Is Earth inside the Universe, or vice versa? Since we can grasp only a model of reality, how do we know what’s real?
In 1869, the Baptist fundamentalist Cyrus Reed Teed reported his divine revelation that the Earth was hollow. At first glance, nothing novel. Jules Verne had explored a similar concept five years prior in his science-fiction adventure Journey to the Centre of the Earth. But while Verne imagined a subterranean cavern of fantastic creatures, Teed declared in earnest that we were literally living inside the sphere. In this strange cosmology, the Sun, planets, stars and galaxies all occupy the Earth’s interior. The Earth’s crust is an infinitely thick layer of rock encasing the entire Universe.
Motivated by his new cosmology, Teed published a book, started a new religion, amassed disciples, and founded a new town in Florida. To many, Teed’s ideas sound like snake oil so thick only the most gullible could imbibe. Yet his influence was not limited to the United States, nor to the 19th century. Anti-intellectual sentiment within the Nazi party embraced concave hollow-Earth theory – or Hohlwelttheorie as it is called in German. According to the Dutch astronomer Gerard Kuiper, elements of the Nazi military might have even advocated looking up through the sky to spy on the Allies on the other side of the world. After all, there’s no place to hide inside a globe.
How did Teed’s ideas gain a foothold in the upper echelons of the Third Reich? A less cosmic, more conspiratorial notion of a hollow Earth was introduced in Europe by the English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton. In his novella Vril: The Power of the Coming Race (1871), Bulwer-Lytton depicts a master race living in the bowels of the Earth. In this cultural ambience, belief in a hollow Earth might have attracted German nationalists. Indeed, during the First World War, a German pilot named Peter Bender converted to Teed’s ideas as a prisoner of war.
According to the geographer Duane A Griffin at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, Bender introduced Hohlwelttheorie to the elite Nazi Hermann Göring, who oversaw the creation of the Gestapo. With this initial overture, alternative cosmologies might have slithered into Nazi thought. As Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke writes in The Occult Roots of Nazism (1992), ‘fantasies can achieve a causal status once they have been institutionalised in beliefs, values, and social groups’.
As the Nazi party rose to power in Germany, anti-Semitism drove the Jewish-German physicist Albert Einstein to take up residence in the US. Like Teed, Einstein had developed a deeply counterintuitive understanding of the Universe. To explain several curious observations about light, Einstein inferred that it must always have the same speed for all observers. Moreover, time and space change as one approaches light speed. Behold, very fast objects contract in length and experience a different passage of time! So twins might diverge in age if one starts travelling much faster than the other.
We take it for granted that time and distance are the same for everyone, just as we take it for granted that the cosmos contains Earth, and not vice versa. Yet both ideas have been challenged. How do we know that Einstein is right and Teed is wrong?