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

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

A Beautiful, High-Resolution Map of the Internet (2021)

The beginnings of the Internet were uncharted territory, especially before the days of graphic browsers. You had a number, you dialed up to a location. Certain locations were named after their host universities or government sites and that made sense in an old-school telephone exchange way. But the rest was just a vast ocean of data, of strange lands, and many, many barriers. How big, exactly, is the internet? And how do we measure it? What is the “space” of cyberspace?

There have been maps that overlay the internet’s main landlines onto the map of the earth—this Vox article shows the spidery web growing from the first four locations of ARPANET until the whole world is connected. But that’s not how we think of it. Surely Open Culture is always where you, dear reader, reside, and this writer’s undisclosed location has nothing to do with it. Maybe the internet is really the space that it takes up in our minds, in our lives, and in the amount of internet traffic.

Amateur graphic designer Martin Vargic visualized those spaces as countries on a vast globe inspired by National Geographic Magazine. (Although National Geographic borrowed its cartographic style from some of the first printed maps of the world.) Vargic first published his map in 2014 when he was a student in Slovakia. And now he has decided to update the map for 2021. (See the map in high resolution here.) Large continents represent the main websites of the Internet: Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon. The seas represent the aforementioned ocean of data under different names: Ocean of Information, North Connection Ocean, etc. To compare his relatively spare original map to the one he just released is to notice how much more crowded this world has become, and how divided.

First, his methodology.

Vargic based the relative size of each website on its average traffic between January 2020 and January 2021, according to Alexa Rank, the Amazon-owned Alexa Internet’s measure of how popular a website is, calculated by unique users and page views.

However, the center of the map is now different. This now depicts the “core and backbone of the Internet as we know it,” Vargic said. This means a core of service providers surrounded by larger islands of web browsers (Chrome, Firefox, et al).

While the 2014 map considered website size as the main organizer and contained around 200 websites, this version contains 3,000. The north of the globe features country clusters: a grouping of academic, research, and free education sites (wikipedia,, etc.), governmental websites to the east and conspiracy QAnon lands to the west.

The Antarctica of the map? The Dark Web, where the Onion isn’t a parody news site and TOR isn’t the sci-fi/fantasy publisher.

You might find some of Vargic’s decisions odd, or you might just spend your time wondering how much of the internet is indeed an unknown land, with large “countries” you’ve never heard of, but with millions of “residents”. It might not be real, but Vargic’s map will put you in an exploratory mood while you light off for the territories. You can view it in a high resolution format here. Purchase it as a poster here.

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

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.

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

BirdCast: You Can Now Forecast the Migration of Birds Across the U.S. Just Like the Weather

We talk about the weather more often than we talk about most things, other natural phenomena included. We certainly talk about the weather more often than we talk about birds, much to the disappointment of ornithological enthusiasts. This could be down to the comparative robustness of weather prediction, both as a tradition and as a daily technological presence in our lives. We can hardly avoid seeing the weather forecast, but when was the last time you checked the bird forecast? Such a thing does, in fact, exist, though it’s only come into existence recently, in the form of Birdcast, which provides “real-time predictions of bird migrations: when they migrate, where they migrate, and how far they will be flying.”

Developed by Colorado State University and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, BirdCast offers both live bird migration maps and bird forecast migration maps for the United States. “These forecasts come from models trained on the last 23 years of bird movements in the atmosphere as detected by the US NEXRAD weather surveillance radar network,” says BirdCast’s web site.

Unprecedented in both the kind of information they provide and the detail in which they provide it, “these bird migration maps represented the culmination of a 20-year long vision, so too the beginnings of new inspiration for the next generation of bird migration research, outreach and education, and application.”

You can learn more about the development and workings of BirdCast in the recorded webinar below, featuring research associate Adriaan Dokter and Julia Wang, leader of the Lights Out project, which aims to get Americans spending more time in just such a state. “Every spring and fall, billions of birds migrate through the US, mostly under the cover of darkness,” says its section of BirdCast’s site. “This mass movement of birds must contend with a dramatically increasing but still largely unrecognized threat: light pollution.” The goal is “turning off unnecessary lighting during critical migration periods,” and with spring having begun last weekend, we now find ourselves in just such a period. Luckily, our fine feathered friends shouldn’t be disturbed by the glow of the BirdCast map on your screen. View live BirdCast maps here.

via Kottke

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Growth of London, from the Romans to the 21st Century, Visualized in a Time-Lapse Animated Map

From a port settlement on the banks of the Thames that the Romans called Londinium came a thriving city of “roughly 100,000 people” in Shakespeare’s time, “a cross-section of early modern English culture,” the British Library notes, including “royalty, nobility, merchants, artisans, laborers, actors, beggars, thieves, and spies, as well as refugees from political and religious persecution on the continent.” The city thrived economically and merchants from the known world passed through its ports. “As a result, Londoners would hear a variety of accents and languages as they strolled about the city — a chorus of voices from across Europe and from all walks of life.”

The chorus of voices became a cacophony for many Londoners in the following century who resurrected a pastoral ideal and/or retired to the countryside in the 1600s. The city swelled to a population of around half a million. “It is also a period during which a high proportion of London’s inhabitants were migrants,” writes the Proceedings of the Old Bailey. “It was only by maintaining this constant influx that the capital could possibly maintain its population growth,” slow as it was. “London’s population in this period was also characterized by its diversity,” and by stagnation as plague and fire devastated the city throughout the century.

The city’s cosmopolitan communities grew as England became a colonial world power. Neoclassical art and architecture beautified the city’s new wealth, and along with wealth came poverty, overcrowding, immiseration, and crime. “Here malice, rapine, accident, conspire;  and now a rabble, now a fire,” wrote Samuel Johnson in “London,” (1738), a poem written in imitation of Juvenal’s satire on Imperial Rome. In his “London” over half a century later, William Blake saw “marks of weakness, marks of woe” on every face he met in the city — beginning a protest tradition that reached its zenith during the massive population growth in Dickens’ time, and found new voice in glam, punk, grime, etc.

People have come from all over the world to make their home in London for centuries. Each wave of migrants has had to navigate the city’s class hierarchies — through plagues, fires, the Blitz, strikes, riots, protests, more fires, Brexit…. London has burned, “London is drowning,” sang Joe Strummer. But London remains, a megacity of nearly 9 million. In the video above, you can see the city’s growth mapped over a period of 2,000 years, from the Romans to the Saxons; from Tudor to Stuart, early and late Georgian, early and late Victorian, and into the wartorn 20th century.

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

The Roman Roads of Gaul Visualized as a Modern Subway Map

At a casual glance, some travelers may take the map above for a depiction of France’s enviable intercity high-speed rail network Train à Grande Vitesse, better known as TGV. In reality, its content predates that system’s inauguration in the early 1980s — and by nearly two millennia at that. This is in fact a map of Gaul, a region of Europe that, most broadly defined, included modern-day France, Luxembourg, and Belgium, as well as parts of Switzerland, Italy, the Netherlands, and Germany. Ruled by Rome for five centuries until the fall of the Roman Empire itself, Gaul was run through with a number of Roman roads, a subject of fascination for many archaeologically inclined historians.

They’ve also become a subject of fascination for a young data scientist and graphic designer by the name of Sasha Trubetskoy. His work, much featured here on Open Culture, includes maps of the Roman Roads of Britain, Italy, Spain and Portugal, as well as, at a larger scale, those of the entire empire.

“This was an interesting map to make, but I can’t say it was fun all the time,” writes Trubetskoy. “Generally I enjoyed the process, but it was far more challenging than I had anticipated.” You can hear him describe some of the challenges involved, and even show how solving them played out in his design process, in his three-hour explanatory live stream now archived on Youtube.

You can download Trubetskoy’s Roman Roads of Gaul map from his site, and even buy a high-resolution file suitable for printing as a poster (USD $9). “As far as I can tell, it’s done,” writes Trubetskoy of the work, wisely — or from frustrating personal experience — acknowledging that, despite or because of the centuries of distance between us and the relevant historical and geographical facts, those facts could still change. Just as ancient history cannot both make its way to us and maintain absolutely perfect fidelity to the past, so the kind of practical visual design embodied in a subway map necessitates a great deal of simplification and approximation to be useful. And speaking of the graphic arts, just imagine how useful this particular map would’ve been to Asterix.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Oldest Known Globe to Depict the New World Was Engraved on an Ostrich Egg, Maybe by Leondardo da Vinci (1504)

Image by Davidguam via Wikimedia Commons

Every time you think you’ve got a handle on Leonardo da Vinci’s genius (which is to say, you think you’ve heard about the most important things he painted, wrote, and invented), yet more evidence comes to light of the many ways he meets the standard for the adjective “genius”…. Recently, Leonardo re-appeared not only as an inventor of futuristic military technology or discoverer of complex human anatomy, but also as the first European to depict the “New World” on a globe–proving he knew about Columbus’ voyages when the globe was made in 1504.

The discovery “marks the first time ever that the names of countries such as Brazil, Germania, Arabia and Judea have appeared on a globe,” notes Cambridge Scholars Publishing, who released a book by the globe’s discoverer and primary researcher, Stefaan Missinne. The artifact attributed to Leonardo is engraved, “with immaculate detail,” writes Meeri Kim at The Washington Post, “on two conjoined halves of ostrich eggs.” And it features a single sentence, in Latin, above Southeast Asia: Hic Sunt Dracones–“Here be dragons.”

We’ll notice other unique features of the engraved egg Missinne calls, simply, “the Da Vinci Globe,” such as the fact that in place of Central and North America are the islands of Columbus’ “discovery,” surrounded by a vast ocean in which Pacific and Atlantic join. Why ostrich eggs? Humans have used them for decorative purposes for millennia. Also, “in that time period,” says Thomas Sander, editor of the Washington Map Society’s journal, Portolan, “the ostrich was quite the animal, and it was a big thing for the noble people to have ostriches in their back gardens.”

Missinne, a real estate developer, collector, and globe expert originally from Belgium, discovered the globe in 2012 at the London Map Fair. It was purchased “from a dealer who said it had been part of an important European collection for decades,” and its buyer and owner remain anonymous. After the globe appeared, Missinne “consulted more than 100 scholars and experts in his year-long analysis,” putting “about five years of research into one year,” says Sander, calling the research “an incredible detective story.”

Missinne’s investigation seems to substantiate his claims that the globe was made by Leonardo or his workshop. The evidence, some of which you can find on the Cambridge Scholars Publishing site, includes a 1503 preparatory map in da Vinci’s papers; the presence of arsenic, which only Leonardo was known to use at the time in copper to keep it from losing its lustre; “The use of chiaroscuro, pentienti, triangular shapes, the mathematics of the scale reflecting Leonardo’s written dimension of planet earth”; and a 1504 letter from Leonardo himself stating, “my world globe I want returned back from my friend Giovanni Benci.”

Missinne and Geert Verhoeven, of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection & Virtual Archeology, have published a paper on the “unfolding” of Leonardo’s globe into the two-dimensional image above (see an interactive version here). “This miniature egg globe is not only the oldest extant engraved globe,” the authors write, “but it is also the oldest post-Columbian globe of the world and the first ever to depict Newfoundland and many other territories.” Previously, the Hunt-Lenox Globe, a small copper globe, was thought to be the oldest known such artifact. Dated to around 1510, this globe, Missinne discovered, is actually a copy made from a cast of the older, original ostrich-egg globe.

Missinne’s findings have their detractors, including John W. Hessler of the Library of Congress, who claims Missinne himself is the anonymous owner of the globe, which raises issues of conflict of interest. “Where this thing comes from needs to be clarified,” says Renaissance cartography expert Chet Van Duzer of the John Carter Brown Library in Providence, R.I., though he adds, “It is an exciting discovery, no question.” Missinne’s claims for the egg’s provenance are more modest than his marketing. He “speculates,” writes Kim, “ the egg could have loose connections to the workshop of Leonardo da Vinci.” Hessler’s view is less equivocal: “The Leonardo connection is pure nonsense.”

A layperson like Missinne, whatever his personal investment, might be inclined to overinterpret evidence or make tenuous connections a trained scholar would avoid. The many scholars he cites in support of his claims for the globe are also vulnerable to these charges, however, though to a lesser degree. What do we make of French Mona Lisa expert Pascal Cotte’s testimonial, “I hereby confirm the evidence of the left-handedness of the engravings on the Ostrich Egg Globe. As Leonardo was the only left-handed artist in his workshop, I hereby endorse the hypothesis of Leonardo da Vinci’s authorship”? As in all such academic debates, “Here be dragons.” Weigh the case in full in Missinne’s 2018 book, The Da Vinci Globe.

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

Behold All 42 Maps from Jules Verne’s Extraordinary Voyages, the Author’s 54-Volume Collection of “Geographical Fictions”

Jules Verne’s tales of adventure take his characters around the world, through the deepest seas, even into the center of the Earth—on journeys, that is, difficult or impossible in the 19th century. Verne himself, however, spent most his life in France, writing of places he had not seen. In one apocryphal story, the young Jules Verne is caught trying to sneak aboard a ship bound for the Indies and promises his father he will henceforth travel “only in his imagination.” Whether or not he made such a vow, he seemed to keep it, though the idea that he never traveled at all is a “tiresome canard,” writes Terry Harpold in an essay titled “Verne’s Cartographies.”

Verne’s famed novels Twenty Leagues Under the Sea, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and Around the World in Eighty Days constitute only a fraction of the 54-volume Voyages Extraordinaires, a collection of fiction conceived on the basis of a science we might not think of as a rich field for material.

“Of the 80 novels and other short stories he published,” geographer Lionel Dupuy writes, “62 make up the corpus of Extraordinary Voyages (Voyages Extraordinaires). These books, in which imagination played a vital role, were termed ‘geographical novels,’ a category the author himself used for them.”

Verne would also use the term “scientific novel,” but he made it clear which science he meant:

I always had a passion for studying geography, as others did for history or historical research. I really believe that it is my passion for maps and great explorers around the world that led me to write the first of my long series of geographical novels.

As a geographical novelist, and member of the Geographical Society from 1865 to 1898, it was only fitting that Verne include as many maps as he could in his quest, as he put it, “to depict the Earth, and not just the Earth, but the universe, for I have sometimes carried my readers far away from the Earth in my novels.” To that end, “thirty of the novels” in the first edition of Voyages Extraordinaires” published by Pierre-Jules Hetzel, “include one or more engraved maps,” Harpold points out. “There are forty-two such engravings in all.” View them here.

“These images and design elements are nuanced, graceful, and evocative; drafted and engraved by some of the finest artists of the time,” Harpold writes. “They represent the pinnacle of late nineteenth-century popular-scientific cartography.” They also represent the author of geographical fictions who, as both a scientist and artist, refused to let either form of thinking take over the text, combining myth and poetry with observation and measurement. As Dupuy puts it, “in Extraordinary Voyages, the passage from reality to imagination and back is encouraged by the emergence of a ‘marvelous’ that we can call ‘geographical.’”

In one sense, we might think of most kinds of fiction as geographical, in that they describe places we have never seen. This is particularly so in fictions that include maps of their imagined territories, such as those of William Faulkner, J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert Louis Stevenson, and so on. We might look to Jules Verne as their towering forbear. “Several of the maps appearing in the Hetzel Voyages were drafted under Verne’s close supervision or were based on his sketches or designs. Maps in three of the novels (20,000 Leagues [top], Hatteras [further up], Three Russians) were drafted by Verne himself, whose talents in this regard were appreciable,” writes Harpold.

Verne’s maps mix real and fictional place names and are “always ambiguous and semiotically unstable objects.” They appear almost as admissions of the mythmaking that goes into the science of geography and the act of exploration. Near the end of his life, maps became more real to Verne than the world outside. As he grew too weary even to leave the neighborhood, he wrote to Alexandre Dumas fils, “If I have maintained a taste for work… , nothing remains of my youth. I live in the heart of my province and never budge from it, even to go to Paris. I travel only by maps.” See all of Verne’s maps from the Hetzel edition of Extraordinary Voyages, such as those for Around the World in Eighty Days (above) and Five Weeks in a Balloon (below), here.

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

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