13 October 2012


I've been fascinated by maps since childhood.  It is easy to become lost of flights of the imagination as one discovers borders, terrain features, cities, rivers, and oceans.  How did this name originate?  Who once lived or traveled along this ancient road?  How long does it take to travel from Bohemia to Bulgaria?  What was this place like 100, 500, or 10,000 years ago?

The study and practice of making maps is called cartography.  Maps come in all sorts of types and designs, with specific symbologies, naming conventions, and projections, depending on their intended use.  They may depict a confined, flat surface, or, as in the case of projections, they may attempt to depict the surface of a sphere or other three-dimensional object onto the plane of the two-dimensional map.

Unfortunately, all map projections distort the surface in some fashion.  Distortions may appear in area, shape, direction, bearing, distance, or scale.  A rendition of the original shape (a globe, for instance) is the only accurate way of portraying the surface.  Regardless, projections are valuable for showing the relationships between map areas or features.

Many school and online maps use the Mercator projection, and this tends to dictate how we perceive the size of countries and continents.  If you look at the world map on Google, for instance, Africa doesn't look that much bigger than China or the United States.  In reality, it's a lot bigger.  In the image above (click to enlarge), Kai Krause scales countries by their area in square kilometers, and then fits them into Africa's borders for proper perspective.

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