Who knew maps could be mind-blowing?

Portraying an entire three-dimensional object in only two dimensions leads to unavoidable distortions. Any gamer that has created custom skins for a mod knows this. What blew my mind was learning about different world map “projections” and just how skewed our perceptions can be.

world-map

Above is the first image that came up when I did a Google image search for “world map”. Looks pretty standard, right? This version is based on the Mercator projection, which basically just takes the longitudinal lines and reshapes them from a globe to a grid. The problem is it creates extreme distortion at the poles.

Mercator_projection_SW

See how big Greenland is? Or Canada? In reality, Africa is 14 times larger than Greenland, Mexico is larger than Alaska, South America has almost twice the land mass of Europe, and every nation in the northern hemisphere is skewed down toward the center of the image. If the horizontal grid lines were redrawn proportionately to show land mass in scale, the resulting map looks like this:

1280px-Gall–Peters_projection_SW

The problem stems from conical sections of a globe being forced into grid representation on paper. From a Wikipedia entry on cylindrical map projection, “The poles accrue infinite distortion, becoming lines instead of points.” This happens with all 2-D representations, but how often do we really think about it? How distorted is the map on a game of Risk?

The majority of us are grossly mistaken about the relative size and even location of land masses. Isn’t that crazy?

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