Tuesday, November 2, 2010

On Maps and Map Making

Today I'm going to take a break from my usual topics of conversation to talk about maps. It might seem like an odd digression, but it isn't entirely unrelated. I hope you'll bear with me.

I enjoy looking at maps from a few hundred years ago. It's interesting to see what people back then thought the world looked like. It's cool to see early maps of America that are weirdly stretched and where some parts are disproportionately large.

It is easy to tell, just by looking, that these maps are far from accurate. What's not as obvious is that even modern maps have their inaccuracies.

As an example, whenever I look at a globe or a map of the world I always look for the San Francisco bay. Since I grew up near there I have a pretty good idea of the shape of the bay.

But on world maps, the San Francisco bay always looks oddly misshapen. On that scale all the detailed features of the bay are reduced to one small scribble. Most of the time the North bay is completely missing.

It usually isn't as obvious, but even smaller, more close up maps have this problem. They can't record every minute feature of a river or coastline perfectly. On some level, the shapes they draw are always an approximation.

Still, it's more than just a lack of precision that keeps maps from being accurate. Most maps are flat. Since the earth's surface is curved, the maps have to stretch and distort the terrain to make it fit on a flat surface. As a result, on most maps Greenland looks like it's as big as Australia when in fact it's a lot smaller.

Globes do a lot better because they're curved, but they're still not perfect. You see, not only is the earth not flat, but it's not a perfect sphere either. It has odd imperfections, including a slight bulge around the equator. Most globes are spherical, so they distort the earth's features to make them fit on a perfect sphere.

Even with all of their flaws and imperfections, maps are very useful tools. Maps take a large and confusing world, reduce it and simplify it enough that we can better understand it. Maps help us to find our way. Even a bad map can help a person trying to explore an area he's never been to before.

But it's important to note, and crucial to remember, that no matter how good it is a map is no substitute for the real thing. There always are, and always will be, subtle details that our maps fail to capture. If we think that the world out there has to look exactly like our map, then we are only setting ourselves up for confusion and disappointment.


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