Today, a man plans to launch himself in a homemade steam-powered rocket as part of his quest to prove the earth is flat.

Steam-powered.

Yeah.

Now, to be fair, the idea of a steam-powered rocket isn't quite as daft as belief in a flat earth. True, steam isn't likely to get anyone high enough to see the curvature of the earth. Chances are remote that anyone could overcome the pesky power-to-weight ratio that keeps steam from ruling the skies. But NASA has been investigating the use of steam in spacecraft, which may end up being an efficient way to propel and steer our way through space. And who knows? Maybe someday, there will be a technological breakthrough in steam technology that will have us boiling water to reach the stars.

It's certainly more possible than an amateur crank and complete science denier proving that 2,000+ years of science and observation were wrong about the shape of the planet.

How can people in this day and age believe in such an easily-disproved idea? In Mike Hughes's case, it appears to be very motivated reasoning. When he ran out of backers for his steam-powered rocket dreams, he turned to an untapped resource: flat earthers. People yearning to prove their beliefs to be true gave him thousands of dollars – and if this second, ambitious test flight is more successful than the one that left Hughes reliant on a walker for weeks, they'll probably give him thousands more.

Modern day flat earthers are determined to prove us spherical earthers wrong. They cling to every hint they can find that supports their idea, no matter how dubiously. They rely on the appearance of flatness (you don't see the curvature of the earth until you're at a pretty high altitude – the lower limit seems to be about 50,000 feet). They retreat into claims of conspiracy when faced with evidence of a curved Earth (yep – it's all a media-government-elite false-flag mind-control thing). They sometimes point to metaphors in holy books like the Bible and say that settles it (spheres don't have corners, and this verse says the earth has corners – checkmate, spherisists!). They'll even deny satellites exist. And, of course, they seized upon the recent eclipse to "prove" their position.

But there's also a plaintive, yearning motivation that can be found in the words of Mike Sargent:

"They want you to think you're insignificant, a speck on the earth, a cosmic mistake.... The flat earth says you are special, we are special, there is a creator, this isn't some accident."

Yeah, there's that human need to be in the center of it all, planned for and necessary, rather than a chance happening in a vast cosmos. (I've been prey to it, too, but over time I've come to revel in my status as a minute cosmic coincidence.)

As far as why the "elites" would be so invested in pushing a round earth conspiracy, Bob Knodel believes he knows: "They want complete mind control."

Yep. We who consult science for truths about the universe are just mind-controlled sheeple. Including students who film a spherical earth from a balloon and stuff. That camera was probably in on it, the elitist jerk.

Flat earth theories are, of course, out of this world, and it may seem they've got to be out of whacky ideas after all the contortions and conspiracy theorizing they have to do in order to deny overwhelming evidence, but they're evolving into ever stranger forms. One of the latest? Forests. Specifically: they deny that any such thing as a forest exists.

Seriously. This is a brand-new idea being floated within the flat earth community, and it claims that the trees we see now aren't real trees – they're just really tall bushes. Volcanic plugs, in this view, are the stony stumps of the real trees, which towered hundreds of kilometers over the (flat) landscape. Also stumps: "mesas, plateaux, flat-topped mountains, [and] chunks of isolated cliffs..."

The purveyor of this notion assures us that "After watching [his] video, [we] will reverse [our] concept of forests by 360 degrees." This is probably true, since reversing said number of degrees brings up right back to where we started. But please do let me know if, after watching his video, you no longer believe in rocks.

Flat earthers will probably always be with us. Considering that no amount of evidence ever convinces them, and the cry of "It's a conspiracy!" that greets every photo, video, spaceflight, equation, and other item of proof we have, arguing with one will probably just frustrate you. If you do decide to engage, just take a lesson from Alfred Russel Wallace's woeful wager and don't place any bets on the outcome.

Meanwhile, I'd like to recommend to Mr. Hughes that, should he ever find his funds from flat earthers drying up, he turn to the steampunk community for assistance. I'm pretty sure some of them would invest the heck out of a project like a steam-powered rocket to the stratosphere. And the aesthetic is way cooler.

Image shows an ornate Victorian-stype rocket. It has a maroon primary tank flanked by several wings with pointy bits at their tops. The top of this stage is a chrome-ish faceted dome. The spacecraft being carried atop the rocket is a hexagonal wooden building with a pointed dome, looking something between a lighthouse and a church steeple.
"Steampunk Rocket in Space." Credit: Mr Thinktank Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

For further reading on the extraordinary longevity of a very silly notion, please see my review of Christine Garwood's Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea.