How to make a flat Earth
CURRENTS IN MAPMAKING
THE United States space shuttle Atlantis, with its German satellite-borne experiments, returned to Earth this week with 180 hours of remote-sensing data on the ozone hole over Antarctica. The first understandable product of the data that most of us will see will be a kind of map: probably a composite of false-color imagery, manipulated to correspond to a sensible view of our globe.Skip to next paragraph
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There's more to geography than maps, yet because our world is a vast physical thing, with features and properties that can be counted and measured, it's often useful to make a visual picture of it. Maps hold a central place in understanding the planet.
Scientist's instruments now reach farther into space, deeper into the ocean and the Earth's crust, and perform complex calculations faster than ever. But before we leap farther into the future, this could be a good time to take a back-to-basics look at what mapmakers do, and how trends in world mapmaking figure in our lives.
This is the mapmaker's assignment: Convert the spherical surface of our globe to a flat drawing.
If you picture someone peeling an apple and trying to flatten the peels onto a countertop, you'll see the problem: The edges of the peels split, the curled ends don't match up, and the pieces from the top and bottom (the ``poles'') are too curly to do anything with. In addition, if your goal is to represent the ``whole apple,'' you have to make some decisions. Which arrangement of the peel is a more faithful view of the apple's surface?
Choosing what to distort and what to keep accurate
Cartographers must make such choices all the time in mapping the Earth. And they solve the problem in myriad distinct ways. A choice may depend on the use for which the map is intended; ``aesthetic'' judgment; cultural bias; and practical concerns such as budget or printing requirements.
(``Local'' curvature -- hills and valleys -- is more important to large-scale maps than projection, and is crucial to hikers, road-builders, airplane pilots, and others. That is why large-scale maps such as geologic survey maps show contour lines, one method of depicting three-dimensional landforms.) Mercator
The Mercator projection is 400 years old and has been one of the mainstays of general atlases this century. Originally developed for oceangoing navigation, its strength is that compass bearings are true and straight anywhere on the globe.
Another strength of the Mercator is that it is ``conformal''; that is, within smaller regions (say, Australia) local landforms agree with their true shape on the globe. But comparing landforms at different latitudes is not recommended -- for example, Alaska appears to be about three times larger than Mexico, when in reality Mexico is 16 percent larger.
Arno Peters's equal-area projection, introduced in the 1960s, sought to correct the drawbacks of the Mercator, especially when used to display quantitative data such as population, wealth, health, or natural resources. The Peters is one of a number of projections that sacrifice shape in favor of area.
In this view, Africa takes center-stage as more dominant by far than Europe, as indeed it is. Little wonder that this ``politically correct'' projection was early adopted by developing-world charities and certain United Nations agencies.
The Peters projection also pushed cartography into the limelight when established cartographic agencies resisted the new projection. Some experts noted that the Peters projection's awkwardness lies in its unfamiliarity, and that the Mercator's equally untrue distortions earned their ring of correctness in an era when colonial seafaring nations ruled the globe. Robinson