As a geography enthusiast and self-proclaimed citizen of the world, I have a distinct love of maps, especially those of our planet. It’s hard to pin down exactly what I like about maps — I simply enjoy their aesthetic beauty, in much the same way that one marvels at the inexplicable beauty of art, music, or the natural world (to that end, I have a massive antique-looking map that I paid to have framed, which is placed prominently in my bedroom and which I marvel at every day).
Whatever the case may be, there’s certainly a widespread tendency, perhaps even an intuition, to view maps as utilitarian tools, and to thus treat them as a given. A map, like any tool, is something we assume to be functional and easily accessible, especially in a world of a mass travel and instant information.
In other words, rarely do we question the precision or validity of a map, especially within the classrooms in which we typically first encounter them. Few people look at a map with a critical eye, because, after all, a map is merely a projection of the world; and the world is obviously a real place that we have figured out with great precision, thanks to ubiquitous and advanced satellites and other advanced instruments.
Well, as with most things in life, it’s not that simple. Take for example, the following map, which is perhaps the most commonly encountered one the US.
This familiar classroom staple (at least last I checked) is called Mercator projection. Devised by Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator in 1569, it was developed specifically to assist in sea travels, which is the main reason why it’s been distorted to accommodate the imaginary lines used for navigation. This makes sense, as the first maps of the world were drawn up during the European Age of Exploration, when sea travel was both the main reason and means for mapping the world.
So setting aside the fact that most people don’t realize that this map is terribly inaccurate in its spatial arrangement, how inaccurate is it exactly? Well consider some of the following, courtesy of Wikipedia:
- Greenland takes as much space on the map as Africa, when in reality Africa’s area is 14 times greater and Greenland’s is comparable to Algeria’s alone.
- Alaska takes as much area on the map as Brazil, when Brazil’s area is nearly five times that of Alaska.
- Finland appears with a greater north-south extent than India, although latter’s is greater.
- Antarctica appears as the biggest continent in the world, although it is actually the 5th largest in terms of area.
For this reason, cartographers universally agree that the Mercator projection is ill-suited as a general reference map, although it remains in use for nautical travel. However, this over 500-year-old projection is still ubiquitous across schools and offices, often without the disclaimer about its context and accuracy. Note, I was fortunate to have been informed of its inaccuracy in class (which blew my little mind), although an alternative hadn’t been offered.
Furthermore, a variation of the Mercator has been adopted by nearly all the major online street mapping services (including Bing Maps, OpenStreetMap, Google Maps, MapQuest, Yahoo Maps, and others), not only because it’s familiar, but also because it is apparently well-suited as an interactive world map that can be zoomed seamlessly without much distortion, thanks to Mercator’s emphasis on conformality (e.g. preserving the angles and lines at the obvious expense of landmass and arrangement.
So what’s the alternative? Well, there are several, the best known of which is the Gall-Peters Projection, developed in 1855 and 1973 by two separate individuals:
As you can see, this map shows proportions and sizes much more realistically, with quite the dramatic difference: Africa, for example, is actually twice the size of the US (although Antarctica still looks bigger than it should be). Recall the list of inaccuracies I listed earlier.
Accuracy isn’t the only issue, however: believe it or not, there are political implications to these projections as well: the Mercator map is viewed as being biased towards the mostly wealthy and Westernized Northern Hemisphere, portraying it as bigger and more geographically-central than the predominantly poorer South. To most human minds, the size of something does seem to correlate with its perceived significance (especially to children), and the smallness of already-marginalized parts of the world could be seen as perpetuating this issue (this issue was amusingly featured in an episode of the West Wing, which was probably the first time many people even became aware of its existence).
In any case, the Gall-Peters projection is hardly the only contender — indeed, it’s the subject of much controversy (well, at least among cartographers). The increasingly popular Mollwiede projection, developed in 1805 and popularized in 1857, adds a pseudo-cylindrical shape to the projection developed by Gall-Peters. Then there is the Robinson projection, a personal favorite of mine, and the projection used for the cherished world map in my room. It was devised by Arthur Robinson in 1963 as a compromise between conformality (represented by Mercator) and spatial accuracy (as seen in Gall-Peters), and was adopted by the National Geographic Society for general purpose maps…at least until 1998, when the NGS decided to switch over to the Winkel tripel projection.
The Robinson and Winkel tripel projections, respectively.
Indeed, there are literally dozens of different map projections spanning a variety of types, properties, purposes, and intentions. A personal favorite of my friend, fellow blogger, and geography buff Alex, who writes for Scribbles and Rants, is the Dymaxion or Fuller map. This unusual specimen projects the world onto the surface of an icosahedron, which can be unfolded and flattened to two dimensions, thus displaying Earth’s continents as “one island,” or nearly contiguous land masses. The arrangement heavily disrupts the map in order to preserve shapes and sizes. See for yourself:
Strange but ecumenical.
Ultimately, there really is no such thing as the perfect map, given that each projection is attempting to transplant something that is roughly-spherical into a two-dimensional space. Something will always be lost, which is why most cartographers make a point of warning that rectangular maps shouldn’t be relied upon as an accurate representation of Earth.
In fact, a couple of a decades ago, a number of geographic organizations adopted the following resolution:
WHEREAS, the earth is round with a coordinate system composed entirely of circles, and
WHEREAS, flat world maps are more useful than globe maps, but flattening the globe surface necessarily greatly changes the appearance of Earth’s features and coordinate systems, and
WHEREAS, world maps have a powerful and lasting effect on people’s impressions of the shapes and sizes of lands and seas, their arrangement, and the nature of the coordinate system, and
WHEREAS, frequently seeing a greatly distorted map tends to make it “look right,”
THEREFORE, we strongly urge book and map publishers, the media and government agencies to cease using rectangular world maps for general purposes or artistic displays. Such maps promote serious, erroneous conceptions by severely distorting large sections of the world, by showing the round Earth as having straight edges and sharp corners, by representing most distances and direct routes incorrectly, and by portraying the circular coordinate system as a squared grid. The most widely displayed rectangular world map is the Mercator (in fact a navigational diagram devised for nautical charts), but other rectangular world maps proposed as replacements for the Mercator also display a greatly distorted image of the spherical Earth.
In short, everything you know about the world is a lie. Don’t trust what the maps tell you!
Jokes aside, it’s fascinating how much goes into something as seemingly mundane and taken-for-granted as maps. I suppose the same can be said of many disciplines and developments. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying such maps should be discarded or banned — it’s all about being cognizant of their flaws and peculiarities. As I noted at the start of the post, there is still something very beautiful about the portrayal of the world.