There are sometimes things that you know, but you don’t spend a lot of time talking about them, and a recent Facebook post gave me a kick in the butt to remind me that sometimes the things that seem passive and harmless may not be the case. The type of projection I am talking about here is not the psychological one (which I also find fascinating), but still important. The Facebook post that inspired this blog post was one in which we are shown the true size of Africa. I knew about this many before as it is the starting part of the only Michael Crichton book I ever read, Congo. Then someone posted this clip from the show The West Wing and I thought this would be a great discussion starter. The clip argues that the Mercator projection of the world, which is what we are used to seeing should be replaced in every school room with Peter’s projection world map. And I think they are absolutely right. Because the Mercator projection not only messes with our sense of size of land masses, but also the Earth’s orientation. It impacts what we consider top and bottom, up and down, big and small. The result being that the way we think the world looks can have and impact on how we treat countries near the center of the map which are vaster than we think, and that have populations greater than we think.
For those of you non-clip watching the fact is that the Mercator projection greatly exaggerations land masses near the polar region, and put’s Germany (where Mercator was from) at the map center. As the clip explains one of the most obvious comparisons is the size of Greenland compared to Africa. On the Mercator projection they look almost the same, but Africa is actually 14 times bigger in land area.
Now what we have above is Peter’s Projection. It is going to look really strange to you. Now keep in mind there is still some distortion here and there always will be when you try to map a sphere onto a rectangle, but this one is more accurate. How you ask? Well essentially what the Mercator projection does is that it attempts to preserve straight lines for purposes of explorers by sea. In order to do this the area to which land is projected on must increase as you move towards the polar regions since the map essentially assumes the Earth is a cylinder and of course it is a sphere. The result is something that is not a true representation of size, but is accurate for purposes of navigation.
In reality of course, lines of longitude converge at the pole, the size of 1 degree longitude by a 1 degree latitude grid gets smaller as we approach the polar region. Peter’s projection takes this into account. On a spherical Earth grids are not rectangles or squares, but trapezoids (technically curved rectangles and trapezoids since the Earth’s surface is curved), with those trapezoids getting smaller and smaller, and both the Mercator and Peter’s distorts those trapezoids into rectangles. However, what makes Peter’s projection a more accurate view of the world is that Peter’s projection preserves the geometric area of those progressively smaller trapezoids. If you’re reading this and looking at Peter’s projection you are thinking to yourself that it’s absolutely wrong, and that this can’t be accurate. This is because the Mercator projection with north being up is so ingrained in us that it’s hard for us to think of it in a different way. But it should be noted that Peter’s projection is still a distortion as well. Particular as it makes the shape of the land area more elongated at the equators and the polar regions. So even though the relative size is more accurate, it isn’t necessarily the best for learning the true shape of things. Something that the Mercator projection does allow.
Now, do I believe that global inequality derives solely from our distorted view of the world geographically? Of course not, but it could be a factor. But more importantly it is something we can absolutely, and easily get right. And isn’t it better to see the world for what it is than what is most convenient? Maybe class rooms of the future will just use holographic globes to teach geography. In the end a 3-D globe is the only true map of the world.
To blow your mind even more I will leave you with a map of the world that we might be looking at had civilization begin in the southern hemisphere. The universe is three dimensional and there is no up and down. It’s all a matter of convention.