The Mapmaker’s Dilemma – By Barry Evans

From the beginning, mapmakers have had to contend with the problems inherent in translating the surface of a three-dimensional spherical object (the Earth) to the flat plane of a map. Barry Evans at The North Coast Journal takes a look at the “tearing” versus “stretching” methods of map-drawing, as epitomized in Bucky’s Dymaxion Map and the Mercator Projection, respectively.

Commons Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion world map, which can be folded to make a regular 20-sided icosahedron (one of the five "Platonic solids").

Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion world map, which can be folded to make a regular 20-sided icosahedron (one of the five “Platonic solids”).

The Mapmaker’s Dilemma  – By

If you’re over 50, chances are the obligatory world maps hanging in your classrooms were based on the Mercator projection. You probably remember it: Greenland, which is 14 times smaller than Africa, appears to be the same size as the continent. And Europe looks twice as large as South America, instead of half the size, as it really is.

Dutchman Gerard Mercator, as smart a businessman as he was a mapmaker, would have been appalled if he knew his map projection was used to educate children in geography, since it was never intended as anything like an accurate depiction of the globe.

The English title of his 1569 map (the first world map to use what we now call the Mercator projection) is “A New and Enlarged Description of the Earth with Corrections for Use in Navigation.”  

Navigation! The Mercator projection was designed to guide seafarers, particularly those venturing from Europe to the New World. Ships’ pilots could simply follow a straight line (technically, a rhumb line) on his map to sail most efficiently from A to B. Mercator, who produced (or copied) many other maps, knew full well its inadequacy when it came to depicting an accurate picture of the Earth.

But then, no map can do this. The surface of a round Earth doesn’t translate perfectly onto a flat piece of paper, no matter which way you cut, bend or stretch it. Peel an orange, and you can see the two basic solutions to the dilemma. One is to flatten the peel, tearing it as you go; the other is to imagine the peel as an elastic sheet, and keep it intact by stretching it. [Read more]

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  • de Castro kamtan  On 08/31/2014 at 6:47 am

    Its simple if you wish to see how small our world is…..
    Just Google world map….

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