Earth, which is more or less round, does not give itself easily to be portrayed on a two-dimensional map. Every projection cartographers use has advantages and disadvantages. None show both area and distances correctly. Our world view today is influenced by the Mercator projection that the majority of world maps are still based on. The greatest advantage of the Mercator map is that it allows easy navigation on most of the planet. Even though your ship won’t follow the shortest course, it will cross every meridian at the same angle that you can set your compass to. This map provided considerable aid to Western Europeans in conquering the rest of the globe.
By Strebe – https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17700069
Mercator maps magnify territories that are near the poles. Most of these are in the Northern hemisphere. Russia, for example, appears to be four times the size of South America, which is actually larger. The figure below shows the difference between the territory of countries on the Mercator map and reality:
The gif format here makes the difference even more pronounced. Or, if you want to play, you can shuffle the countries around to see their sizes change here.
Although continents get strangely elongated in this Gall-Peters projection, this is the one where we can see the actual surface area, displaying a quite different planet:
By Strebe – https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16115242
Another peculiar feature of the Mercator projection is that it places Europe almost in the middle of the map. (Mercator was Flemish.) In reality we are much closer to the North than what is indicated. Budapest is about 4700 kilometres from the North pole and 5300 from the Equator, the midline of the planet.
Mercator projections have lately received some critique as they present Europe and Northern, “white” continents as more central and massive, thus more important than in reality. “Reality”, by the way, is a really interesting concept, which we will revisit. For now let us engage in some self-examination using this map left over from the era of conquest.
An extraterrestrial would have trouble understanding why we consider Europe a continent. Any continent, so maps would make us believe, is bordered by seas, occassionally having a thin land bridge to a neighbouring continent. Europe, on the other hand, is separated from Asia by a long imaginary line in the middle of the greatest continental plain. With this logic Iberia could be called a continent, or how about Tihany peninsula in lake Balaton? There is some argument whether the Southeastern border runs along the Greater or the Lesser Caucasus. In the former case Georgians remain a proud European people, while their neighbours, Armenians, become Asian barbarians. Interesting, as another argument for Europe being a continent is that it is culturally different from Asia. I’m quite curious how culturally divergent a Chelyabinsk (Asia) Russian feels from one living two hundred miles away in Ufa (Europe). And why is China not a continent? China’s culture is certainly very distinct and a few thousand years older than ours. Some people assert that Europe is linguistically different. That must be the reason why the greatest number of Indo-European speakers live in India. No matter how you go about it, logic does leave something to be desired. But we are Europeans! We live in the middle of the map, we are colossal, we have our proper continent and that’s it. True, Chinese also call their home Central Country which you can kind of recognize in the pictogram for China: 中. Everyone begins by believing the world revolves around them, the question is: When do they grow up?
One would think that this continent issue is purely theoretical. Well, when you are a refugee from Asia, it cuts right into your flesh like the barbed wire on the southern border of Hungary. European refugees are good refugees, they pass a fence-free border and are awaited by aid organizations. They can travel free on trains just flashing their passport and are greeted by billboards in their language. Asian barbed wire climbers are not even refugees, they are called migrants. This linguistic creation sounds like the migraine headaches they cause us. Although they have no intention of staying on their way to Western Europe we won’t allow them to prowl around here. Why on Earth did they leave Syria where at a certain point over 40 states were conducting a bombing campaign? Some still do, having forced the majority of the population to leave their home.
Let us leave this nasty topic and visit Santa Claus. We can rise up in a hot air balloon and glance at Earth from above the North Pole. The curved surface would not allow us to see far in the distance but Azimuthal projection comes to our aid:
By Strebe – https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16115152
This view should be familiar from UNO flag that most of us haven’t looked at consciously. From here it looks even more obvious that almost three quarters of our planet is covered by oceans. These seas are very deep with an abundance of creatures we hardly know anything about. In this respect the world ocean is similar to our unconscious mind which also merits some friendly exploration. On all these maps whitish areas of little plant life stand out from lush green vegetation. Plants and the origins of deserts are a subject of another article, now, after having looked around, let us visit the penguins on the South Pole and look back home.
Forrás: Strebe – https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69068743
For large Northern continents to appear we will again use an Azimuthal projection. Antarctica, this small continent hiding under a thick sheet of ice, used to be the home of vibrant life. Small creatures are still hiding in the snow and ice, and the subglacial lakes are teeming with unknown beings that not even penguins know about. The tuxedo birds think that North is down, which seems weird to us. Actually, on a globe, nothing is up or down, but the cartographers’ convention makes us to think a particular way.
Although it’s not apparent from here, Europe is even smaller than Antarctica. There is a lot of lament lately about the stagnation of its population, which, in my opinion, is a good sign. Someone must begin to exercise birth control on this planet. The other method of population control of our overabundant species I’m not too enthusiastic about. Gigantism is by far not the best way to nirvana. Overweight species in evolution always die out. Reneval always comes from small creatures. The most familiar case is that of the dinosaurs — when the asteroid hit only beings less than 25 kilos could stay alive. Being a gazella is just as cool as being an elephant, and if a gazella has delusions of being an elephant, there will be trouble when the lion comes. It could be time to reevaluate the role of Europe, with culture being a good starting point.
Maps exist not only on paper and screens but also in our heads. As Alfred Korzybski so correctly noted: The map is not the territory. Models are not the subject modelled and the menu is not the meal. This latter saying is attributed to Allan Watts but we are not engaging in a taste orgy now as we are talking about maps in a more general sense: our world views. If we could make a perfect map of a piece of territory, it would have to be as large as reality. Our heads are not large enough to contain the world. Not even hers.
By: ArtTower, Pixabay
This literally means that the world is not the way you think it is, and, though it is harder to digest, not even the way I think it is.
What is it like, then?
That is the question.
And this is one of the topics we will circle around in this newsletter. A better view is aided by different slants. People tend to make a cozy home in one map, like on a couch in front of the TV, forgetting that they have made it. A good example of this is scientism, where clever people mix up the clever (and not so clever) thoughts in their heads with reality. We will return to this exciting topic in another article. For now the point is that if you are able to choose between several maps in a situation, you’ll have more possibilities. Knowing that reality is not the models you made of it considerably aids in understading the world.
Map making is an interesting activity and fortunately it is possible to prepare aesthetic and useful maps. The point of which is, somewhere, to get them to help you in reaching your goals. The key for a map, according to Bateson, is to reflect the structure of reality. For this, first of all, you need good data. The complication is that data today tends to come from secondary sources. Neither you nor me have been to Franz Joseph Land, we believe it exists because someone said so or we’ve seen a film supposedly made there or someone put it on the map. What if the cartographer was wrong? Or tried to fool us? In a war neither party provides facts. Their goal is to influence you. If you think the media or even news agencies are independent, you should go looking for all the virgins in a red light district. By what strategy can we still have a pretty good picture of what’s happening?
When groups of people are in opposition, everyone can see that the map of other party is ripped, out of date and mouldy. Their own, of course, is brand new, colored, and shows every detail. Whoever is able to translate and mediate between realities has a great future. The first step might be to learn to fold up your map, put it aside and pay attention to others. Try it out: in an argument you let go of trying to convince the other party and try to understand them instead. The more it differs from yours, the better. How can they possibly believe that? How does their reality work?
We have been praising good maps, but bad ones can also bring interesting results. Columbus dared to set sail to India westwards because he tought Asia to be larger and the diameter of Earth to be significantly smaller than it is. We can also dare to make and test new maps. Not all of them will work, but the ones that do will open up incredible horizons.