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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