolds is also famous for inspiring Herman Mellville’s Moby Dick novel after his tale of a whale called Mocha Dick (insert porn joke here).
Cyrus Teed developed his belief in Hollow Earth after being electrocuted. In fact, he believed in cellular cosmogony – that we live inside a concave hollow Earth and that a night/day sun floats in the middle of a thick atmosphere. In Teed’s imaginary world, gravity does not exist but is caused by centrifugal force. It is said that our cartographic observations work equally well whether the Earth is convex or concave, so Teed was able to manipulate others using misleading scientific evidence. Teed later developed a messiah complex, changed his name to Koresh, and started a utopian cult in Florida called Estero. Any part of that sound familiar?
Hollow Earth inspired Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth and Edgar Allen Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. There are also Tarzan novels and Oz novels that are set in Hollow Earth. In Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz, Henry Gale, the wizard of yellow brick road fame, crashlands on an inner Earth to rescue his niece and Dorothy. Those of you familiar with LOST will instantly recognize that Henry Gale is the moniker that “others” mastermind Ben gives himself when he is captured by the castaways. He uses a hot air balloon crash as his alibi too. Not to add too much to this obvious red herring, but the writers named one of the characters in Hurley’s nuthouse Leonard Simms, a name oddly similar to the subject of this post.
Some people today still believe in Hollow Earth and are planning expeditions there. In fact, they claim to see the Symmes Holes on satellite images. Some of these people believe that Lemurian descendants of Atlantis live there, others believe that it is where the lost tribes of Israel live, others insist that you’ll only find UFO-flying nazis down there. All these people are delusional.
Besides there not being one bit of concrete evidence for Hollow Earth, there are obvious reasons why such a an idea falls flat. First, every volcano is a glimpse into Earth’s core of molten iron. Second, magnetism can best be explained by the dynamo theory, a sloshing molten core caused by the Coreolis Effect. Third, Phil Plait explained in yesterday’s post that gravity would compact a heavy outer crust rendering the idea impossible. Hollow Earth theory also raises many more assumptions than would fit comfortably within ockham’s razor. To top it off, there are no holes at the poles, there is no evidence of an inner sun nor a mechanism for such a sun, and the idea of an inner Earth contradicts every observation ever made since the inception of geology.
For more on the science and history of Hollow Earth check out the amazing book on the subject by David Standish.