You’re telling me that Germany isn’t where we think it is?!


When I was young, I knew where Germany was. I’m not uneducated, I’d seen maps, I owned a free copy of the Weetabix Wonderworld Atlas. Everything was where it should be, as God, nature and continental drift intended, and while the USSR became the CIS, the actual land masses remained. After all, they’re continents. They’re iconic.

And then one day I watched an episode of The West Wing and everything changed.

The episode featured visitors to the White House who wanted political support to change the maps used in schools, mainly because the map we’re familiar with is wrong.

Some history. Gerardus Mercator was a cartographer from what is now Belgium. In 1564 he became a Court Cosmographer to the aristocracy, and in 1569 he published the Mercator Projection, the map of the world most of us grew up with. The map was designed for navigation, this being the Age of Discovery, and was based on units of constant distance; however, the maths of this meant that the relative sizes of the continents got distorted the further they moved from the Equator.

Of course, we all know this somehow – of course Greenland isn’t bigger than the whole of Africa – but we look at the map and we don’t think twice about it.

And so The West Wing introduced me to the Gall-Peters Projection, which was designed to address the political issues surrounding inaccuracies in maps. This map makes more logical sense – Africa and South America are bigger, Europe is squashed up the top, and the Greenwich date line was moved to the Bering Strait (which implies it would adjust time itself, but that’s just freaky). Continents reflected their actual size and thus the subliminal political bias fosteted by Mercator was removed. All fine.

But wait; the Peters Projection isn’t accurate either. In trying to address inequalities it actually exaggerates things, so when it went through a renaissance in 1973, it kicked off a controversy in the cartographic community.

And so a compromise was sought, leading to new projections such as Robinson’s and Winkel’s, both of which look a bit more ‘normal’, given the inherent inaccuracies in putting a 3D globe on a 2D map.

(And talking of which, despite the alleged controversy, the ancients didn’t think the world was flat, which seems to be an urban myth that took off in the 1800’s, maybe partly to drive a wedge between science and religion at a time of major social change.)

All of which leads me to believe that, if your map’s going to be inaccurate, make it really inaccurate, like the beautiful examples shown over at the streetsofsalem blog.

Also, buy a globe.


2 thoughts on “You’re telling me that Germany isn’t where we think it is?!

  1. daseger

    Thanks for the praise, Matthew. I’m getting a post together on the “Flat Earth Myth” that you mention for next week. Great blog!

  2. matthewhyde Post author

    Thanks! I look forward to reading your Flat Earth Myth post; I came across the idea in an essay by CS Lewis and it’s stuck with me ever since…


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