31 March 2013


Do you think you have a pretty good grasp of world geography?  Consider the map shown above (click to enlarge).  It is an upside-down version of a standard Mercator projection of Earth's three-dimensional globe onto a two-dimensional map.  If you're like me, it will set you back for a few seconds, as you sort out distances and the transposed relationships between familiar features like countries or bodies of water.  The experience is a useful thought exercise which allows us to see things (in this case, literally the world) in a new way.  To fly to Costa Rico, I would have to travel north.  To fly to France, I would have to travel west.

In passing, I can't help wishing that we would wean ourselves from Mercator projections, because their design distorts north-south distances.  The proportion of areas near the equator is fairly accurate, but the farther you go north or south, the more inflated areas become.  Russia, Canada, Alaska, and Greenland are not really as bit as they appear when compared to Thailand, Mexico, or Somalia.  A Mollweide projection, on the other hand, sacrifices accuracy of angle and shape in favor of accurate proportions in area (see image below).

You can learn more about the virtues and shortcomings of assorted map projections here.

Back to the upside-down map for a moment.  Imagine that our physical world really was arranged thus.  Psychologically, our culture is predisposed to attach greater importance or primacy to objects near the top.  This tendency is reinforced by an accident of history ~ European explorers (northern hemisphere) drew the earliest maps to see widespread use, their navigation aided by visual reference to Polaris (the north star).  It is no accident that the prime meridian, the global north-south line corresponding to 0 degrees longitude, runs through western Europe ~ specifically Greenwich, England.  Lines of longitude farther west or east from the PM gain in numerical value until they meet on the opposite side of the globe at 180 degrees west/east.

Thus psychologically, for our Eurocentric ancestors, the two American continents fell in the western hemisphere, while Asia was seen as the far east.  Further, when we think of seasons, we tend to default to those in the northern hemisphere.  Never mind that the advent of spring and warmer weather here, means the advent of autumn and cooler weather in the temperate parts of the southern hemisphere.

What if the earliest global explorers with an industrial base and technology for reproducing maps had originated in the southern hemisphere instead?  What if seafarers from Peru or Ecuador visited and colonized the four corners of the Earth guided by the Southern Cross, and subsequently on maps the prime meridian ran through Lima or Quito?  The map above gives some insight into how we might then view our world.

It also helps us in rethinking our assumption of ascendancy among nations, and hopefully to gain some empathy for those who live in so-called third world countries.  For them, it is we who live in exotic directions from their familiar homes.  That upside-down map might not be so bizarre after all.

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