Watch “The Impossible Map,” a Short Animated Film That Uses a Grapefruit to Show Why Maps of the Earth Are Misleading (1947)

There are any number of ways one might try to turn a globe into a two-dimensional surface. You could start by cutting it down the middle, as in this Vox video on world maps. You could choose volunteers and have them come up to the head of the class and peel oranges in one piece, flattening out the strips onto an overhead projector, as in this National Geographic lesson on world maps. Or, you might attack an already halved grapefruit peel with a rolling pin, as in the National Film Board of Canada’s animated short, “The Impossible Map,” above.

Each method (except, maybe, the rolling pin) has its merits, but none of them will make a 2-dimensional surface without warping, stretching, and distorting. That’s the point, in all these exercises, a point that has been made over and over throughout the years as cartographers search for better, more accurate ways to turn the Earth’s sphere (or oblate spheroid) into a representative rectangle that roughly preserves the scale of the continents. As the hands-on demonstrations show, you don’t need to remember your geometry to see that it’s impossible to do so with much precision.

A cartographer must choose a focal point, as Gerardus Mercator did in the 16th century in his famous cylindrical projection. Since the map was designed by a European for use by European navigators, it naturally puts Europe in the center, resulting in extreme distortions of the land masses around it. These have been remedied by alternate projections like the Mollweide, Goode Homolosine (the “orange-peel map”), and the 1963 Robinson projection, which was “adopted for National Geographic’s world maps in 1988,” The Guardian notes, and “appears in [a] growing number of other publications, [and] may replace Mercator in many classrooms.”

Pioneering Canadian animator Evelyn Lambart made “The Impossible Map” in 1947, several years before professor Arthur Robinson created his “Pseudocylindrical Projection with Pole Line” — for which he used “a huge number of trial-and-error computer simulations,” as the Arthur H. Robinson Map Library writes. “To this day, no other projection uses this approach to build a map,” not even most GPS mapping software, which still, in many cases, uses a “Web Mercator” projection to represent the whole Earth. But while Lambart’s film may not be technologically up-to-date, it is visually and pedagogically brilliant, explaining, with some basic narration and sliced produce, why globes still beat flat maps of the Earth every time.

via Aeon

Related Content: 

The History of Cartography, “the Most Ambitious Overview of Map Making Ever Undertaken,” Is Free Online

Why Making Accurate World Maps Is Mathematically Impossible

Why Every World Map Is Wrong

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

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