Be Curious! / Data / Science

A Map of the World

In one of last week’s posts, I offered up a word search puzzle around the theme of garden variety domestic travel. In this post, let’s go bigger. Let’s imagine ourselves aboard the Shuttle Atlantis and contemplate alternatives to our typical world view.


For this badge, scouts are asked to look at a variety of maps–everything from topographical maps to bus routes–then assemble three different maps that include either the place where they live or a place they’d like to visit.

Maps of the world do both, of course, and most of us are pretty familiar with this one:

I say “most” of us with Pollyanna-ish optimism actually, because Americans are woefully geographically illiterate. A 2006 National Geographic-Roper survey indicated that about 2/3 of young American adults couldn’t locate Iraq on a map and 1/3 couldn’t point to Louisiana on a map. These aren’t abstract locations: between the war in Iraq and 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, thousands of American lives have been lost. We should know where the hell they are.

Maps are made by explorers, investigators, astronomers, geologists, and more. Part of the great work of explorers who’ve come before is illustrated in their maps — their best attempts to categorize masses of land and water, or the politics of borders.

And while the planet’s land and water remain in just about the same place over time, our man-made representations of them are often, it turns out,  quite arbitrary and pretty inaccurate.

Consider land mass.

The map pictured above suggests that North America takes up a bit more land mass than Africa. So would it surprise you to know that Africa is a bit bigger than traditional maps have ever suggested? Take a look at the Peters Projection Map, below, which tells it like it is, based on true land mass.

Peters Projection Map

Pretty wild, huh?

And while we’re at it, why, exactly, do we assign north above south? Why couldn’t south be on top?  They’re just words to which we’ve assigned relative meanings, but at the end of the day, it’s quite an arbitrary assignment. Turns out there’s absolutely no reason why the map shouldn’t look like this:

The World Turned Upside Down

Gives new meaning to standing something on its head, doesn’t it?

I credit Charles for turning me onto different world maps before we were married. Not long afterwards, we found ourselves watching the subject explored on an episode of The West Wing. Thanks to YouTube, you can take four minutes to ponder the really important issues raised by any review of world maps: What biases do we place on countries because we have minimized their relative size… or put them literally beneath what we call First World countries?

Check out this West Wing clip to see the question raised really well:

That clip and these maps make me wonder: if it freaks us out to see maps that accurately depict land mass, how would we function if we redrew the map to represent world populations?  In this map, countries are laid atop a grid in which one small square equals one million people.

World Population map

The reason this map is really resonates with me is that it’s a beautiful visual reminder of how irresponsible it is for us here in the U.S. to use so many of the planet’s finite natural resources when we’re a small fraction of its population.

But at the end of the day, I think my favorite map is the Hobo-Dyer Projection Map, pictured below. It takes the land mass equality of the Peters Projection map and flips it on its head. It’s a work of beauty.

Hobo Dyer Projection Map

If anyone out there has world maps that blow their minds like these blow mind, I’d love to know about them. In the meantime, there are plenty of other world projections, and if this collection has piqued your curiosity, try this site for a little more information and illustrations.


One thought on “A Map of the World

  1. Jean, I was certainly aware of the practical reasons for the Mercator projection in school, and the implications thereof, but I truly did not realize the extent to which things were distorted. It also makes sense that the area where Mercator was from (although it was not “Germany” as we think of it today) would be the center of his world, and roughly the center of his map.

    Seeing the comparative images of Greenland and Africa really drives home how distorted our view of the world is. I have never seen the Peters Projection before; that’s very interesting, and I find myself agreeing with the Organization of Cartographers for Social Equality that the Mercator Projection fosters a sense of superiority.

    The world population map REALLY puts things in perspective, and I echo your thought that seeing things “in perspective” really drives home how irresponsible and selfish many of us in the US are when it comes to use of natural resources.

    Thanks for opening my eyes a bit on this groggy Monday morning.

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