Jthink of the world map and chances are we all imagine the same. But this map, created by a Flemish cartographer Gerard Mercator in 1569, is inaccurate. It makes the western world look bigger, decreasing the size of Africa and the equatorial nations (Greenland looks as big as Africa – it’s about the size of Algeria), and sparking criticisms that he promotes an imperialist point of view. So should we have a new world map? I asked Donald Houstonprofessor of geography at the University of Portsmouth.
Why is the internet telling me the card is a lie?
Mercator created the map on the eve of European exploration and wanted something useful for sea navigation. The problem is that the world is round and a map is flat. I give my first graders an orange and ask them to peel it in one piece and lay it flat. It’s impossible, it tears and deforms. On a sphere, the longitudinal lines converge at the poles but at the equator are parallel. Mercator has kept these longitudinal lines parallel throughout, prioritizing precision in the shape of the terrain. This ends up exaggerating the land mass closer to the poles.
Oh, so he was only accidentally racist?
I’m not sure we can say he was a racist – he never traveled and was instead a devout Catholic scholar.
Donald, just kidding, I’m not trying to cancel Gerardus! I’m impressed he did all of this with just his brains and a ruler. But we should probably have something specific.
That’s the problem – it’s basically impossible to get a nice, clean, rectangular, but accurate map of the world. People have suggested using the Peters projection, but where Mercator distorts size but retains shape, Peters is accurate with size but not shape. The best thing, I think, is a physical globe.
It’s quite poetic, really – how we humans yearn to hold the world in our hands, but we never can.
Also, we don’t really need the Mercator projection, since ships navigate using GPS. There are so many reasons to walk away from it. It emphasizes nation states and borders, which are a Western concept anyway. How about a map that shows people, population numbers?
To the right …that’s why the cards are so brilliant, because they also tell you about a society’s priorities. But the GPS is not perfect. Went up the Brecon Beacons using GPS – signal crashed, got lost, must have encroached on a dozen farms. Frankly, I’m surprised I didn’t get shot.
This is because your GPS is different from those used by ships. But I’m afraid that Google Maps will become the only map. It’s just a street map.
Oh my! i just opened google Maps now and zoom out to see the world. Even with all their technologyit seems like as if they were using something like Mercator. Greenland is huge!
Great…so an extraterrestrial newcomer may think the world was made up of multinational food outlets. Mercator produced a map for navigation; the fact that it went unchallenged as the dominant map until the 1970s, and still graces some Google maps, is shocking.
Well, I’m ordering a globe right now. How about the one in which you can keep alcohol inside?
Well they don’t have the poles, but why not. It might be a good thing to offset centuries of Mercator projection.