1255: Columbus

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
Jump to: navigation, search
And thus was smallpox introduced into the previously Undying Lands.
Title text: And thus was smallpox introduced into the previously Undying Lands.


The comic starts with White Hat telling the two children shown on the first panel that Christopher Columbus knew the world was round, but that others believed it to be flat. However, this is a false narrative known as the Myth of the Flat Earth. Educated people in Columbus's time knew the world was round, and knew the approximate radius of the Earth. Columbus claimed that the distance to sail west from Canary Islands to Japan to be about 3,700 km, drastically lower than others believed, but he was wrong about this. If another continent and the "West Indies" had not been fortuitously in the right place, Columbus and his crew probably would have died at sea.

As White Hat begins his explanation, Megan objects, though not explaining why. White Hat continues, so Megan interrupts, saying that Columbus went in a straight line as the world curved away, ending up in Valinor and the Undying Lands. Megan's story is an allusion to The Silmarillion, by J. R. R. Tolkien, set in the same world as The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. The claim that Columbus sailed on a tangent to the surface alludes to how the elves' ships leave the curved sea surface and sail in a straight line to reach Valinor on the same route that they sailed when the world was still flat. The mentions of a silmaril and the morning star are a reference to Eärendil the Mariner, the only mortal sailor to reach the Undying Lands, with one of the Silmarils (though Eärendil's journey occurred at the end of the First Age and the world was only changed into a sphere near the end of the Second Age). Megan humorously conflates these myths, suggesting that they are all equally false. Columbus in fact wasn't the first to claim the world was round; the ancient Greeks had discovered it long before. It was, however, disputed by some Christian scholars in late antiquity due to disagreements over its congruence with biblical canon. In Megan's telling, Columbus ends up as the morning star, which is actually the planet Venus (the same fate as Eärendil's in Tolkien's mythology).

The joke is that when White Hat tells her to stop making up the story, Megan pointedly replies "You first", indicating that she originally complained about White Hat's retelling of the Columbus story because his account didn't really happen, and so he was also "making things up". Megan's fantasy tale was then delivered to make a point.

The title text refers to the transfer of smallpox to the Americas by Europeans, which caused the deaths of untold millions of Native Americans. The introduction of smallpox to the Undying Lands would indeed make their name ironic. However, the Undying Lands are named after immortal Valar, Maiar, and Elves living there, not because they confer immortality. A more proper name would be the Lands of the Undying, and Valar, Maiar, and Elves are not susceptible to diseases in Tolkien's mythos in any case.

Similar discussions between White Hat and Megan can be found in 1605: DNA and 1731: Wrong, in the latter Megan even finishes with a similar *sigh* as she started with here.


[White Hat talks to two children sitting in front of him on the floor to the right. A boy with hair like Hairy with his arms round his knees and behind him Jill with two hair buns, sitting cross-legged on her knees. Megan interrupts him from off-panel right.]
White Hat: Everyone said the world was flat, but Columbus knew it was round.
Megan (off-panel): *Sigh* no, no, no.
[Megan walks in holding a hand palm up. White Hat partly lifts his arm closest to her. The children between them turn their heads towards her. The boy leans back on one hand.]
Megan: So he took his ships and sailed west—
Megan: —in a line tangent to the surface. The sea fell away, and he landed in Valinor.
[White Hat has taken his arm down, Megan holds her arms out to each side. The children still look at her, now also Jill leans back on one arm.]
Megan: A Silmaril on his brow, he wanders the heavens as the morning star, still believing he reached India.
White Hat: Stop making stuff up.
Megan: You first.

comment.png add a comment! ⋅ comment.png add a topic (use sparingly)! ⋅ Icons-mini-action refresh blue.gif refresh comments!


Megan's version of the story is one big reference to the Silmarillion, in case you're wondering. 06:00, 23 August 2013 (UTC)

I fail to see how the fact scholars and other educated people knew the Earth is round means he couldn't have difficulty getting sponsorship because of that. He wasn't asking scholars for sponsorship, did he? :-) Actually, according to wikipedia, "Columbus presented his plans to Queen Isabella, who, in turn, referred it to a committee" ... -- Hkmaly (talk) 09:14, 23 August 2013 (UTC)

Because it wasn't just scholars - everyone knew that the world was a sphere. Sailors, for example, took the monumental task of noticing that when objects appeared in the distance, they seemed to "rise up" over the horizon (hence the phrase). For that to happen, the sea (and by extension the rest of the world) had to be curved. 12:08, 23 August 2013 (UTC)

Farmers were famous for believing the world was flat, but it might as well just be city prejudice or jokes on farmers behalf. They would anyway be in the worst position to know any better. 12:30, 23 August 2013 (UTC)
I was trying to make a joke. According to wikipedia again, it is recorded that the committee denied the request because of distance to Asia, therefore shown much more intelligence that committees tend to have on average. Still, he asked for sponsorship multiple people, which might include some who believed earth is flat. -- Hkmaly (talk) 11:07, 24 August 2013 (UTC)

Looking at the moon and at the earth's shadow during a lunar eclipse would probably make many realize the earth is round. Ghaller825 (talk) 12:45, 23 August 2013 (UTC)

Unless "round" as in "circular", rather than "spherical". A disc-like Earth could give the same effect. A non-tidally-locked moon would have been an interesting thing for early understanding of the universe, as it would have shown a clearly spherical ball rotating and let the layperson imagine sphericality under their own feet a lot easier in their own childhood, thus flat-earthing would have been culturally invalid, not just lazy/unthinking. Whether or not farmers 'knew'/cared/were-told-by-the-church that the world was flat isn't really relevent on the scale of farming where you need to worry more about localised hills on your land than global curvature on its actual order of magnitude. Of course, in the absence of any other clues you tend to think of everything as flat as your (crudely worked) kitchen tabletop by default. 16:16, 23 August 2013 (UTC)

I am not sure what people knew and what they believed in earlier times. For example: M-Theory says that the space we live in has 11 dimensions. Assuming this is correct, what will people in 500 years say about us? Did we know it or did we not? Could we have expected what will hit us in a couple of years from out of one of the dimensions that we do not visually perceive? To apply this to the quesion of whether they knew that the world was round: There is a story about Magellan (who certainly believed that the world was round because he tried to sail around it): He tried to measure the depth of the ocean with a 700m long rope. When the rope failed to reach the bottom, he concluded that the ocean was infinitely deep. Now how can a round object with a finite perimeter have and infinite radius? (I realize that wikipedia does not give any sources for the story and its origin is somewhat obscure, someone translated the story from the German wikipedia in July 2011; in the German wikipedia it had first appeared in 2006, but the story was around on German language websites since at least 2000; I have no idea where it originally comes from, but it would be interesting to have a look at Magellan's ship's log if it had such a thing.) Y4cy (talk) 13:41, 23 August 2013 (UTC)

You suppose that the round earth is imbedded in flat 3-dimensional space. If it were’nt, you could easily have infinitely deep oceans. Maybe Magellan was way ahead of his time by thinking in non-Euclidean categories.
(Explanation for non-mathematicians: Draw a circle – it surely has a finite radius, but if you measure the depth perpendicular to the sheet of paper, you could go infinitely deep. Now apply this to a round sphere and measure perpendicular to the 3D space you put it in.)
-- 09:41, 24 August 2013 (UTC)
Your example fails. Magellan sailed in ship with keel pointing in the direction of the depth he tried to measure. His success depended on the fact that earth is round IN THAT DIMENSION. Sure, there are geometries where the earth can be round in that dimension AND ocean would still be infinite, but, as you correctly mentioned, they would be non-euclidean, while your example with sheet of paper is (almost) euclidean. Also, dimension which would make possible to measure infinite distances is Brane cosmology - M-Theory would work perfectly well even in case all of those "extra" dimensions would be extremely small. -- Hkmaly (talk) 11:07, 24 August 2013 (UTC)
Journal of Magellan's Voyage is an original source (in French) accessible online of this voyage, which could contain this story. Sebastian -- 19:36, 24 August 2013 (UTC)

Arda was not bent until the Downfall of Númenor in S.A. 3319. When Eärendil sailed into the West in F.A. 538 he did so on a topologically flat earth. It was the Istari, the Sindarin belatedly answering the summons of the Valar, Galadriel of the Noldorin, Elrond half-Elven, and the ring-bearers of the third age who took the straight road to Valinor. --April Arcus 01:44, 25 August 2013 (UTC)

  • Nerrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrd. :) --V2Blast (talk) 07:34, 27 August 2013 (UTC)
Oh yah, 'cos the rest of the comments/conversation on this page are just soooo hip :P Orazor (talk) 10:11, 30 September 2014 (UTC)

How is the title text related to the title text in 1256? Does Arwen visit the Undying Lands? Jd2718 (talk) 12:06, 5 September 2013 (UTC)

I'm pretty sure Valar are immune to disease... 22:26, 28 December 2013 (UTC)

And I'm pretty sure valar morghulis... wait, what? Orazor (talk) 10:11, 30 September 2014 (UTC)
Valar, Maiar, and Elves are all disease-immune. Valar and Maiar can actually shed their physical bodies entirely. 13:39, 13 July 2015 (UTC)

While the main inhabitants of the Undying Lands are undying in their own right, it may be that they also confer immortality. As I recall, the Numenorean invasion was based upon that belief. Magic9mushroom (talk) 10:38, 10 September 2016 (UTC)

I thought the morning star was Polaris. How did it become the planet Venus?

You were incorrect. Polaris is the (Northern Hemisphere) North Star, not the morning star. Nitpicking (talk) 12:32, 23 November 2021 (UTC)
It's also the southern hemisphere North Star. It's just always below the horizon (as is the celestial north pole) so it isn't really all that useful. 17:30, 11 March 2023 (UTC)
If you can't see Polaris, but want to go north, pick a random direction and keep going until you can see Polaris. It'll still work Worst case scenario is that you'll pass through Amundsen–Scott base, on the way, but then you're definitely going north... ;) 18:57, 11 March 2023 (UTC)

I don't know how this was unnoticed for so long, but the image on xkcd was updated to show White Hat saying the "So he took his ships and sailed west", with a line. This doesn't change the comic too much, so the explanation doesn't need to be updated, but the image and transcription definitely should. 02:49, 12 December 2023 (UTC)

Please explain that further. Everything you mention *seems* to be the same in comic, page image and page transcript already. Having taken several glances at each, before deciding that I probably wasn't missing something. Yet I clearly must be. 11:43, 12 December 2023 (UTC)
NVM. I had another few glances and twigged that "line" was neither of the em-dashes nor the word "line" in the continuation text, but the speech-line. Good catch, of something I had always implicitly seen as there (probably why it escaped initial publication, easy to hallucinate into existence). 11:48, 12 December 2023 (UTC)