It was 10 o’clock on a recent Sunday morning when Jason Torres steered his Ford pickup into the visitors lot at Castle Island, threw it into park, and stepped out.
Outside, the day was off to a dreary start. A steady rain was falling and the beach lot — typically brimming with cars — remained largely empty.
Not the best conditions for the task at hand, he acknowledged. But it would have to do.
Truth be told, there were few places Torres — 44, with shoulder-length black hair, a backwards hat, and a key chain that says “Zombie Killer” — would rather be. Just to get here this morning, he’d risen early, downed most of a pot of coffee, and made the hour-and-a-half drive from his home in tiny Mason, N.H.
There was work to be done, he knew, important work, and so here he was, gathering his tripod and camera and trudging through the parking lot, hood pulled against the rain.
In the 2½ years since stumbling upon an obscure YouTube video, Torres has devoted his life to a single, quixotic quest — one that, by his own admission, has upended his daily existence, cost him decades-long friendships, and left his longtime girlfriend wondering whether he’d lost his mind.
He has come to believe that everything we’ve been taught about our planet is a lie. That there is no globe, no blue-and-green orb spinning endlessly on its axis in space.
That Earth, as he puts it, is “flat as a pancake.”
And here on this soggy stretch of beach, no matter the cost to his life and reputation, he plans to prove it.
What sort of person does that?
. . .
Laugh if you want to, but as the country’s collective attention has been on mass murders, toxic politics, and the threat of nuclear war, a curious and apparently growing grass-roots movement has been focused on other things.
Flat-earth groups have popped up in cities around the country, their members gathering to discuss their beliefs and spread awareness. Billboards have appeared in multiple cities across the United States (“IS THE EARTH FLAT?” read one in Tulsa, Okla.). Earlier this month, the first-ever Flat Earth International Conference drew about 800 people from across — not around — the world to Raleigh, N.C.
The movement’s true scope remains something of a mystery — though some flat-earth-related videos have generated millions of online views — but the intent is clear: They are waging war on accepted science — on an understanding of the planet that dates back millennia.
If Earth is round, they want to know, then why aren’t buildings tilted? Look at the oceans: How does water stick to a ball? And how, if Earth is spinning at a rate of 1,000 miles an hour, are we even able to function?
To them, images of Earth from space are just that — images. The video footage from the moon? Filmed on a movie set. And while they might disagree a bit on the details, they go by what they see. And what they see seems inarguably flat.
“What we observe and what we experience doesn’t seem to match up,” explained Josh Bolieiro of Nashua, during a recent meeting of Flat Earth New England at Revere Beach.
But even as the movement has gained some high-profile steam — Shaquille O’Neal, the rapper B.o.B., and Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving have declared themselves believers, though Irving’s real feelings are unclear — its backers have also been depicted, not unsurprisingly, as a special breed of crazy.
Bill Nye, the mild-mannered TV scientist, has called the flat-earth movement “heartbreaking.” The astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson went a step further, suggesting that flat-earthers should be rocketed into space and allowed to return to Earth only after admitting they’re wrong.
Even their fellow conspiracy theorists — folks who have no problem accepting the idea that the government is poisoning our drinking water or that 9-11 was an inside job — have trouble wrapping their heads around flat-earth.
“I literally know conspiracy theorists who believe that the entire royal family are reptiles,” says Mark Sargent, a former video game developer from Seattle who has become one of flat-earth’s most prominent faces. “But they balk at flat earth.”
Researchers have studied conspiracy theories, and what they’ve found is that we’re more likely to accept such beliefs during times when we’re feeling excluded, isolated, vulnerable.
Clinging to a conspiracy theory, in other words, can be a kind of coping mechanism — a way to apply some semblance of control at a time when the world can seem markedly void of it.
“What we found,” says Alin Coman, an assistant professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University, “is that it really goes to this notion of a search for meaning.”
. . .
Jason Torres knows what you’re thinking. You’re thinking he’s nuts, insane, crazier than a bedbug.
He knows this because, for a long time, he would’ve agreed with you.
The son of a fireman father and stay-at-home mother, Torres grew up in a working-class family in the Fall River area. His was a fairly typical childhood: He competed for his high school cross-country team, wrote for the school newspaper, and on Sundays in the fall, he rooted on Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers.
As far back as he can remember, though, his true passion has been space. As a child, he spent his days filling notebooks with doodles of spaceships and his nights in front of the television, rewatching “Star Wars” for the umpteenth time.
After high school, he says, he enrolled at Bristol Community College, intent on a career in astronomy or the planetary sciences. And even when he was forced to put school on hold, when the bills became too much, he had every intention of returning.
“It was supposed to be just a break,” he says now. “A little time off to work before going back.”
“Then my parents got sick.”
First came his father. Liver disease. He made it just seven months. Torres had barely had time to grieve when his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, the start of a grueling four-year stretch of treatment that would eventually leave Torres — at the age of 33 — with no immediate family.
Watching his parents wither away, he says, awakened in him something that hadn’t been there before, a kind of skepticism about the world.
The shift began benignly enough, an hour or two here or there poking around the Internet.
But by 2015, Torres — living at the time in New Hampshire with his longtime girlfriend and her two kids — had begun devoting significant time and attention to an array of conspiracy theories. The girlfriend, who asked that her name not be used, remembers going to bed alone as Torres stayed up all night scouring the Web for the latest conspiracy fodder.
When they’d first begun dating, she says, they’d go for walks, watch baseball, sit by the water and talk. Now, it had become almost impossible to pull him away from his computer screen.
She still loved him, she says now, “but when you have somebody you’re trying to build a life with, and they’re not [emotionally] there most of the time, you can’t do it yourself.”
In February 2015, worried he’d never change, she packed her things and said goodbye.
And it was two weeks later that Torres — sitting at home alone one night, still reeling from the breakup — happened upon the video that would turn his life upside down.
. . .
That was his first thought, in the moments after finishing Mark Sargent’s “Flat Earth Clues Part 2,” a 15-minute video questioning the idea of the earth’s shape.
Starting that night and continuing over the next few months, Torres embarked on what he figured would be a short mission: proving Sargent wrong.
Scouring the Web, he examined photos snapped from the top of Mount Everest, from airplane windows, from high-altitude balloons — searching the backgrounds for proof of Earth’s curvature. Anything he could use to discredit Sargent’s claims.
Problem was, he kept coming up empty.
Evidence that would have been more than enough for most people was, to his scrutinizing eye, inadequate.
After a few weeks, he began to wonder if Sargent was right.
And after seven months, he became convinced.
Impossible as it might seem, the world really was flat.
. . .
His phone has stopped ringing, invitations have dried up. He is a longtime neat-freak, but the tables and countertops in his remote house are often cluttered with unopened mail, while things that once held his attention — movies, video games — no longer do.
In the 2½ years since Torres saw Sargent’s video, his life has shifted immeasurably.
“When you let go of everything you’ve ever known, willingly, it’s like you’ve lost yourself, lost your identity,” Torres says. “It’s like you start all over again.”
And so, to fill the void, to deal with the loneliness, he throws himself deeper into this strange world.
He spends hours — 20 a day, sometimes — online, reading the latest or chatting with fellow flat-earthers. Armed with little more than a camera and a handful of mathematical equations, he has taken to doing weekend “experiments,” photographing the horizon from nearby mountaintops or from beaches in search of curvature.
Once a month, meanwhile, he meets up with a dozen or so fellow flat-earthers — mostly young, mostly male — to discuss the latest flat-earth news and to
Between the monthly meet-ups and the nightly YouTube hangouts, he’s begun building — albeit slowly — a new social circle, an online collection of like-minded individuals who don’t ridicule him for his beliefs.
“We’re like each other’s group therapy,” Torres jokes.
To his former girlfriend, though, there’s been nothing funny about it.
In the time since their split, she’s tried everything to snap him out of it. She brings her kids around, to make him feel like he’s part of something. She drops off food, knowing he forgets to eat.
Last year, she took him to see the comedian Marc Maron in Boston, figuring he’d have no choice but to step away from flat-earth for the night. Instead, he spent much of the evening watching flat-earth videos on her phone, leaving her alone with a couple of strangers at the bar.
Torres insists that he could step away if he needed to, that he’s not a slave to the cause.
To this, she only shakes her head.
“I don’t think he can walk away from it,” she says. “It’s like watching an addict.”
. . .
Back at Castle Island, the rain is still falling.
For the better part of the last hour, Torres has been crouched behind a camera, snapping long-distance photos of the horizon while offering a running commentary on the shape of the planet.
“You see that?” he asks at one point, nodding to a spot across the water, where the Hull skyline rises in the distance. “You shouldn’t be able to see the bottom of those buildings.”
Later, after making the long trek home to New Hampshire, he’ll upload the photos to his computer. He’ll figure the distance between the beach and the distant shoreline he photographed, then plug it into an equation popular with flat-earthers, one that purportedly calculates the amount of curvature, in feet, that should exist at any given distance if the world is indeed round.
(Standard measurements show Earth curves about 48 inches over the 6 miles from Castle Island to Hull, too little to easily see without special equipment.)
But to Torres, his findings tell him what he already knows: That the numbers just don’t add up, that the curvature doesn’t exist.
A few weeks later, sitting on a couch in his living room, he pulls from a cigarette and talks about his latest plan.
He’s been thinking a lot about the North Pole, he says, where some flat-earth disciples believe evidence of the true shape of the world might be found.
He doesn’t know how he’ll get there. Not yet. But he has to figure out a way.
This is too big, he says. Too important.
“I will be [doing] this until I get my answers,” he says. “I’m never going to stop. I’m going to the North Pole. If I have to sell my house, I will. I gotta get there.
“I have to know.”Dugan Arnett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @duganarnett.