Do you remember those large flat maps of the world that were used in school? The maps that would be on rollers and usually at the front or side of the classroom, and the teacher would pull them down to discuss geography? It is a found memory of mine. I can remember in 4th grade that the map did not quite work. When the teacher would pull it down and start the talk the map roller would hold for a few minutes and invariable it would release and flip back up. It was a constant source of amusement of the students, and frustration for the teacher.
The thing is those maps suffered from a particular issue, called distortion. To save the long explanation (there are literally hundreds of scientific papers on this issues) I will try to explain it as best I can. The phenomenon occurs because the world of course is round, but the map is flat. In drawing the map, the map maker can only place one part of the world in exact proportion. That is the equator. Everything else on those maps is distorted and the further one gets form the equator the more the distortion (Brainerd & Pang, 2001).
The thing is it is up the cartographer to place the distortion where they think it makes sense (Brainerd & Pang, 2001). There is no ‘standard’ way of dealing with the curvature. Throughout history different methods have been used to accommodate the distortion. Brainerd and Pang show at least 3 methods and those are only the scientifically acceptable methods (2001). Surely there are many unscientific methods that have been used over the years.
So what are the practical implications of this distortion? The maps pose little issue in the southern hemisphere. Typically cartographers will place that distortion in three places. Of course the oceans get bigger, New Zealand is usually enlarged and the largest land mass dissertation is usually in Australia. In proportion Australia is often represented as much as 10% more than it actually occupies.
The Northern Hemisphere is a different story. If you think of it the majority of land mass in the world is in the northern hemisphere. I looked for statistics but I was unable to find the percentage of land mass north of the equator verses south of the equator. Anyway, what happens is that politics start to enter into the issue of distortion.
Imagine the cold war years and the implications of applying the distortion to the Soviet Union (USSR). In essence the USSR would dwarf other parts of the world. That is what happened in the USSR. If you were a student in In north America the distortion was likely added to Canada and the United States (US).
So why do that? Well it sends a statement of security. Look 4th graders no need to worry about nuclear war heads we are a big country. See the map? Sure the USSR might be bigger, but look how close the US to their size. Look children see how big Canada is in comparison to the rest of the world? If you think of it long enough, you can see the political, and yes even practical reasons to do this. For instance suppose children are in a class studying the state names and capitals. You have a practical reason to have the US look bigger. More map space equals more map detail etc. However, the underlying perception is of a bigger or smaller land mass, depending on the country of origin of the map. Poor kids in Haiti get to see a big bold US. Poor kids in Cuba see a massive USSR.
Once you know these facts you cannot really look at maps the same way again. I bet next time you see one, perhaps in your child’s room you will look for the distortion. Since learning this fact I always look. I also remember that the map makers could have placed the distortion in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, but they almost never do. It is really sort of a cool obscure piece of information.
This makes me think of diabetes of course. Most of us live a distorted life. For instance, I am and always have been highly protective of my feet. I work hard to never get cuts or scrapes etc. Well one summer, my office all chipped in to help clean up a local river. It had metal and trash and limbs and all manner of junk everywhere. It was a noble cause. Well the boss, I was a mid-level manager, decided to make it a team building activity. He required all of the office under 40 to participate. It scared me to death. I could imagine cuts or scrapes on a rusty piece of metal, polluted water and the resultant infection. So I went to him and said I can’t because of my feet. He looked at my feet and said they look pretty good and I expect you with us at this time and place. Well I needed the job, so I attended. Turns out I was fine, but my activities that day distorted the fact that as a diabetic I had no business in that water doing that activity.
I also find that we tend to distort our own self-reliance. I do not usually want to tell some people I may need help. For instance on a business trip, I might find a way to slip away to take insulin or cover a low. My actions were a distortion of my true issues.
I bet if you have been diabetic for a while you have done the same from time to time. That is just a guess, but I bet it has happened occasionally. Now there may be perfectly good reasons to distort the truth. I am not to judge, or say this was fine that is not. But that is one of the reasons for a diabetic awareness month. November happens to be that month and one goal of the month is to educate people about diabetes. Sure most people will never get it. They will blissfully pass along with the knowledge that eating too much candy causes diabetes or whatever they believe. But November is our month to erase some of the distortions. I hope you can use it at least once. Because distortions are exposed and understood one at a time, no distortion is erased in one big swoop. It takes years and one on one education. Use November to help remove some of the diabetic distortion.
Brainerd, Jeffrey, & Pang, Alex. (2001). Interactive map projections and distortion. Computers & geosciences, 27(3), 299-314.