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Why is the Popular World Map Wrong?

Mapping Earth or Trapping Minds?

Story of Mercator Projection

General Knowledge
Fact: India is the 7th largest country in the world in terms of Geographical area
Fact: Greenland is 13th largest country in the world in terms of Geographical area

Geographical Fact

India is larger than Greenland in terms of Geographical area.

World Map Mystery

Take any world map from our textbooks (see below for an image) and you will see that Greenland is more than five times larger than India on that map!!

Smaller countries look larger in World Map, Larger countries look smaller.

Well, in terms of geographical area Greenland is 20% smaller than India, but on the world map it is larger than India! Amazing, isnt it? :)

Now look at the following facts about this world map.

  1. Africa is about 14 times larger than Greenland and yet on the world map both have almost same size!!
  2. Brazil is more than 5 times larger than Alaska, yet Alaska is larger than Brazil on the world map!
  3. Scandinavian countries are larger than India on the world map, where as in reality India is three times the size of all Scandinavian countries put together!
  4. Again dont be fooled by this map. Russia is not so huge as it is depicted here. Continent of Africa is actually larger than Russia, not smaller than it as shown in this map.
  5. While it looks like Europe is larger than North America on this map, in reality the reverse is true.

Another interesting fact to note in the above world map, see where the equator is. Isnt it supposed to be in the middle? Why was the world map projected so that northern hemisphere occupies 2/3 of the map and southern hemisphere just 1/3 ? Both the hemisphere are supposed to be equal in size isnt it?

The Missing Link – Original Purpose of Modern World Map

Again the story starts with India. In 1453 Ottomon Turks captured Constantinople and blocked the land based trade route between Europe and India. Those days Europe was heavily dependent on the trade with India, for spices, silk and what not. So Europeans were desperate to find an alternate sea based route to India. (Note that it was the European countries that were desperate to find an alternate route to India, not the other way round). And so started the marine race between the European countries which also led to the discovery of modern America – Columbus thought he had discovered the sea route to India and hence called the native Americans “Red Indians” even though they didnt have anything to do with India apart from the mistaken identity by Columbus.

Coming back to the map, as the trade routes shifted to sea from land, new tools and methods were required to help navigation in the seas and that was because in the seas you dont find any landmarks,. Your only guides are your compass and the sky above.

And hence was born our Mercator Map. Yes, the map displayed above which is otherwise commonly known as the world map is actually the Mercator map, developed by Gerardus Mercator in 1569 which he designed to help navigation in the sea.

Now for any map the challenge is to represent a spherical geography on a flat surface. You cannot stretch a sphere into a flat paper no matter where you cut it. So in cartography (the art and science of making maps ie mapping) one needs to make a choice of WHAT and HOW MUCH to preserve while creating a map.

Say if the Cartographer wants to preserve the geographical area of the sphere’s land mass in his map then he will have to give up on preserving the directions because straight line on a sphere is not a straight line on a flat surface.

Or if the Cartographer wants to preserve directions in his map, then he will have to give up on maintaining proportionate sizes of the land masses on the sphere.

What Mercator did was to preserve the directions. If you take a straight line in a Mercator’s map and follow it using a compass then you will reach the same place as depicted in the map. This might sound simple, but if the map had opted to retain proportional sizes of the land masses and if you had then followed a straight line then you would have ended up somewhere else because in this case direction wont be preserved in the flat 2D map.

Mercator wanted the directions to be preserved because he was creating a map for navigation ie to help the sailors. BUT, this map was popularized to become the world map ie to depict the sizes of different countries – which would make the students believe that the ratio of the geographical area of different countries shown in this map is the ACTUAL ratio between their geographical areas – which is WRONG.

If a map was created and meant for navigation, use it for navigation ONLY. Not to depict GEO-POLITICAL distribution of states.

First lets make it clear. No single map can show all – shape, size, direction – accurately at the same time because if you need to project 3D sphere onto a flat 2D surface – some information has to be lost – and we need to decide which one. Might have seen maps with a disclaimer – NOT TO SCALE :)

3D to 2D mapping – Preserve directions or preserve geographical areas

On a 3-dimensional sphere angles of a triangle sum up to more than 180 degrees but on a two dimensional surface it is equal to 180 degrees. Straight lines on a 3D sphere become curved when projected on to a 2D surface.

See the image of Globe above. The larger blocks near the equator become smaller as you move towards the poles and that is quite obvious.
What Mercator while stretching out the globe on a flat paper was to treat all the blocks in the globe as being of equal size, as this would preserve the direction ie keep the straight lines on the globe as straight lines on the 2D map too. BUT this would distort the sizes since the smaller blocks near the poles will have the same size as the larger blocks near the equator.

All is fine as long as the map is used to what it is meant for. The problem started when the map was used to depict geo-political areas and here it ends up showing funny things like Greenland is larger than India and so on. At the same time being a visual representation of the world, this creates a visual (and a wrong) impact about the relative sizes of different countries in the minds of the students and viewers.

So unless a student applies his/her general knowledge and common sense and comes up with questions like stated at the beginning of this article, the map becomes a de-facto representation of the world.

And hence started a movement accusing Mercator’s Map being racist in nature depicting all the small european countries (nearer to the poles) larger than the the large asian countries (near the equator). The problem was neither with Mercator, nor the map, but with the introduction of this navigational map as a geo-political world map in the textbooks. This showed the colonial countries as being larger than the colonized countries.

If you create a visual to represent something, and use it to represent something else which is not accurately represented in the given visual – then either there should be a motive behind it or there should be ignorance.

Seeing is Believing. Distortion of facts is an easy way of tuning the thoughts of a society. Because very few do VERIFICATION of what is presented to them as FACTS. Which is why the saying exists, a lie repeated hundred times becomes a truth. Or does it?

Peter warns of visual World Map creating wrong impressions

A Cartographer once warned, People’s ideas of geography are not founded on actual facts but on Mercator’s map.

In 1973 German historian Arno Peters announced the creation of his Peters Map which he claimed treated all countries fairly by representing the geographical areas accurately in his map. Now look at this map (below) if you want to see the CORRECT relative geographical sizes of different countries.

In fact it was Peter who first said that the Mercator map was popular because it exaggerates the sizes of the white dominated regions compared to the developing nations. Co-incidentally all colonial countries are more closer to the poles, and developing nations are more closer to the equator and so Mercator’s map ended up exaggerating the sizes of colonial countries.

No Mercator in Schools Please

Seven North American professional geographic organizations in 1989 passed a resolution pressing for a ban on all rectangular coordinate maps, saying

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 peoples’ 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.

Peters map even though more accurate than Mercator’s in representing geographical size, still is not 100% accurate either. Like any other rectangular world map even this is distorted near the poles. Moreover its actually called the Gall-Peters projection since James Gall, a scottish clergy man had created a similar map much earlier than Peter.

Today almost all professional geographical organizations maintain that the use of Mercator’s map as a world map can have negative psychological impact in the society. It is interesting to note that Australia has South Pole at the top in its maps as opposed to almost all countries which have north pole at the top in their world maps.

Another interesting fact to note is that, Google Maps today uses Mercator’s projection, probably because its used as a navigational aid than to compare geographical areas.

More Accurate World  Maps

Robinson Projection

Robinson projection which is NOT a rectangular world map (see below) was used by National Geographic Society till 1998 as its standard world map.

Winkel Tripel Projection

Winkel Tripel projection which is again NOT a rectangular world map (see below) and is considered to be the most accurate, is also the current standard world map used by National Geographic Society and many educational institutions and professional organizations.

Summary

People are stupid; given proper motivation, almost anyone will believe almost anything. Because people are stupid, they will believe a lie because they want to believe it’s true, or because they are afraid it might be true. People’s heads are full of knowledge, facts, and beliefs, and most of it is false, yet they think it true. People are stupid; they can only rarely tell the difference between a lie and the truth, and yet they are confident they can, and so are all the easier to fool. – Terry Goodkind

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Gurudevhttps://www.hitxp.com
Gurudev is the developer of Gurunudi AI Platform. This is his official website where he pens his thoughts on a wide range of topics, answers queries, shares resources and tools developed by him.

55 COMMENTS

  1. and oh did i mention tat i am an indian ……. where there are more than 17000 dialects …. a million gods etc etc …… so this disparity comes to the fore in a pattern whenever there is —- A. a book written for or against a god/celebrity/a historical personality/ a myth etc etc B. an election C. a riot communal or otherwise …….. these are the perfect platforms where a select few can exploit and profit out of 90% of the foolish people. expand this to a larger scale we have weapons of mass destruction …. lol …… man walking on moon …… north pole in the south …….. a unusually big greenland ……. there are a million examples ……. the question that begs to be answered is why is it like this …… well trust me the 10% running the system are also asking the same question ……. i have made my peace with it or rather trying to …………… vediamo

  2. the part that rang a bell …. people are stupid …. would believe … because of want or fear …… it is true ……. very true ……… map and all other aspects of evolution is secondary … for christsakes one of the greatest men to hve walked on earth …. galileo was sent to the gallows because contrary to popular belief he said/discovered that the earth was round …. !!!!!! so people are foolish ……. atleast 80 to 90% of them

  3. Australia uses a map with the south pole at the top?? I am Australian and in my 12 years at school and five years at university I have never seen any ‘Australian’ map with the south pole at the top. It is common worldwide convention to always have (true) north at the top of the map. I think someone is pulling your leg if they’ve told you something different mate.

      • This picture would be a political statement of some Australian nationalist or like attempting to promote an ‘on top of the world’ notion rather than a true representation of the maps we Australians have used or seen in Geography & Social sciences at school… this is the first time I’ve seen this map. It’s probably someone’s idea of a joke.

        • in reflection… many old maps show this to be the right way up & the advent of NTH STH being UP or DOWN could be a lot older political move… why is NTH up?

          • I looked at this and then thought about how it is and the movement of the sun and how it is that Australia gets very little snow as to America,as we all know that heat rises and the form of science known as thermal dynamics would predict that the rest of the world is actually upside down, it would make sense and be why Australia is bloody hot all the time, because it’s at the top and not down under at all,,lol.

            • Haha the heat rises up idea is not a good one. This is because its hotter by the equator. In the US, the South is Hot. In South America, The northern countries are warmer.

        • I”m not Australian rather an American with Mexican heritage and I find this to be the most accurate map possible. Except that the poles area may not be representative of their actual size. The world is a globe, to try and make an accurate 2D rectangle is foolish. However, who’s to say what pole is truly up or down? Are we to follow the Europeans who had a political agenda and made the map we currently perceive the world be? For any real comparison of world areas there needs to be 6 maps for the 6 “sides” of the globe and maybe 12 maps when you flip the globe. Or are you complacent with fairy-tale thinking of our current world map that says little Greenland is as big as Giant Africa? lol I just looked at your reflection statement.

  4. :) Yeah thats true dude. But Africa is a continent while our mother Russia is a country. Thats a big difference.

    • Russia is an amazing nation, it has contributed a lot more to the modern technological progress than it is generally attributed to.

      I grew up reading a lot of modern science stuff not from some US based books, but translations of Russian Mir Publishers. The language is so simple, understandable and makes the subject so interesting.

  5. No Matter what they do, No matter how much money they have, Happiness is no ones Slave. There is no trust and faith in husband wife.. what you will have all the money for ……. Indian Culture surpasses all these egoistic money rich imperialists with regard to Real happiness… poverty and happiness are not at all related to each other….

  6. Mercator maps were designed solely as a tool for accurate navigation guys…not as a racist tool of suppression and oppression. I must also say your Summary describes your interpretation of the facts quite well Terry Goodkind…stupid. You provide fantastic information and then destroy its value through emotive conclusions designed to promote your blog. Surely you can do better than this populist claptrap?

    • Where on earth did I say it was “designed” as a racist tool. Read the article again, and it clearly says

      “The problem was neither with Mercator, nor the map, but with the introduction of this navigational map as a geo-political world map in the textbooks”

      In fact it was Peter (NOT ME) who first said that the Mercator map was popular because it exaggerates the sizes of the white dominated regions compared to the developing nations.

      And it was NOT me, but North American professional geographic organizations who passed resolutions to ban such maps.

  7. I always knew that something is wrong with the map or the area details on wikipedia, but then I cross checked too many govt. websites for total areas of countries. Ohh, I remember the moment, I was literally switching tabs to verify the given area and map visuals again & again & again. Finally I stumbled upon your article. Thanks for clearing my doubt Gurudev. kudos man..!!!

  8. Hello folks!
    Very interesting information on this blog. Ok I pulled out certain Survey Of India Maps with me and I noticed that they have been drawn (realistically?) by projecting orthographically the curvature of the earth on a (2D plane) piece of paper. So there is no ambiguity there. There is no manipulation there! Way To Go Survey Of India! Toot Toot! ? Another thing that I must mention is that they must have considered (I believe or should I suspect!) the 2D plane (on which projections taken) to be perpendicular to the portion of the earth whose map is made. Once again I am sure that they take a reference point on the place (whose map being made) to which this plane is perpendicular. Or is it that they do exactly as is written on this blog that ‘something has to go’. If this is the case then they must have in place also a system or method of documenting this focal point or reference point. Have you understood? It’s not too difficult. Close your eyes and think. Maybe read again! ? If something has to go, then I believe that their maps are made by a competent level of professionalism since Survey Of India Maps are realistic, aren’t they? Fudging or making information (land features) disappear constantly is not easy, at least not for somebody like me. Any information on this is going to be gulped down eagerly. Survey Of India folks should also write here.I’ve noticed that their TOPO maps show the lines from top to bottom (longitude) to be straight but not at 90 degrees and they all vary (the angles). So that is correct representation. Cool. Also, the lines from left to right (latitude) are not horizontal but curved (with the bulge downwards) since India is north of Equator. Cool again. So maybe no fudging actually. Wow!, but dunno (about the fudging).Another point: The country we call India and the surroundings was actually a large chunk of land which got crashed into the larger mass of land and that is how the Himalayas got formed and I believe the push is still on and that is why there are earthquakes. Am right?Thanks. By the way, I made Tripodot. Visit http://www.tripodot.com and tell what you think. Would it not be a super idea to include the maps of the entire localities of the globe. That is the intent too. Bye. . . . .

  9. True, India requires atleast two time zones if not three. You might be surprised to learn that under British Rule there were actually two timezones in India – Bombay Time and Calcutta Time – Of course India was much wider then as it included present Pakistan and Bangladesh.

    In fact some places have their own time zones, for instance Assam tea gardens have their own time zone which is one hour ahead of IST for obvious benefits.

  10. Vande Mataram! Bharat Mata Ki Jai! India is one of the biggest countries in the World. I am not saying this as an Indian, it is the truth. Mercator was a biased person. He made my country smaller in the World Map and made some countries bigger. Dishon. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon should remove this World Map and should make Peters Map the map allover the World and Google should use that map.

    • Google Maps is mostly used for navigation, not for showing the entire world. Mercator projection is conformal so close-ups will be much closer to reality.

      • There is Australia the continent, Australia the nation and mainland Australia the island. On the Australian continent there are several island including mainland Australia, Tasmania, New Guinea and Seram. Therefore it is correct to say Australia is the largest island when referring to mainland Australia

        • Yes, just because it is a Continent, we cannot say it is not an island. Australia is an island, a continent as well as a nation.

  11. Thank you so much Guru for opening my eyes. I agree to your conclusion that I am stupid to follow this mercator map. I always thought India is smaller than Greenland. but now only i realised what i was seeing is wrong. Great Man. Why don’t google realise that what they are showing is wrong? I thing there must be political moto behind this map. Hmmmm.

  12. Nice article for our brains :) Today I was missing your articles very much and thought I should check if you wrote anything new. And there it is!
    By the way, Guru, putting my piece of imagination into a non-technical experiment, I see that we can actually depict exact dimensions of the land areas on a 2D surface.
    Let’s have a ball just painted with few areas in different colors that look like world map. While the paint is wet, roll this ball, holding the poles with two fingers, on a white paper spread out on a table. Say you roll it all the way till you reach the position on ball you started at, and now each time move the position of ball to cover rest of the areas to imprint the colors as is on the white paper. Basically you move both in X and Y coordinates of the white paper, each time rolling and tilting the ball to cover all the areas.
    Does this really make an accurate sizes of areas from a spherical surface to flat? (my 2 cents of ignorance :))

    • Great idea Suchin :)
      However since the perimeter is largest at equator and shrinks as we move towards poles the resulting map will be rhombus shaped I guess, neverthless a worth try. Probably we should also have a world map depicted like this.

      • indeed a good idea and is in practice but i don’t remember the actual name for this kind of projection method. but if u laterally create a map with this method it can have true shape but again will be non-confirmal to direction. e.g. if a place is projected with all lats n longs, the coordinated of the neighbouring place will not join / match as straight line. this is useful for local mapping only n not suitable for navigation at all…. just think it over…..
        this method is loosely close to what is known as Pseudocylindrical projection that involves a lot of mathematics…..

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