Why Every World Map Is Wrong

The idea that the world maps are wrong — all of them — is hard­ly con­tro­ver­sial. It’s a math­e­mat­i­cal fact that turn­ing a globe (or an oblate spher­oid) into a two-dimen­sion­al object will result in unavoid­able dis­tor­tions. In the TED-Ed les­son above by Kay­la Wolf, you’ll learn a brief his­to­ry of world maps, start­ing all the way back with the Greek math­e­mati­cian Ptole­my, who “sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly mapped the Earth on a grid” in 150 AD in order to cre­ate maps that had a con­sis­tent scale. His grid sys­tem is still in use today — 180 lines of lat­i­tude and 360 lines of lon­gi­tude.

Most of the world maps we knew come from the Mer­ca­tor Pro­jec­tion, “a cylin­dri­cal map pro­jec­tion pre­sent­ed by the Flem­ish geo­g­ra­ph­er and car­tog­ra­ph­er Ger­ar­dus Mer­ca­tor in 1569,” writes Steven J. Fletch­er.

This map pro­jec­tion is prac­ti­cal for nau­ti­cal appli­ca­tions due to its abil­i­ty to rep­re­sent lines of con­stant course, known as rhumb lines, as straight seg­ments that con­serve the angles with the merid­i­ans…. the Mer­ca­tor pro­jec­tion dis­torts the size of objects as the lat­i­tude increas­es from the equa­tor to the poles, where the scale becomes infi­nite. 

Mercator’s inno­va­tion allowed for the ship­ping routes that cre­at­ed the mod­ern world (includ­ing those through the now-unblocked Suez Canal). But the pro­jec­tion has its prob­lems: 14 Green­lands, for exam­ple, could fit inside the con­ti­nent of Africa, says Wolf, but “you wouldn’t guess it from most maps of the world”  in which the two land mass­es are almost the same size.

“In 2010,” Adam Tay­lor notes at The Wash­ing­ton Post, “graph­ic artist Kai Krause made a map to illus­trate just how big the African con­ti­nent is. He found that he was able to fit the Unit­ed States, India and much of Europe inside the out­line of the African con­ti­nent.”

Geo­graph­i­cal mis­per­cep­tions “shape our under­stand­ing of the world,” Nick Rout­ley writes at Busi­ness Insid­er, “and in an increas­ing­ly inter­con­nect­ed and glob­al econ­o­my, this geo­graph­ic knowl­edge is more impor­tant than ever.” We are no longer pri­mar­i­ly using maps, that is to say, to chart, trade with, or con­quer for­mer­ly unknown regions of the world — from loca­tions assumed to be the nat­ur­al cen­ters of com­merce, cul­ture, or reli­gion.

Non-Mer­ca­tor world maps have, over the last few decades espe­cial­ly, attempt­ed to cor­rect the errors of cylin­dri­cal pro­jec­tion by unfold­ing the globe like an orange peel or a series of inter­lock­ing tri­an­gles, as in Buck­min­ster Fuller’s 1943 Dymax­ion Map. These have proved nau­ti­cal miles more accu­rate than pre­vi­ous ver­sions but they are use­less in nav­i­gat­ing the world.

Why cre­ate new, more accu­rate world maps? Because the Mer­ca­tor pro­jec­tion has giv­en the impres­sion of Euro-Amer­i­can geo­graph­i­cal suprema­cy for almost 500 years now, Wolf’s les­son argues, sim­ply by virtue of the loca­tion of its ori­gin and its orig­i­nal pur­pose. But it is now not only inac­cu­rate and out­dat­ed, it is also irrel­e­vant. Maps play a vital role in edu­ca­tion. The prac­ti­cal util­i­ty, how­ev­er, of flat world maps these days is pret­ty much beside the point, since GPS tech­nol­o­gy has most­ly elim­i­nat­ed the need for them alto­geth­er.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Buck­min­ster Fuller’s Map of the World: The Inno­va­tion that Rev­o­lu­tion­ized Map Design (1943)

Japan­ese Design­ers May Have Cre­at­ed the Most Accu­rate Map of Our World: See the Autha­Graph

Why Mak­ing Accu­rate World Maps Is Math­e­mat­i­cal­ly Impos­si­ble

Ancient Maps that Changed the World: See World Maps from Ancient Greece, Baby­lon, Rome, and the Islam­ic World

Down­load 67,000 His­toric Maps (in High Res­o­lu­tion) from the Won­der­ful David Rum­sey Map Col­lec­tion

200 Online Cer­tifi­cate & Micro­cre­den­tial Pro­grams from Lead­ing Uni­ver­si­ties & Com­pa­nies

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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