When you look at a map of the world, you usually think of the crisscrossing horizontal lines of longitude and vertical lines of latitude, going all over the massive continents of the Old World – Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia – and the New World – North and South America – along with the Arctic ice cap and the continent of Antarctica to the polar regions. You must have noted the large size of Canada, the island of Greenland, the combined areas of Russia and East Asia.
And unless you’ve studied maps all your life, you probably didn’t know that when shown on a flat map, the landmasses are actually a tad out of their actual shape.
Or maybe perhaps you did notice the discrepancies if took a look at a globe, the nearest possible representation of our world and all its physical features, with the continents wrapped around the spheroid – not a perfect sphere shape, our Earth, but close enough – surface as they would have on the real thing right under all of our feet. The clincher would be comparing the size of Greenland on a globe with that on a map; on the latter it’s really monstrous but on the former, Greenland can comfortably fit into Australia three times over.
How did this happen, you ask? We can all trace this back to a 16 th century mapmaker from Europe (there are disputes on whether he was of what is now modern-day Germany, or what is now Belgium). His name was Geert de Kremer, but as a scholar and cartographer of the times he used a Latinized name that is how the world remembers him best: Gerardus Mercator. In 1569 he published anew kind of world map that used a cartographical projection of his design to better translate a globe on a flat map. His Mercator projection distorts the shape of landmasses the farther away they are from the equator, wherein a normal shape is used.
The result has Africa, sitting mostly on the equator, looking much smaller than it is compared to say, Europe or North America (Mexico, US and Canada). As it turns out, Africa can actually fit about 16 specific countries inside its area: the US, UK, China, Germany, France, India, Norway, Spain, Colombia, Ireland, Ukraine, Finland, Turkey, Poland, Greece and Italy. And it will still have slivers of land area to spare.
Politically and historically the Mercator projection has done some significant changes to the world. Made by a European, whose continent was enlarged by the distortion, and also sent many mariners to explore and discover, the map gave them an aura of power and domination over other places in the world, spurring colonialism and imperialism like no other. Professor Marianne Franklin of the University of London says that Mercator gave the Anglo-Euro- American peoples the presumption that the world, as shown in the map, was centered on them; thus the rest of the planet was theirs to shape as they will.
To this day, the world as drawn by Mercator is still used as a basis on places like Google Maps or Bing. It’s the best we can do, as it is impossible to craft a perfect world map on a flat surface. For what it’s worth, we owe respect to Gerardus Mercator for his part in charting the course of history.
(source thanks to CNN).
Photo Credit to www.vox.com