THE action of a group of Texas bureaucrats may lead to the end of the world as we know it - at least on world maps. In March, the Texas Education Agency ordered textbook publishers to explain to children that the world does not really look like the image of it projected on most popular world maps.
The world map most people are used to seeing - the Mercator projection world map - presents a fairly accurate picture of the shapes of the world's landmasses. It grossly distorts their relative sizes, however. For example, on Mercator projections, Europe appears to be slightly larger than South America, though South America is actually twice as large.
The agency told publishers to include comparisons of different map projections and explanations of ``accuracy of area'' in new geography books for Texas schoolchildren. And since the Texas schoolbook market has enormous clout, children across the country may soon be looking at a whole new view of the world.
``If a kid sees a Mercator map every day, it will give him an impression of the world that is absolutely incorrect,'' says Marvin Gordon, geography professor at the George Washington University in Washington.
According to Professor Gordon, the outlook presented on the Mercator map is similar to one parodied in Saul Steinberg's famous New Yorker magazine cover depicting the Manhattan-centered ``New Yorker's View of the World.'' The Mercator map presents a ``northerner's view of the world,'' he says.
But Ward Kaiser, former director of the Friendship Press, doesn't see anything amusing in the northerly bias of the Mercator projection. He says that such bias ``would be all right if it didn't have ethnic implications.'' The countries that seem more important on the Mercator map are ``are countries inhabited by whites,'' he said.
The map that may have most influenced the new world view of Texas officials is the controversial Peters projection world map, introduced in 1973 by German cartographer Arno Peters. The Peters map is an ``equal area'' projection, making its rendition of the relative sizes of the earth's landmasses accurate ``by definition,'' according to Arthur Robinson, professor emeritus of cartography at the University of Wisconsin.
These accurate size relationships can only be shown, however, by distorting the shapes of the continents. Thus, while South America and Africa appear relatively much larger on Peters maps than on the Mercator projection, their shapes are squeezed and elongated. According to Mr. Robinson, the Peters map looks like the world you would see ``in a fun-house mirror.''
Robinson and other critics of the map feel that the Peters prescription is worse than the Mercator malady. They insist the presentation of the relative sizes of landmasses does not excuse the severe distortions of their shapes on the Peters map. According to Robinson, ``One wrong map doesn't justify another.'' He has designed his own alternative world map projection in an attempt to strike a balance between size and shape accuracy.
But Audrey Miller, director of the Friendship Press, publishers of the Peters map, says it is ``important to understand the real distribution of land mass in the world.'' She claims viewing the Peters map will teach people that ``the third-world peoples are really the two-thirds-world peoples.''
The representation of the spherical world on a flat map - called a projection by cartographers - always involves distortions. Only a globe depicts the spherical earth with relatively minor distortions of size and shape. There are many flat map projections of the world, used for a variety of purposes. Mercator intended his projection for use as a navigational chart. Despite its grossly inflated rendering of the relative areas of northern landmasses, his map permitted navigators to plot straight courses on a flat map.
``Unfortunately, the Mercator map was adopted as a geographical instrument,'' according to John P. Snyder, chairman of the Committee on Map Projections of the American Cartographic Association. And down the centuries it has become the father of most people's ``mental map'' of the world. It has come to represent ``what the world `should' look like,'' said Mr. Snyder.
The Mercator map's distortions make North America appear larger than Africa, though Africa is actually much larger. It makes Greenland appear colossal, eight times the size of the Arabian Peninsula, which is actually three times the size of Greenland.
But the Mercator map is the one that children will likely see on the classroom wall. And it is the one that most adults will purchase at bookstores and map stores. The ubiquity of the Mercator map makes publishers shy away from promoting a more accurate alternative. Robinson says there's ``no market'' for another world map, because the public is inclined to purchase the familiar Mercator projection. Some years ago, the National Geographic Society adopted the Van der Grinten projection world map to correct some of the Mercator map's distortions. But that map ``is a lot like the Mercator map,'' says Robinson. It also greatly distorts the size of northern landmasses, he said.
The Peters map's bizarre shapes haven't discouraged some from championing it. Elizabeth Judge, a Texas-based education lobbyist, presented the map to the Texas Education Agency. She claims that the Peters map's striking illustration of accurate relative sizes of landmasses should be used to ``dispel the erroneous image of the world created by the Mercator projection.''
Friendship Press has sold millions of copies of the Peters map in Europe. And in this country, it has attracted fans among left-leaning groups, who like the new importance it gives to third-world countries. The map is available in the United States mostly in ``peace and justice or `New Age' bookstores,'' says Ms. Miller.
Though no one would describe Texas as a mecca of New Age sentiment, the Peters map does have its appeal there. Texas officials appreciated the gains made by the Lone Star State on the Peters map vis-`a-vis Greenland. On Mercator maps, Greenland appears to be about 20 times as large as Texas. The Peters map depicts Texas more accurately as about one-third the size of Greenland. This new size ratio made Texas officials ``sit up and take notice,'' said Ms. Judge.