The Globe: How the Earth Became Round
A New Scientist Best Book of 2023
From Babylon to Columbus and beyond, a journey across millennia and—yes—the globe exploring how we came to understand our spherical planet.
The Globe tells the story of humanity’s quest to discover the form of the world: that the Earth is round and not flat. Philosophers in ancient Greece deduced the true shape of the Earth in the fourth century BCE; the Romans passed the knowledge to India, from where it spread to Baghdad and Central Asia. In early medieval Europe, Christians debated the matter, but long before the time of Columbus, the Catholic Church had accepted that Earth is a ball. However, it wasn’t until the seventeenth century that Jesuit missionaries finally convinced the Chinese that their traditional square-earth cosmology was mistaken. An accessible challenge to long-established beliefs about the history of ideas, The Globe shows how the realization that our planet is a sphere deserves to be considered the first great scientific achievement.
Praise for The Globe: How the Earth Became Round
"Hannam's The Globe celebrates our first great scientific achievement: realizing, thousands of years ago and against all intuition, that Earth is a ball floating in space."
— New Scientist, "Best Non-fiction and Popular Science Books of 2023"
"This splendid book . . . aims mainly to dismantle ‘the conflict theory’—the idea that a battle between science and religious literalism prevented people accepting the roundness of the Earth well into the fifteenth century. . . . After a colourful tour through ancient Babylonian, Egyptian and Persian cosmologies, we arrive at the Greeks, who at last began to figure things out.”
"Hannam gives us context and biography, when available. . . . The virtue of Hannam’s writing style is that it is almost invisible. The reader does not have to untangle sentences, as often in academic prose, nor does the author plant the meadows of his pages with rare and distracting lexicographic blooms. As for the arc of his history, it swept me along, especially when I found I was learning a thing or two. . . . Bede called Pliny’s Natural History 'that delightful book' and the same could be said of Hannam’s own lively historical journey."
— Daily Telegraph
"This fascinating chronicle by historian Hannam traces how humanity’s understanding of Earth’s shape has changed over millennia. . . . The trivia captivates (the prevailing view under China’s Han dynasty claimed 'the sky was round and the Earth was square'), offering a globe-trotting tour of how a major scientific breakthrough made its way across the world. Readers will be enlightened."
— Publishers Weekly
"From the philosophers of ancient Greece to seventh-century Jesuit missionaries to China, the story of humanity’s quest to discover the form of our world, and how we came to know that the Earth is round and not flat."
"From philosophers in ancient Greece to Jesuit missionaries in China, Hannam’s The Globe explores the history of ideas and our quest to understand our planet."
— People’s Friend
"Challenging the commonsense intuition that we live on a basically flat surface raised all sorts of puzzling questions for premodern scholars: if the Earth is a sphere, what keeps it all together? Why don't people on the bottom fall off? If it's rotating at 1,000 mph, how do birds keep up? The great strength of Hannam's book is that it makes us reexamine such questions without assuming that the right answer was inevitable. He brings to thrilling life centuries of intense debate and disagreement—the fertile ground on which science grows."
— BBC History
"Hannam’s The Globe takes us on a whirlwind 2,000-year tour d’horizon of how the counter-intuitive theory of a round world became accepted as scientific fact. . . . Hannam has been able to encapsulate such a wide range of historical sources into an enjoyable, fast-paced narrative. Those whose scholarly appetites have been whetted can consult the comprehensive and well-chosen bibliography for follow-up reading. . . . A rollicking scientific-historical adventure."
— The Critic
"Throughout the book, Hannam explores the role of religion and culture in scientific thinking. Manicheans and Zoroastrians had trouble reconciling a spherical world with their beliefs. The Chinese clung to their perception of a square earth and circular heaven until the eighteenth century. Saint Augustine knew about the round world from Aristotle, but because it didn’t sit well with a literal reading of the Bible, he kept quiet about it. In general, though, religion has squelched science less often than we think, Hannam asserts."
— Washington Independent Review of Books
"An exploration of one of humankind’s oldest and most profound insights, The Globe is a work of compulsively readable myth-busting. As amiable as it is scholarly, Hannam’s book uses the history of the spherical Earth to provide a global tour of cosmologies through the ages."
— Philip Ball, author of "The Book of Minds"
“A tour d’horizon that spans time as well as space, this is a thrilling intellectual adventure story.”
— Tom Holland, author of "Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind"
“In an age of globalization, Hannam’s playful and erudite book reminds us of the global origins of our common understanding of the spherical earth, stretching from Babylon to NASA. A truly all-encompassing book: a wonderful achievement and a delight to read.”
— Jerry Brotton, author of "A History of the World in Twelve Maps"