The Origin of the "Polaris is visible from south of the equator" Myth


Executive summary: Rowbotham took the wrong conclusion that Polaris is visible from south of the equator from his misinterpretation of an article. His erroneous conclusion then was quoted by various flat earth publishers, including Eric Dubay who popularized the myth today.

We know Polaris is not visible from south of the equator, with some small deviations due to atmospheric refraction and the height of the observer. And that proves Earth is a sphere. However, the myth that Polaris is visible from south of the equator keeps resurfacing, and it is a favorite "proof" for those unwilling to verify the facts themselves, including those living south of the equator. This is the result of my investigation about the origin of the myth.

Warning: archaeological work ahead.

These days, the myth is popularized by Eric Dubay's list of "200 proofs". The Polaris myth described here is often the "proof number 99" in such lists.


Quite obviously, Dubay did not actually observe it himself (otherwise he'll easily know Polaris is not visible south of the equator). He simply quoted books written by flat Earthers from over a century ago.

This is "proof number 71" from "100 Proofs the Earth is Not a Globe" by William Carpenter, published in 1885:


And this is from "Earth Not a Globe" by Samuel Rowbotham, page 41, published in 1865:


In turn, Rowbotham quoted the Times article, which is the first non-flat-earth related material in this chain of information. The original article is available in the Times archive (paywalled with a one-month free trial). This is the relevant paragraph:


So, the ship was traveling from Cape of Good Hope to St Helena, and then to Spithead, England. On their way, at some point, they observed that the southern cross and polar star are visible in the sky.

The quoted coordinate was the source of the confusion. If we were to assume the coordinate has the correct sign, then it would have been 23°53' N 35°46' E, on the Red Sea, far from the intended route. Rowbotham assumed the latitude of the coordinate is south of the equator: so either 23°53' S 35°46' E (off the coast of Mozambique) or 23°53' S 35°46' W (off the coast of Brazil). Both of these coordinates are nowhere near the route of the ship.


The four blue stars mark all the possible coordinates of latitude 23°53' longitude 35°46'. Rowbotham assumed the actual position of the ship where it observed Polaris must be one of the bottom locations. In reality, it is more plausible that the correct location was one on the top left, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, north of the equator.

These are how the night sky appeared at the time in that location. Looking north, Polaris was visible:


And looking south, the southern cross was also still visible:


Aside from the missing sign, the Times' article was accurate. The myth that Polaris is visible from south of the Equator was simply from an erroneous inference made by Rowbotham. He assumed the observation was done in the south of the equator. In reality, it was done comfortably north of the equator.

So much for the claim that "using zeteticism one bases his conclusions on experimentation and observation". The myth spreads in the flat Earth community like wildfire, from book to book, without any attempt to verify the facts themselves.
Splendid research! Just a point of terminology: in old-fashioned English, the term 'inst.' was used as an abbreviation for 'in the present month'. So in the Times article dated 13 May 1862, the references to the 6th inst. and the 10th inst. should be interpreted as dates in May. Putting together the dates in the article, we get the following timeline:

5 March - left Cape of Good Hope (approx. 35 degrees South)
17 March - arrived at St Helena (approx. 15 degrees South)
18 March - left St Helena
19 April - the date of the observation
6 May - 'heavy weather'
10 May - Lizard sighted [the Lizard being at the south-west tip of England, approx. 50 degrees North]
12 May ('yesterday') - ship arrived at Spithead (on the south coast of England).
12 May (evening) left Spithead for the Thames (presumably London).

Note that in this timeline by 17 March the ship is already north of the Tropic of Capricorn, where Rowbotham assumes the observation to have taken place on 19 April. If Rowbotham were correct, after leaving St Helena the ship must have spent a month pootling around the South Atlantic, with a net movement of about 8 degrees to the south, before making a sudden dash north to reach England in less than a month!