Mind Stretch: Immapancy

I’m eight time zones away from home, and spent a fair amount of time this week staring at the little maps in the back of an inflight magazine. It’s a good time to look at an archive post on maps.

There’s nothing quite like a good mind stretch. Malcolm Gladwell puts it this way: “You’re never more alive than when things get turned upside down.” Whether you think of it as an expansion or an inversion, I very much hope that the experience speaks to you, because I’m hoping to make it a regular feature.

And so to the mind stretch I have for you today. If you’re someone that feels you have a pretty good grasp of geography, and your knowledge relies largely on flat maps using the Mercator projection (the one most of us grew up with), this picture might succeed in challenging some assumptions. On the other hand, if geography’s not your strongest subject, and you don’t know much about how some things compare to others, then you’ve got less to unlearn. So, with pun fully intended, I invite you to try this on for size:

true-size-of-africa mod

Is not this amazing? Maybe you’ve never wondered how many of the world’s countries could fit inside an outline of the African continent, but if you had, would you have guessed this many? The map is the creation of Kai Krause, and was brought to my attention by a friend (thanks, Paul!).

Along with the map, Krause provides a handy table, which includes the long list of countries whose area in square kilometers adds up to just less than the area of Africa. That list (in descending order of size): China, USA, India, Mexico, Peru, France, Spain, Papua New Guinea, Sweden, Japan, Germany, Norway, Italy, New Zealand, United Kingdom, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Greece.

Krause asserts that in addition to being concerned about the difficulty that many people have understanding words and numbers, we should also be concerned about the fact that many of us have real trouble making sense of maps. Thus to illiteracy and innumeracy we ought to add immapancy, a word he coined to refer to insufficient geographical knowledge. He may have invented the word, but the problem belongs to all of us; either we suffer from it, or we will eventually suffer because of it—I think it’s probably one of the causes of lack of understanding among cultures today.

While doing a bit of research into this interesting infographic I learned a few curious facts about the Mercator projection. For one thing, it’s been around since 1569. It was very handy for sailors of yesteryear because it makes marine navigation easier, but doesn’t do so well at large land masses, distorting both shape and size, and is increasingly problematic the closer you get to the poles. For example, the Mercator projection makes Africa appear about the same size as Greenland, when it’s actually 14 times larger. Let’s remind ourselves what this projection looks like:

Image by Strebe, Wikipedia

Maybe because we spent so much classroom time staring at this sort of thing it no longer strikes us as strange, but it should. All that white stuff at the bottom could give you the impression that if it weren’t for the bitter cold weather, a good chunk of the world’s population could live down there. But it’s a lovely illustration of the distortion of the Mercator projection, as Antarctica’s mass is probably better thought of like this:

Image by Dave Pape, Wikipedia

I guess we’ve got some mental adjusting to do. In a future post I’ll include some resources that will help with that. For now, I invite you to find a (non-Mercator) map and spend some time with it. There’s a lot we can learn.

[Images: artistlisabeth, Kai Krause, Strebe at Wikipedia, Dave Pape at Wikipedia]

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