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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