We’ve known for thousands of years that the Earth is spherical, but not everyone accepts that fact. Indeed, even today, people believe that the Earth is a level disk, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Now, though, a handful of those same people have an insane new theory: the Earth is shaped like a donut, complete with a hole in the middle.
The idea of a flat Earth can be traced back to several ancient civilizations, including Egypt. In these schools of thought, the planet was thought to be a circular body floating on the open sea. Even in Europe, a similar theory was held by the Germanic and Norse populaces – although in their version, the surrounding ocean contained an enormous sea serpent.
By the sixth century B.C., however, the notion of a globe-shaped Earth began to take hold, thanks to Greek philosopher Pythagoras. His theory was then confirmed with empirical evidence by Aristotle in approximately 330 BC. Following that, it quickly spread throughout the Greek civilization. The idea would take some time to go “global,” however, with South Asian astronomers only reaching the same conclusion by the fifth century A.D.
Ancient China, meanwhile, clung to its flat-Earth beliefs for much longer. Early writings held that the planet was flat, and the heavens spherical. This theory was left uncontested until Western missionaries arrived in the 17th century. By then, the knowledge of a spherical Earth had been accepted everywhere else for nearly a millennium.
Indeed, it wasn’t until the 19th century that the idea of a flat Earth truly arose again. Writers in England and the U.S. published and preached works of biblical cosmography, citing verses that mentioned the “four corners” of the Earth. And they found an audience – albeit a limited one.
One of the first individuals to make the claim of a flat Earth at this time was Samuel Rowbotham, who published a pamphlet titled Zetetic Astronomy in 1849. The publication claimed to combine scientific data with sensory observations – that is, the Earth looks flat, so it must be. According to Rowbotham, the empirical evidence exists to support that notion.
Rowbotham eventually went on to found Zetetic Societies in New York and his home country. When he died in 1885, his legacy endured through the Universal Zetetic Society, formed by Lady Elizabeth Blount. However, interest in flat-Earth theories ultimately waned following the First World War – at least for a few decades.
While it still carries elements of the Zetetic Method, modern flat-Earth theory can mostly be traced back to the International Flat Earth Research Society (IFERS), founded in England in 1956 by Samuel Shenton. The group grew in popularity in the 1970s under the leadership of Californian Charles K. Johnson. The new leader also asserted that space exploration was all a ruse to lead people astray from the Bible.
With Johnson at the helm, the society reached membership numbers in the thousands. But in 1997, a fire at his house destroyed all the member records, and four years later, Johnson died. Nevertheless, that wasn’t the end of the modern flat-Earth movement – far from it. Indeed, Daniel Shenton officially relaunched the society in 2009, apparently growing it by 200 members per year.
It’s not just the IFERS that’s been propagating the flat-Earth theory, however. Several high-profile celebrities have expressed similar beliefs, including the Boston Celtics’ Kyrie Irving. While playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2017, Irving said on a podcast, “I’m telling you, it’s right in front of our faces. They lie to us.”
Irving later claimed his statement was simply a “social experiment,” but not before other celebrities had chimed in agreeing with him, including several other basketball stars. Shaquille O’Neal echoed Irving’s statements in another podcast soon after, claiming “[it’s] flat to me.” Just like Irving, though, O’Neal later backtracked.
Meanwhile, rapper B.o.B, whose real name is Bobby Ray Simmons Jr., is well-known for his flat-Earth views. In 2016, he premiered a track titled “Flatline,” as part of an escalating Twitter feud with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. In the track, B.o.B raps, “So it’s not actually a sphere, it’s an… It’s oblate, it’s officially an oblate spheroid,” quoting one of Tyson’s talks.
A year later, B.o.B went a step further by launching a crowdfunding campaign to prove the Earth is flat. Indeed, he hoped to raise $200,000 – later increased to $1 million – to “launch multiple weather balloons and satellites into space.” By the start of 2019, he had only raised $5,919 on top of his own $1,000 contribution.
B.o.B isn’t the only flat-Earther to attempt to prove the theory, however. In 2017, YouTuber D. Marble took a spirit level on board a domestic U.S. flight, to determine whether the pilot would “dip the nose of the plane to compensate for curvature.” Over a “23-minute time-lapse,” he expected to see “five miles of curvature” compensated for, but said there was none.
While many flat-Earthers disagree over the specifics of the theory, the most common version suggests that the Earth is a disk. The Arctic Circle sits in the middle, while Antarctica circles the perimeter in the form of a 150-foot-high ice wall. Supposedly, NASA is in charge of guarding this wall to make sure people don’t climb it and fall off.
In fact, NASA is central to the larger conspiracy theory that comes hand-in-hand with a flat Earth. Indeed, subscribers to the theory posit that pictures of the globe are fake, with governments and space agencies working together to dupe the population. Even the flat-Earthers can’t come up with a convincing reason for this, though, beyond possible financial gain for those involved.
It’s no surprise, then, that flat-Earth theory has been the subject of much criticism. And the most common query leveled at it is, of course, “How has nobody ever fallen off the edge?” The NASA-guarded, Game of Thrones-style ice wall is one response, of course, but now it seems there’s another, even more insane one.
Yes, one flat-Earther has come up with a new model for the shape of the planet. Unfortunately, it still isn’t that of its actual shape. Indeed, believe it or not, this theorist reckons the planet might actually resemble a sticky, sugary piece of fried dough, complete with a hole in the center.
The idea of a donut-shaped Earth first arose in 2008 on the Flat Earth Society forum, albeit as a joke. But four years later, a forum-user named Varaug picked up the notion and ran with it. “I have a theory that the Earth is, in fact, shaped like a torus (a donut-shape),” they wrote. “However, light is curved so we cannot tell.”
Of course, it’s not difficult to start unpicking Varaug’s theory. But the theorist was apparently aware of that fact. They even included an F.A.Q. alongside their idea, hoping to counter any perceived flaws. For instance, they wrote that because it is “logically possible” for a torus-shaped planet to exist, it can’t be ruled out for Earth.
In real life, a donut typically has a hole in the center. And Varaug says that’s true for the Earth, too – we simply can’t see it. And again, it’s thanks to the curvature of light. “When we look across [the sky], the light diminishes as it travels, and by the time it reaches the atmosphere, it is diminished enough to be reflected,” they wrote.
“The light will then hit another corner of atmosphere and so on and so forth, curving every time,” Varaug continued. “This gives the impression that the Earth is flat (or has a slight curvature).” If the hole really is there, though, what’s to stop someone falling into it? According to the donut-theorist, it’s all thanks to gravity.
“Gravity acts as it does in a [round-Earth] model, and people are attracted to large masses,” Varaug wrote. “Imagine a donut. Imagine a jam donut. Gravity acts towards the jam.” It’s a metaphor that sticks with the concept, no doubt, but not one that makes a ton of sense all on its own.
Varaug then elaborated that, in this theory, the surface of the Earth wraps around all faces of the torus shape. “Picture the Earth as a flat square,” they wrote. “This square can be rolled into a cylinder, and [then] curved into a torus.” If you were to walk towards the hole, therefore, you’d simply end up on the underside of the “donut,” according they said.
But Varaug’s F.A.Q. didn’t end there. Indeed, they also explained how a torus-shaped Earth would still lend itself to the 24-hour day-and-night cycle. By using a torch, you could simulate the rotation of the donut so that half of it is always illuminated, just like the actual globe. The theorist also stated that seasons work just like with a round-Earth model, as the Earth still orbits the sun.
If you’re wondering how a donut-shaped planet would ever come to form in the first place, Varaug has a theory about that, too. Indeed, they liken it to a binary star, where two stars orbit around each other, or a common center. The theorist posits that this could also be true of three or more objects.
“The [torus-Earth] was formed when a large amount of objects orbited each other like this,” Varaug wrote. “As time went on, their gravity pulled in more rocks and dust and the shape grew, eventually becoming a torus.” However, the theorist conceded that this was a very unlikely event – which handily explains why we don’t know of any other torus-shaped planets.
Finally, Varaug explained where the poles would be on a torus-shaped Earth. “Place your donut on its side,” they wrote. “The side that touches the table is the South Pole, the [top of] the other side is the North Pole.” While it’s been several years since the forum user suggested their theory, the idea hasn’t gone away.
In 2016, for instance, a number of YouTube videos popped up arguing the theory’s cause, after several Flat Earth Society members rediscovered Varaug’s original thread. One user, Dinosaur Neil, wrote, “I am glad to see other supporters of toroidal earth theory here. I have been promoting it for a long time but nobody ever seems to back me up. I can’t understand why.”
Well, there’s a fairly good reason why. Most of Varaug’s ideas don’t really stand up to scientific scrutiny. For example, astrophysicist Dr. Tabetha Boyajian told VICE magazine in 2018 that a 24-hour day wouldn’t work on a torus Earth, and neither would the seasons. In fact, the weather would be a significant sticking point, making life “very difficult.”
Meanwhile, Varaug’s claim that the hole would be “unseeable” due to the curvature of light is also debatable. According to Dr. Boyajian, light only bends like that when near something truly enormous, such as a supermassive black hole. What’s more, if the Earth truly was torus-shaped, then we’d see donut-like shadows during an eclipse, instead of the round shadows we actually see.
“Any of those claims is just saying, ‘You know what, I’m going to just come up with a new idea with no motivation for it. Just eight things that can possibly be consistent with it,’” Dr. Boyajian told VICE. “And that’s not how we develop theories.” Just in case the idea needed debunking any further, though, a professor at Oxford University did a little more digging.
In fact, writing for science blog i09 in 2014, Dr. Anders Sandberg conceded that a torus-shaped planet could theoretically exist. However, he wrote that it would be “extremely unlikely to ever form naturally,” and would probably become unstable eventually. What’s more, the conditions would be extremely, and perceptibly, different to those on a round Earth.
For instance, Dr. Sandberg noted that gravity wouldn’t be consistent planet-wide. Indeed, a donut-shaped Earth would have a weaker force of gravity at its equators. In turn, the areas around the North and South Poles would have much stronger gravity. And as Dr. Boyajian pointed out, the weather that would be the biggest difference.
According to Dr. Sandberg, anyone near the donut’s “hole” would be subject to “double seasons” at odd times of year, such as another winter occurring in July. Meanwhile, clouds would be much taller, and shunted around by winds far more volatile than those we experience on Earth. Essentially, then, science tells us that if the Earth really was torus-shaped, things would be very different.
However, “donut theory” isn’t the only alternative to a round Earth that’s popped up over the years. Back in the late-1600s, for instance, English astronomer Edmond Halley proposed that the planet is actually hollow. It wasn’t a brand new idea – the concept of subterranean worlds beneath the planet’s surface was a common one in ancient folklore and mythology.
Still, by 1778, Halley’s theory had been definitively disproven by mathematician Charles Hutton, who calculated the Earth’s true density. Nevertheless, the theory still provided the basis for popular fiction in the years that followed, including Jules Verne’s 1864 novel, Journey to the Center of the Earth.
There are plenty of parodies of the flat-Earth movement out there, too. For instance, various tongue-in-cheek Twitter accounts claim that Earth is shaped like a taco, a banana and even a dinosaur. Fortunately, none of them seem to be taken as seriously as donut-Earth theory.
In fact, Varaug even admitted on his forum post that the idea of a torus-shaped Earth was just supposed to be a bit of “fun.” Indeed, their aim was to come up with the flaws in the theory and then develop counterarguments for them. Yet while they might not have taken the idea seriously, it certainly appears that several other posters did.
In the end, donut-Earth simply joins a long list of unfounded conspiracy theories. Whether it’s the Illuminati, fake moon landings or aliens building the pyramids, you won’t struggle to find someone out there who believes. Just like donut-Earth, though, you will struggle to find any scientific, empirical evidence backing them up.