From my column in StAR magazine

The Ball and the Cross:
Easter anachronisms

Why is this regular feature called The Ball and Cross? It is a question that I am asked from time to time by various people, and now seems as good a time as any to tell you.

Several of the original StAR columns back in 2001 adopted recycled titles borrowed from Chesterton and Belloc for, partly ‘for luck’, partly (at least in my case) to attempt to misappropriate thereby the latitude accorded to the Chesterbelloc in matters of style; in other words to extend the scope of their poetic licence.

Chesterton’s The Ball and the Cross is a novel about how terrible the modern world is, or perhaps how terrible it looked set to become, almost an hundred years ago when Chesterton wrote it.

So I resurrected the evocative name of a zany, futuristic novel for a column that would tackle the modern world in what some might call a self-consciously anachronistic way.

Chesterton’s novel begins in an UFO, captained by a crazy scientist called Professor Lucifer. Like most devils in western literature, he is urbane and charming. He is accompanied by "an exceedingly holy man, almost entirely covered with white hair", by the name of Michael.

Michael and Lucifer then crash their flying machine into the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, and so begins a discussion of the ‘ball and the cross’, the former symbolising the smoothe, round world, and its worldliness, and the latter standing for the angular, difficult and painful road to spiritual wholeness.

Well, in the wake of 2000, when we were all still reeling from the shock of not living in a space station or wearing shiny bolier-suits (as had been promised us back at primary school in the seventies), it seemed like a good idea.

And now, something else to think about, especially if you are a flat earth believer, or belong to that group of people who like to belittle the Popes for allegedly backing the theory that the Earth is a giant pancake rather than a giant ball.

There is a very widespread, but mistaken belief that medievals thought the Earth was flat, and that Christopher Columbus and Galileo had an exceedingly difficult job updating our idea of the universe.

In fact, the notion that the earth is round is older than Christianity and was promoted by Aristotle (384 – 322 BC) and Pythagoras (560 - 480 BC). Most interestingly, Eratosthenes of Cyrene (276 - 194 BC) made a very creditable calculation of the circumference of the earth.

In the Egyptian town of Aswan, then known as Syene, 500 miles southeast of Alexandria, the Sun's rays at noon fall vertically at the summer solstice (the longest day of the year: 21st June in the northern hemisphere). Eratosthenes knew this not because he had been to Syene, but because he had read – in the great library of Alexandria - of a well in Syene that was completely lit up by the sun at noon on this day.

Eratosthenes observed that at Alexandria, at the same date and time, the light of the sun fell at an angle of just over 7° from the vertical. (Or in his terms, 1/50 of a circle). He measured this by planting a stick in the ground and measuring the angle made by the shadow.

Presuming, as Eratosthenes did, that the sun was very far away, its rays would be practically parallel on reaching the Earth. Not only does the difference of angle between the two cities reassure us that the Earth is not flat; it also enabled our Greek friend to calculate the circumference of the Earth. He did this simply by multiplying the distance of 5,000 stadia (the distance between Syene and Alexandria) by 50 (the difference of angle between Syene and Alexandria being 1/50th of a circle, and the world, as we know, being a sphere.) The answer – 250,000 stadia, or about 25,000 miles – is very close to what modern scientists reckon: 24,901.55 miles.

By the early Middle Ages all the West accepted the theory of a round earth. The story that Christopher Columbus persuaded Europe that the Earth was round by sailing ‘over the edge of it’ is a fable created by the writer Washington Irving and has no basis in fact at all, especially given that Columbus never circumnavigated the globe. He only sailed from Spain to the Amercias, which is something the Vikings, and probably the Irish had done centuries before.

And so, back to the ball and the cross. Remember all those medieval representations of Christ as sovereign, often seated in his mother’s lap, carrying the orb, that symbol of the round world, surmounted, governed and protected by the trophy of our salvation.

It is one of those beautiful and felicitous coincidences that the man who first measured the globe, Eratosthenes of Cyrene, came from the same town in modern-day Libya as the man picked from the crowd, centuries later, to carry the Cross of our Redeemer.

A blessed Easter to you all.


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