Exploring strange new worlds is not just a staple of Star Trek, it’s part of the franchise’s tag line! But sometimes, the strangest world may not be that new. Sometimes, we look at the world we live on, and have one of those WTF??? moments.
We have all seen a map of the world (OUR world, the planet Earth, that is), right? This is the map hanging on the walls of classrooms, and practically in every map you can buy from a bookstore. Even popular web sites like Google Maps and MapQuest are currently using this.
This is the world as we know it, so what if someone told you this is wrong? That our world actually doesn’t look like this?
Yeah. It’s not exactly a secret, nor is it a new discovery. It’s known for hundreds of years, but for some reason it’s not widely discussed or taught in schools.
The world map as most of us know it is called a Mercator projection, named after Flemish geographer and cartographer Gerardus Mercator. In 1569 this industrious fella drafted up this map — not intended for an accurate model of the world, mind you, but expressly for maritime navigation purposes — something Mercator himself noted. As part of the problem of transposing a spherical surface to a 2D piece of paper, the Mercator projection distorts the size of objects as the latitude increases from the Equator to the poles, where the scale becomes infinite. As an example, land masses near the poles such as Greenland are greatly exaggerated, while those near the Equator are squashed. If you look at the standard map, Greenland is about the same size as the whole of Africa; in reality, Africa is about 14 times larger than Greenland. Wwwwot???
Evidently between the 19th and 20th Centuries, this inaccurate display of the world was commonly promoted because it made the western nations more visually prominent. Europe and North America look much larger than they really are, while Africa, South America and Australia appear almost… secondary. Russia and Canada are absolutely gigantic, and Alaska is half the size of the rest of the continental U.S. Europe looks about the same size as Africa… just look at how big the Scandinavian countries are!
So after all that, what does our world really look like? Well no one has been able to come up with a definitive answer, but an alternate method known as the Gall-Peters projection can be looked at — it presents distortion problems of its own and is still considered controversial, but at least it tries to present a more accurate comparison of land masses…. as seen below.
Notice the differences? Greenland is nowhere as prominent — instead of it being the size of Africa, it’s barely the size of Algeria! Russia and Canada are still big, but between them they certainly don’t add up to half of the planet’s land mass. Alaska isn’t huge anymore, Europe is almost trivially small, but Africa is absolutely ginormous! And to lesser extents, so are South America, Australia and the islands of Souteast Asia.
When I first saw this years ago, I was a bit speechless because it literally changed my world view. The really shocking part is not just about how distorted things really are, but the fact that the public continues to be taught and fed the inaccurate version of the world. So if you knew about this already, good for you! If not, you just learned something today and hopefully you will teach your kids (or nephews and nieces) about it!