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A Flat World

July 11, 2012

Yesterday I was trying to decide which projection of the world would look best on my mantle-piece.  I want it to be as ostentatious as possible but also useful for plotting expeditions or voyages of conquest.  Here are the options.

The Equirectangular Projection

Type: JUST LAY IT FLAT
First Published: Ptolemy says it was Marinus of Tyre in 100 CE who came up with the concept, I say it was Duh in 99 CE, too bad they’re both dead and I’m not.
Pro’s:  The points on this map are plotted one for one from the globe.  Latitude and longitude are x and y.  Clean and easy.  And it’s a rectangle so it looks good in a frame.
Con’s: Everything’s distorted.  The continents don’t take up the right area and their shapes are all messed up.  I can’t use that to plot my navigation, come on.
Verdict: NEXT.

The Mercator Projection

Type: Cylinder
First Published: 1596 CE by Gerardus Mercator, who has the best name for a mapmaker.
Pro’s: This is the Earth the way I’m used to seeing it, with Greenland bigger than Africa.  Screw Africa.  Angles aren’t distorted if you’re looking at shapes locally, meridians and parallels are all straight lines, and it’s a rectangle.  I can use this map to sail in straight lines if I want to.  Things are looking good.
Con’s: It has to be cut off at the top and bottom because otherwise the map expands to infinity.  This is why we’ve never located the North Pole.
Verdict: I think we already have a winner, BUT WAIT–

The Transverse Mercator Projection

Type: Cylinder??
First Published:  1772 CE by Johann Heinrich Lambert.
Pro’s: OH MY GOD.  What is this?  This thing is made the same way as the normal Mercator, just with the cylinder’s axis going east-west instead of north-south?  But I hate it and it’s scary.  I don’t care if angles are preserved locally, it’s a monster.
Con’s: Not only is it distorted, it makes it clear how awful the normal Mercator really is.
Verdict: Oh, I was wrong to give my heart to that Mercator.  NEXT.

The Gall-Peters Projection

Type: Cylindrical Equal-Area?  The wordiness of this map already fits my first requirement for mantle-hood.
First Published: James Gall in 1885 CE, then “invented” by Arno Peters in 1973 CE.
Pro’s: So much drama.  Peters claimed to have made the perfect solution to the over-used Mercator, which cartographers had been trying to dethrone for centuries.  He said his map didn’t distort angles, was a first in being equal-area, and totally preserved distances.  He was then plainly refuted by the entire map-making community.  All of his claims are bogus.  Also, Peters wasn’t even the first to come up with it – Gall published this map in 1885 but it got no press.  Unfortunately, Peters got a lot of press, so the argument went on for a decade or so.  That argument brought the unavoidable inaccuracies of map-making into the public eye in the 80’s, leading to the adoption of lots of other map projections by lots of people.  It’s a good talk piece.
Con’s: It’s ugly.
Verdict: NEXT.  Let’s try something that isn’t a rectangle.

The Mollweide Projection

Type: Pseudocylindrical
First Published: 1805 CE by Karl Brandon Mollweide.  Also known as the Homalographic projection, which means equal area.
Pro’s: It is equal area everywhere and it looks pretty.  The 90 degrees east and west longitudes form a circle.  Who doesn’t love circles?
Con’s: Shapes are pretty messed up, especially in the USA and Australia, and that’s where I live and want to visit except it’s dangerous there.
Verdict: Meh.  NEXT.

The Sinusoidal Projection

Type: Pseudocylindrical
First Published:  1570 CE by Jean Cossin of Dieppe.
Pro’s: “The length of each latitude is proportional to the cosine of the latitude, just like on the globe!”
Con’s: Too mathy.  I want ostentatious, not pedantic.
Verdict: NEXT’d.

The Azimuthal Equidistant Projection

Type: Azimuthal
First Published: Abu Rayhan al-Biruni had the idea for the projection in the 11th Century CE.  It was used for star maps back then.
Pro’s: Even though the shapes get distorted the further you get from the center, the distances along the longitude lines are accurate.
Con’s: It’s the emblem of the United Nations.  They’re cool and all, but it’s not like I want to marry them.  Also, I’m surprised by how crappy the UN’s website is.
Verdict: NEXT.

The Albers Projection

Type: Conical
First Published:  1805 CE by Heinrich Albers.
Pro’s: The projection is constructed by fitting a cone over the globe.  The area where the cone touches the globe (between the two “standard parallels”) isn’t very distorted at all.
Con’s: But everywhere else is, and I could draw this map with a lampshade and an Earth lamp.
Verdict: NEXTORAMA.

The Goode Homolosine Projection

Type: Pseudocylindrical
First Published: 1923 CE by John Paul Goode, the third John of the list.
Pro’s: It’s a combination of the Sinusoidal Projection and the Mollweide Projection, so it’s the best of both worlds kind of.  It also reminds me of delicious tangerines.
Con’s: Overplayed in the 60’s.
Verdict: If only I had the shag rug and orange wall paper to go with it.  But I like where this is going with cutting up the map instead of making it continuous.  NEXT.

The Butterfly Projection

Type: Polyhedral
First Published: 1909 CE by Bernard J.S. Cahill.
Pro’s: It looks nice.  Cahill was an architect, and he wanted to make a map that could elegantly capture the globe’s beauty in two dimensions.  His solution was this eight-piece butterfly.  The shapes have a minimum of distortion, and the pieces of the map can be moved around to refocus the map however you want.  Not much good for navigation, but it’s pretty.
Con’s: Can’t think of any.  This is a really solid piece of work.
Verdict: YES!WAIT– crap, they’re all out of them at the store.  Looks like there aren’t any modern versions of it.  I guess like most important things in life I’ll just have to settle for what’s available.  With a heavy heart I say, NEXT.

The Dymaxion Projection

Type: Polyhedral
First Published: 1943 CE by Buckminster Fuller.
Pro’s: Land-masses are connected like a big island and it doesn’t look half bad.  This map is made by projecting the globe onto an icosahedron and unfolding it.  The icosahedron is one of my top five favorite Platonic solids.  Also, the name sounds like “To the max-ion!”
Con’s: Fuller intended it not to have North as up, or for there not to be an up at all, as a hippy statement about the nature of the universe.  But how will the continent’s know where to stand to keep from falling off the Earth?  Also, Dymaxion isn’t a real word, it’s Fuller’s brand name.  It’s is a portmanteau of dynamic, maximum, and ion.  Those don’t even come from the same language roots.  This map tries to be like my beloved Butterfly, but Dymaxion doesn’t hold a candle to it.  And don’t actually hold a candle to a butterfly because it’d probably fly in and burn up.  Colorful, but still, you shouldn’t abuse animals like that.
Verdict: I appreciate this the same way I appreciate geodesic domes, which is by not living in them or near them.  NEXT.

Darn, that’s it for the ones I found.  In lieu of a lame punchline like getting a globe-shaped liquor cabinet, I’ll just have to wait for someone to colorize and publish Cahill’s map.  This guy might get around to it pretty soon (he’s where I got the Cahill illustration on this page too).  I’ll keep you posted.

PS There are tons of other map projections that I didn’t have time to feature, check them out at your leisure.  Some of the best:
The Star Wars Projection
The Heart Projection
The Cap Projection
The Tripping Balls Projection
The Fisheye Projection
The Hammer Projection

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