The World’s First Atlas

Today’s Google Doodle is a particular treat for a map lover like me: it commemorates the publication in 1570 of the world’s first atlas, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theatre of the World) by Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius.


As Forbes explains, Ortelius’ work was an unusual concept at the time: an expertly-crafted book of similarly-sized maps neatly organized by geography. Continue reading


What Every Country is Good At

Everyone is good at something, and that goes for countries, too. The following map from Information is Beautiful features most of the world’s nations and their top claim to fame as of 2016.


You can see how they reach these results by clicking here. The link also explains some of the more curious-sounding “achievements” — for example, Belgium is number one in “cashless payments” in terms of the percentage of transactions not involving cash, while Latvia is number one in “women” in the sense that it has a higher female to male ratio.

While it is mostly meant to be tongue in cheek, there are definitely some grim conclusions here, from Honduras’ record murder rate, to Swaziland’s morbid distinction of having the highest percentage of people with HIV.

Where Half the World Lives

With the world’s population now around 7.5 billion, and projected to grow by another 4 billion or so within a century, one could be forgiven for imagining the world as already swelling to the brim with people.

Yet as the following map designed by Max Galka shows, much of the world is fairly empty, and will likely remain so given the pace of urbanization (wherein more people live and work in less land). 


That means roughly 3.75 billion people live in an area constituting just one percent of the world’s total landmass. Continue reading

An Award Winning Map of the World

As I have discussed here before, most maps of the world are spatially wrong, due to the inherent difficulty of projecting a spherical planet into two dimensional form. Some landmasses end up looking far larger than they are (notably Greenland and Antarctica)  while others appear much smaller (such as Africa and Australia). Continue reading

What’s Across Your Coastline?

While at the beach or otherwise facing the ocean, have you ever wondered what lies beyond the horizon? Of course, we all now know that there is just more of the rest of the planet (well, most of us anyway). But who exactly is facing you on the other side of the water?

Eric Odenheimer was apparently wondering the same thing when devising the following seven maps, brought to you (with some great tweaks and additions) via the Washington PostThey are as beautiful as they are informative, helping to place Earth’s spatial distribution in perspective. (As a resident of Miami, Florida, United States, I had no idea the disputed territory of Western Sahara was my “oceanic neighbor, so to speak).

Continue reading

The United States’ Fascinatingly Uneven Population Distribution

It is easy for us Americans to underestimate just how big our country is, both geographically and demographically. At a little over 320 million people, only China and India (each with over a billion inhabitants) have larger populations. And in terms of territorial size, only Russia, Canada, and (by some measurements) China are bigger.

Along with Japan, the U.S. is the only developed country with over 100 million people, and also among the few developed countries to be so big territorially; only fellow Anglophone nations Canada and Australia are both highly developed and fairly large by global standards. The norm is for most industrialized societies to be small or medium range in population and size.

The sheer sense of living space is all the greater when one realizes how unevenly distributed the U.S. population is. The following maps by dadaviz user Jishai, obtained view Headlines and Mental Floss really help to put these things in perspective. Though lacking the sort of international comparisons I started off with, they should how vast the disparities are even within the U.S. itself. Take note that for every map, the red and orange represents roughly equal population sizes.

Unsurprisingly, most of the biggest counties are concentrated among the top ten states in terms of population. Which leads to the next map. Continue reading

A History of the World in Maps

The Atlantic has brought to my attention a book that definitely piques my interest as both a map aficionado and history buff: Jerry Brotton’s A History of the World in 12 Mapswhich catalogues maps that reflect key periods and developments in the human understanding of the world. You can learn a lot about a time, place, or culture by the sorts of maps it produces.

And setting aside their historical, these maps are absolutely beautiful. They may not be the most elegant or accurate, but there is something visually intriguing and deeply appreciable about humanity’s efforts to understand this big and difficult-to-grasp world of ours.

From the works of the father of geography, to the latest satellite-graphed maps, here are just some of the cartographic endeavors that span civilizations across centuries (courtesy of The Atlantic). Continue reading

Map: Gay Rights Around The World

Gay rights have come a long way globally: it was only a little over fifty years ago that many developed countries, including the United States, Australia, Canada, Germany, and the U.K., still had laws criminalizing homosexual acts (even if they were de facto overlooked). Sadly, humanity still has a long way to go, as shown in the following map from The Economist.

Gay Rights Around the World

I recommend reading the article from which I pulled this map, as it does a good job exploring the current state of gays rights around the world, and why anti-gay sentiments and laws remain so stubbornly prevalent in some parts of the world. As expected, the factors are multidimensional and complex:

An enemy within can be handy for all sorts of leaders, and often more or less any old enemy will do. Some leaders’ anti-gay language has a conspiratorial tone that feels borrowed from the anti-Semitic diatribes of another time: gay people are portrayed as in thrall to alien values and particularly dangerous to children. Recent developments in the West also create exotic targets against which divisive leaders can define themselves without taking on any particularly powerful enemy at home. Nigeria’s law would surely not have taken its current form had gay marriage not made such remarkable advances in Europe and America.

None of this would work if there were not deep wells of homophobia to draw on. Over 95 percent of Ugandans and Nigerians disapprove of homosexuality. Four-fifths of Russians say that they have no gay acquaintances (though many may be wrong to say so). Such numbers say little about the intensity of anti-gay feeling in each country. They are certainly not evidence of a clamour for legislative attacks on homosexuals; activists often point out that gay people in places like Nigeria were able to lead relatively untroubled, if intensely private, lives before they became political targets. But the feelings they represent offer an opportunity for politicians seeking a quick populist win.

Some argue that the colonial provenance of anti-gay laws, in Africa and elsewhere, shows that these feelings have little genuine cultural basis. Imperial British authorities were certainly not slow to impose such laws on the lands they occupied, and they were often imported directly from home; in several former British colonies such provisions are numbered 377 in the legal code, indicating their common source.

Such sentiments seem comparable to the historic basis of antisemitism in Europe: Jews were a convenient and sufficiently alien enemy on which to unload all sorts of blame and societal frustration. Pogroms targeting Jews (and other “foreign” populations like Romanies) were often directly instigated or facilitated by expedient political leaders seeking to vent public discontent towards another source. But as with antisemitism, there is more to anti-gay attitudes than opportunism mixed ignorance:

A more contemporary and pernicious Western influence is that of conservative American evangelists who export their anti-gay message to places where it may meet more receptive ears, along with money that makes it all the more attractive. In Uganda’s case, they appear directly to have influenced the drafting of legislation.

Whether domestic or imported, religion matters. A survey of 39 countries by the Pew Research Centre last year found a strong correlation between a country’s tolerance for homosexuality and its religiosity. African and Middle Eastern nations are the least tolerant; in several Muslim countries homosexuality is a capital crime. Russia, a relatively godless place, is an exception to the rule.

So, increasingly, is America, though in the opposite direction; it is more tolerant than its levels of religious belief would predict. The greatest exception along those lines is Brazil, where attitudes are broadly tolerant and, as in Argentina and parts of Mexico, gay marriage is now legal. Homophobic violence, though, remains a problem.

Thankfully, The Economist’s assessment ends on an encouraging note, one that I agree with:

In the end gay people in the developing world will probably win their rights as they did in the West. Civil-society organisations, enlightened political and judicial leadership, and the advance of the liberal idea that the state has no business regulating the harmless activities of adults will all play a role. Most powerful, though, is likely to be people’s discovery that they have perfectly decent gay friends, neighbours, even relatives. The most pernicious thing about institutionalised homophobia and legal repression is that they make this realisation so hard. Once the wall begins to crack, though, it can quickly come tumbling down.

It will no doubt take a lot of time, but I would like to think that like so many other human rights scourges, homophobia will come to an inevitable end, or at least be greatly minimized so as not to retain the broad support and acceptance that it does in many parts of the world. What are your thoughts?

Nine Maps That Help Put Geography in Perspective

I cannot seem to embed the original video for some reason, so pay a visit to Business Insider to check out this neat minute-long video that shows how much large certain countries and landmasses are compared to their map projections. While the world is getting smaller in some respects, geographically it is still much larger than we realize .

Everything You Know About the World is a Lie

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.