The eye of the beholder

Maps quickly teach you that perspective is everything.

Take the one that always used to befuddle me as a little kid. The United States sat smack in the middle, arms folded across its chest, the center of attention. At least, that's the message I took away when I perused the maps on my classroom walls.

But then there was that huge mass known then as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Besides having an intriguing mouthful of a name, it was so enormous. So was that the reason it was split down the middle? Or why it looked as if the most direct route from Moscow to, say, Vladivostock, was west, via the US?

It's easy to see why afficianados love their maps. The documents tell so much about the renderer's world view - and hold such sway over our sense of ourselves. It was some time before I learned that there were, in fact, more than a few possible takes on the globe's continents and oceans - or that it was unlikely that Soviet kids studied a map that resembled mine.

Whether Greenland appears to rival Africa in size, or Australia moves to the "top" of the world, each map has a story that millions of people are eager to hear. In its first week, the National Geographic Society's new Web-based map site received up to 200 hits a minute. The society has published a new hardcover atlas too, of course. But its pages still link East Timor to Indonesia. On the Web, that's instant history.

In our cover story, Gail Chaddock (who has several large relief maps hanging throughout her home) tells the story of the newest maps. Join her to check out the latest windows on the world.

*E-mail newcomba@csps.com

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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