Posted by: clholoman | August 18, 2015

Size Matters

Regular readers (if there are any left) know that maps are a sub-theme of this blog. I love maps. I love teaching about maps. One of my favorite lectures when I taught World Geography and History was an early one on the problem of map projection. I’m sure you know most of this, but anyway: it’s impossible to represent the round(ish) earth on a flat piece of paper without introducing some distortion. It might represent distances accurately, but not direction. It might be right on latitude, but distorts longitude. Etc.

The familiar Mercator projection is notorious for one aspect of its distortion. As you get farther from the equator, the sizes of land masses get badly misrepresented.

This has led to grave misunderstanding about the sizes of continents and countries. (We’ll set aside the issue of the map being centered on the US.)

But now we can fix that! Here’s a cool web site that you can drag and drop states and countries on top of one another to compare. Watch how New York grows if you drag it to the poles! Note that the lower 48, China, and India could fit into Africa with room to spare!

This is not new knowledge, obviously, just a new tool. Here’s the Atlantic article that led me to it. Make sure you watch the embedded West Wing clip. It kind of makes fun of the issue, but there are real social justice implications from the “common knowledge” that we have learned from this map.

The good news is that Mercator has (justifiably) fallen out of favor. But other projections have their own issues. Perhaps we need to go back to globes in the classroom.



  1. […] — Check out this recent blog post from Provost and VP for Academic Affairs, Dr. Christopher Holoman –  […]

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