As we all know, Earth is round and not flat like many of our ancient (and no-so-ancient) ancestors believed. If Earth had rings like Saturn that were visible from the surface, is it likely that people would have discovered its spherical nature sooner? Or would it likely have made no difference? For example, people would never have been able to reach the 'base' of the rings they saw on the horizon (much like a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow).

  • $\begingroup$ Maybe, Earth's shadow printed on the "surfaces" of ring... $\endgroup$
    – user6760
    Apr 7, 2016 at 4:04
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    $\begingroup$ They would have said that earth was still flat and the rings were the land of the gods, to be seen but never reached $\endgroup$ Apr 7, 2016 at 12:33

3 Answers 3


Probably not

The ancient Greeks began to think the Earth was spherical in 600 BC. However, they actually proved it around 330 BC. Their size estimate was correct to within 10% of the Earth's actual size.

The concept of a spherical Earth dates back to around the 6th century BC, when it was mentioned in ancient Greek philosophy,[1][2] but remained a matter of philosophical speculation until the 3rd century BC, when Hellenistic astronomy established the spherical shape of the earth as a physical given.

By the 18th century our ancestors knew the shape to be an oblate spheroid within about 1/300th ($\frac{\Delta r}{r}$):

The realization that the figure of the Earth is more accurately described as an ellipsoid dates to the 18th century (Maupertuis). In the early 19th century, the flattening of the earth ellipsoid was determined to be of the order of 1/300 (Delambre, Everest). The modern value as determined by the US DoD World Geodetic System since the 1960s is close to 1/298.25

Our ancestors without modern instrumentation figured out a bunch about the Earth as soon as they developed sufficiently advanced math to calculate the Earth's shape. They did this just using logic, math, and geometry.

It might have helped conceptually but I'm not sure that a ring system would have accelerated these discoveries & calculations by much.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Jim2B, I would predate the first correct calculation way before 6th century BC and let have the Indians (these from India) claim the first correct determination of earth potato like shape ; ), but I cannot provide sources for my claim at the moment... by the way, even ancient Egypt might have known that. Without medieval church that geocentric and flat world spook wouldn't have popped up after all... $\endgroup$ Apr 7, 2016 at 5:10
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    $\begingroup$ You blame the wrong culprit. The "Dark Ages" (precipitated by the Black Plague) essentially killed widespread education in Western Europe. The Muslims sacked Constantinople and burned its libraries. The knowledge that was saved, was saved by the church. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… . In some areas the church slowed learning but in most areas, it preserved much of what was already known. Plus anyone wanting an education at that time could only get it from the Church. $\endgroup$
    – Jim2B
    Apr 7, 2016 at 5:16
  • $\begingroup$ @Jim2B: And could only learn & teach what the Church approved of. Remember Giordiano Bruno? $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Apr 7, 2016 at 18:47
  • $\begingroup$ "According to art historian Kenneth Clark, for some five centuries after the fall of Rome, virtually all men of intellect joined the Church and practically nobody in western Europe outside of monastic settlements had the ability to read or write. While church scholars at different times also destroyed classical texts they felt were contrary to the Christian message, it was they, virtually alone in Western Europe, who preserved texts from the old society." $\endgroup$
    – Jim2B
    Apr 7, 2016 at 19:52
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    $\begingroup$ There's lots more showing that every scrap of classical knowledge that was saved in Europe, was saved by the Church. I don't disagree that organizations are sometimes evil or do stupid things but saying the Church caused the Dark Ages or somehow contributed to their duration, is horribly wrong. $\endgroup$
    – Jim2B
    Apr 7, 2016 at 19:55

Actually the world being round vs flat wasn't really a question until much more recently. Sailors knew it was round since out on the ocean all you can see is the curve and things disappear over the horizon.

The fear of 'falling off the edge' was falling off the 'side'. They considered the earth to be like an orange, where you can 'stay' on top of the orange but if you get too close to the 'edge' you will fall off.

Gravity pulled 'down' but the idea it pulled to the center of the earth wasn't in the equation. You'd fall down to something 'below' the earth, like the floor in your kitchen if you fell off the orange.

  • $\begingroup$ Any sources? One immediately obvious problem with this view is that we can see that water isn't constantly flowing towards the horizon. $\endgroup$
    – zeta
    Apr 8, 2016 at 12:58
  • $\begingroup$ That same argument holds for a flat world too. $\endgroup$
    – bowlturner
    Apr 8, 2016 at 13:01
  • $\begingroup$ @sumelic and even wiki supports it. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myth_of_the_flat_Earth $\endgroup$
    – bowlturner
    Apr 8, 2016 at 13:04
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry, I just realized my earlier question was confusing. I don't want sources for the idea that people used to know the Earth is round. I want sources for the idea that they didn't understand gravity correctly. Where does it say on that page that "They considered the earth to be like an orange, where you can 'stay' on top of the orange but if you get too close to the 'edge' you will fall off"? $\endgroup$
    – zeta
    Apr 8, 2016 at 13:30

I think there would just have been a lot more myths like the ouroboros.

Not really a flat vs round debate, but would have had an effect on that debate, but one theory I've heard is that the whole Earth centric vs Sun centric debate would have been laid to rest much sooner if one of the nearby planets had a large moon like ours.
So if Venus had a large moon that would have been easily visible to early astronomers, then there would have been proof that not everything orbited earth.

That's pretty much what happened with Galileo after discovering Jupiter's moons.
"Hey, there is another planet with moons!"
"Lies! Everything has to orbit Earth as the center of the universe. Tell everyone you were wrong!"

I don't think rings around Earth would have changed anything historically, other than to make some interesting new myths.


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