Australia's first flat-Earth convention was supposed to end with a bang.
The convention flyer described it as an "ocean level world record laser attemt" [sic]. A repetition of the Bedford Level Experiment on a record-breaking scale. A laser beam sent miles across the sea to another point -- a boat, probably.
Samuel Birley Rowbotham first conducted the experiment -- with surveying equipment -- in 1838. He used the results to declare that the Earth was flat. In 1870, in response to a wager, biologist Alfred Russel Wallace repeated the test, adjusting for the effects of atmospheric refraction. His results were consistent with the curvature of a spherical Earth.
For his troubles, Wallace won £500, and a lifetime of death threats and litigation from the people who claimed he cheated.
The Bedford Level Experiment is controversial, and commonly repeated. Mostly by flat-Earthers. This test, at the close of Australia's first flat-Earth convention, would be no different, save for the scale.
But it never happened. Because the flat-Earth convention itself never happened.
The convention was supposed to take place on March 17, 2018, but it fell apart. The collateral damage was extensive: broken friendships, bruised egos, an arson attempt.
Co-organizer Lee Maxwell Judd believes "dark negative forces" were behind its failure, but the convention was doomed from the start.
The above image was my first introduction to "A FLAT EARTH GATHERING," an event for Australians who believe the Earth is flat. It appeared in a post to the "I Fucking Love Science" Facebook page.
The event looked good on paper -- tragically ambitious on paper. Mark Sargent, a prominent flat-Earth YouTuber, was billed as a special guest. Rapper B.o.B., who famously argued with over flat-Earth "theory," was to provide live music.
The location: Darling Park in Sydney, Australaia [sic]. An afterparty was planned at Bondi Icebergs, an expensive and internationally renowned dining room. Concrete details were scarce.
After watching a friend disappear down the rabbit hole, I'd become obsessed with flat-Earth culture and the people involved with it. I'd profiled my friend "John" in 2016, a medical doctor who, in a short period of time, had gone from devil's advocate to full-fledged believer. A man who'd put friendships (and his marriage) at risk in favor of his resolute belief the Earth was flat.
The John I knew was razor sharp, intelligent, funny. John was successful, the kind of guy you wanted to impress. You wanted John to laugh at your jokes.
"I am a normal person," he told me once. And I believed him.
It made me wonder: Are all flat Earthers like my friend John? Or was he the exception?
Humans established the Earth's spherical nature over 2,000 years ago. The concept was discussed as early as the 6th century BC. By the 3rd century BC, Hellenistic astronomy cemented it as a given.
But there's always been dissention. The Greek philosopher Thales thought the Earth floated on water like a log. Archelaus believed the Earth sank in the middle like a saucer. Early biblical scholars argued for a flat Earth, and the Koran refers to Earth being "laid out" during creation.
It's 2018, and despite NASA photography, despite science, despite the fact that humans have landed on the moon, there are people who still believe the Earth is flat. These ideas aren't dying. They're gaining momentum. In an era in which "fake news" has its own hashtag, belief in a flat Earth has become something of a distilled, crystallized endgame. In our timeline, hard evidence the Earth is round is nothing more than an inconvenient alternative fact.
Some flat Earthers believe the Earth is encircled by a wall of ice. Many believe gravity doesn't exist. Most believe that every photo of a spherical Earth from space has been doctored.
All believe we're being lied to.
Major gatherings among flat-Earth believers are increasing in frequency. Just last month, Birmingham played host to the UK's first flat-Earth convention. A Flat Earth International Conference is planned in Edmonton, Alberta, in August. It's (ironically) a global movement, and it's increasing in scale.
I was desperate to attend the Australian flat-Earth convention, desperate to meet these people. But getting in contact with the organizers was challenging. I sent an email to the address on the flyer, but it bounced back multiple times. The primary contact number, for a man named "Tigger," appeared to be disconnected. A second number, for "Lee," seemed like a legitimate set of digits, but rang out the first time I dialed.
Maybe Australia's first flat-Earth convention was just an elaborate joke.
I was in the passenger seat of my wife's car when Lee called back. His full name, I later learned, was Lee Maxwell Judd.
Yes, Judd says, the flat-Earth convention was still going ahead. Same time, same date, same place. There was a typo on the email address, he said, and that's why my emails kept bouncing back. As for Tigger, his co-organizer? Judd had no idea. No one had been able to get in contact with him for months. Disappeared off the face of the Earth, you might say.
Judd was happy to chat, more than happy for me to attend, but mentioned that the event was being downsized. Partly because his co-organizer Tigger was uncontactable.
March 17, 2018. An unusually hot afternoon, even by Sydney standards.
I'm standing outside Darling Park, a modern set of tower blocks with harbor views. Darling Park is modern, it's fancy. Office space mainly.
In the lead-up to the flat-Earth convention, I'd spoken with Lee Maxwell Judd a few times. He'd been careful to temper my expectations. The flyer promised a convention, but that had been scaled back. Now it was more like drinks with like-minded Flat Earthers.
It's now Saturday morning and he's sheepish. He isn't expecting many people to arrive, and he's right.
In the end, two people show up to the flat-Earth convention. Three including myself.
I spot Judd first. He greets me with a firm handshake.
Judd is wiry with thick forearms. Perpetually agitated. Judd says he turns 53 this year, but he could easily pass for 35.
Artigas Soares is attendee No. 2. Retired, graying, middle-aged. Comfortable in his own skin. Soares is Uruguayan, English is his second language. He's wearing a T-shirt that says "Flat Earther."
The three of us make small talk. It quickly becomes apparent that this, the three of us sitting around a small coffee table in Darling Park's reception, is the flat-Earth convention. Judd seems restless, flicking glances at the entrance, as if willing more people to show up. Soares isn't bothered in the slightest. He's comfortable holding court, cracking jokes, sharing stories.
Artigas Soares is lovely.
Judd is friendly, but intense. He leans forward on his elbows. He talks conspiracies and devil worshippers. "Why are they lying about the shape of the Earth?" he asks me. "Are they trying to hide the fact that we are of divine origin?"
He says we're all just water and energy. Connected to a supreme creator from a different dimension. "The positives go there," he explains, when we die. "The negatives get flicked off the circuit board."
I ask Judd about the location. Why Darling Park?
The reason is simple. Darling Park has a beautifully maintained garden with a sculpture, roughly two meters in circumference, at its center: The Earth as seen on the United Nations flag.
A flat Earth.
It's the reason Tigger and Judd were so set on the venue. But on weekends Darling Park closes off access to the garden. This is of perennial frustration to Judd, who suggests conspiracy. He believes the powers that be were against this convention from the start.
"From Day One we've just been hitting obstacle after obstacle," Judd explains. "We're doing something that's in the light. And the darkness, the dark negative forces, are gonna do everything they can to try and stop that."
I ask Judd about Tigger, the co-organizer. What happened?
Tigger, says Judd, is charismatic. He has contacts. In many ways he was driving the convention, but Tigger fell off the grid and the flat-Earth convention never recovered.
"Tigger just lost the plot," says Judd. "He tried to burn down a Masonic lodge and got arrested."
According to Judd, Tigger literally tried to burn down a Masonic lodge. He doused the entrance in petrol and set it alight. He didn't do a very good job, Judd says.
"Petrol burns very quickly," he explained. "You have to mix oil in if you really want it to burn."
After the lodge incident Tigger went dark.
"I don't know what happened," Judd said. "I just put it down to the powers that be trying to work against us."
Judd hadn't been in contact with Tigger since and was convinced it would be difficult to track him down.
Tigger Carroll's Facebook page was relatively easy to find. Later that night I sent a message and waited.
I couldn't find any news reports about the alleged arson attempt, but I knew Tigger lived in Cooroy, a small town in Queensland with a population of 4,000. Incredibly, that town did have a Masonic lodge, and that lodge had its very own Facebook page.
If someone had tried to set their lodge on fire, surely they'd mention it on the page.
That's when I found it.
"On Tuesday afternoon 16th January," read the post, "the Cooroy Masonic Centre was subjected to an arson attempt. Fortunately our building only suffered minor damage due to the quick actions of our neighbours."
Queensland Police also confirmed it.
"A 40-year-old man from Kin Kin was charged with one count of endangering property by fire in relation to a fire on Jan. 16," said a spokesperson from the Queensland Police.
I got in contact with a representative from the lodge.
"We don't have any idea why he carried out this act," the representative told me. "It would be nice to know why."
Tigger Carroll's reply came in a tsunami of messages and flat-Earth memes. Tigger was happy to chat.
"I've got plenty to tell," he says.
According to Tigger, he and Judd became online friends in early 2017 after discovering a shared passion for flat-Earth theory. Together they founded a flat-Earth group called the Tychonian Society. Soon after, Tigger and Judd began work on what they called the "Flat Earth Gathering".
Tigger did most of the work, organizing the venue and speaking to potential guests. Soon thereafter the relationship became strained. After several disagreements regarding the Tychonian Society and how the group should be managed, Tigger decided to cut ties with Judd.
"He lost what the message was about," Tigger says.
One problem: Judd was essentially paying for the Flat Earth Gathering. Tigger referred to him as his "financial backer." With no money, Tigger canceled the booking at Darling Park and called it a day.
And that's when, Tigger alleges, Judd began sending multiple threatening messages, including death threats. In one email he allegedly threatened to "eat" Tigger's children.
Tigger says Judd was trying to take control of his creations. First he tried to seize ownership of the Tychonian Society, he says, now he was in the process of trying to monopolize his latest creation: a cross-media concept called Flatube (a Facebook group essentially) that speaks to directly to fellow flat-Earth believers.
Tigger says he was "deeply hurt," that Lee's actions left him feeling "physically sick."
It was for this reason, says Tigger, that he got drunk and allegedly set fire to Cooroy Masonic Centre on Jan. 16, 2018.
Chatting with Tigger on the phone is a strange experience. Television has taught us conspiracy theorists are unhinged, bug-eyed people who veer wildly from topic to topic at a hundred miles a minute.
Tigger Carroll wasn't like that. Not exactly. Perhaps the most terrifying thing about chatting with Tigger: Many of the claims he makes are true.
He says, for example, that he worked in the movie industry for decades. Seems outlandish, the type of life an unbalanced person might invent -- but Tigger has an IMDb page. He was a crew member on a huge number of high-profile movies shot in Australia, like Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, Moulin Rouge and Mission Impossible II.
But some things don't quite add up. Tigger says he's involved with The Venus Project, a nonprofit founded by futurist Jacque Fresco, who passed away in 2017. The Venus Project advocates for a complete reimagining of how cities work and function. Tigger told me he was working with Fresco's widow, Roxanne Meadows, to build the first Venus Project city from scratch in Byron Bay in Australia. When I contacted Meadows to confirm, she remembered an email exchange, but no such project was underway.
Tigger's most outlandish claims were at least based on a sliver of truth, and it was often difficult to separate fact from fiction.
Tigger made another contention: He said Lee Maxwell Judd was an ex-biker gang member and had spent multiple years in prison.
"He is truly evil," Tigger says.
Lee Maxwell Judd lives in the Southern Highlands, roughly 100 miles southwest of Sydney. He describes himself as financially independent, but supplements his income with handyman work.
He also works as a part-time photographer.
In 2015 Judd made headlines across Australia when he shot a wedding and reportedly posted the following on his official photography page: "Ugliest bride I have ever photographed. Winged [sic] the entire time. Bridezilla #1." Judd says his Facebook page was "hacked".
Getting back in contact with Judd to discuss Tigger's allegations was challenging. Judd was temporarily banned on Facebook for posting anti-Semitic content. He was also busy with his newborn daughter. When we eventually got back in contact, Judd was quick to dismiss Tigger Carroll's claims.
"He's a nutcase," Judd says.
Judd says there were no death threats, no abusive emails. Nothing. He didn't try to steal Flatube and he didn't threaten to post Tigger's details on the dark web.
"That's why no one turned up to the event," Judd says. "Tigger poisoned people's minds. He's trying to tear it all down. I never threatened him with anything.
"It's all made up."
Judd did spend some time in prison in his early twenties, but he's almost 53. It was a long time ago, he says. Judd also owns and regularly rides motorcycles, but says he was never part of a gang.
"Tigger is a fruit. He just tries to destroy things."
At the time of writing, Tigger is in the process of putting together an official complaint about Judd and his allegedly threatening behavior.
For his part, Judd plans to keep his distance.
"I'm not having anything to do with him," Judd tells me. "My wife says if I get in contact with him again she'll divorce me."
In November 2017, more than 500 people attended the first annual Flat Earth International Conference in North Carolina. Google searches for "flat earth" have tripled over the last two years.
"The psychology of why [flat Earthers] believe what they believe isn't wildly different from the reasons why we believe what we believe," says Peter Ellerton. He's the founding director of the University of Queensland Critical Thinking Project and has written extensively about the flat-Earth belief system.
It's the story we tell ourselves, Ellerton says, to make it all fit. Once those stories have been written, he believes, they're extremely difficult to unwrite.
"It just so happens that these people have written a strange story."
Tigger Carroll's story is ongoing.
He still believes an Australian Flat Earth Convention is possible. In fact, he's planning one right now, for Dec. 15. Speakers are waiting in the wings, he says, along with numerous musical acts. He wants to book out Bondi Pavilion, meters from the shoreline of Australia's most famous beach. He wants food, celebration, conversation with like-minded people.
All he needs now, he says, is a partner.
On the first floor of the Bondi Pavilion there's a balcony. Tigger wants to set up a laser and shine it across the ocean. He plans to take a boat and sail it out into the ocean, 60 kilometers away. On that boat is a mirror. Out on his boat, he wants to conduct the Bedford Level Experiment, on a record-breaking scale.
But floating on that ocean, alone in the darkness, none of it will matter. The stars, the science, the alternative facts, the ships that disappear over the horizon. All will fade into the vacuum.
And if that light from the Pavilion reflects back from his boat to Bondi, believes Tigger, he can prove the Earth is flat.
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