Mercator Misconceptions: Clever Map Shows the True Size of Countries
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Mercator Misconceptions: Clever Map Shows the True Size of Countries

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This Clever Map Shows the True Size of Countries

Maps are hugely important tools in our everyday life, whether it’s guiding our journeys from point A to B, or shaping our big picture perceptions about geopolitics and the environment.

For many people, the Earth as they know it is heavily informed by the Mercator projection—a tool used for nautical navigation that eventually became the world’s most widely recognized map.

Mercator’s Rise to the Top

With any map projection style, the big challenge lies in depicting a spherical object as a 2D graphic. There are various trade-offs with any map style, and those trade-offs can vary depending on how the map is meant to be used.

In 1569, the great cartographer, Gerardus Mercator, created a revolutionary new map based on a cylindrical projection. The new map was well-suited to nautical navigation since every line on the sphere is a constant course, or loxodrome.

Geographic Inflation

The vast majority of us aren’t using paper maps to chart our course across the ocean anymore, so critics of the Mercator projection argue that the continued use of this style of map gives users a warped sense of the true size of countries—particularly in the case of the African continent.

Mercator’s map inadvertently also pumps up the sizes of Europe and North America. Visually speaking, Canada and Russia appear to take up approximately 25% of the Earth’s surface, when in reality they occupy a mere 5%.

As the animated GIF below—created by Reddit user, neilrkaye – demonstrates, northern nations such as Canada and Russia have been artificially “pumped up” in the minds of many people around the world.

True size of countries animation Mercator

Greenland, which appears as a massive icy landmass in Mercator projection, shrinks way down. The continent of Africa takes a much more prominent position in this new, correctly-scaled map.

This visualization also highlights how distorted neighboring countries can look in Mercator projection. In the GIF above, Scandinavian countries no longer loom imposingly over their European neighbors, and Canada deflates to a size similar to the United States.

Despite inaccurate visual features—or perhaps because of them—the Mercator projection has achieved widespread adoption around the world. This includes in the classroom, where young minds are first learning about geography and forming opinions on the relationships between countries.

Getting Reacquainted with Globes

Google, whose map app is used by approximately 150 million people per month, took the bold step of using different projections for different purposes in 2018.

The Earth is depicted as a globe at further zoom levels, sidestepping map projection issues completely and displaying the world as it actually is: round. The result is a more accurate depiction of countries and landmasses.

At closer zoom levels, users are typically using maps for things like navigation, which the Mercator projection was designed for. The exact angles of roads and borders are preserved in this projection.

In the Right Direction

In a more globally connected world, geographic literacy is more important than ever. As people become more accustomed to equal area maps and seeing the Earth in its spherical form, misconceptions about the size of continents may become a thing of the past.

This post was first published in 2018. We have since updated it, adding in new content for 2021.

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Misc

A Logarithmic Map of the Entire Observable Universe

Scientists believe we’ve only discovered about 5% of the universe. Here’s a map of what we’ve found so far, visualized using a log scale.

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A Logarithmic Map of the Entire Observable Universe

Among the scientific community, it’s widely believed that so far humans have only discovered about 5% of the universe.

Yet, despite knowing about just a fraction of what’s out there, we’ve still managed to discover galaxies billions of light-years away from Earth.

This graphic by Pablo Carlos Budassi provides a logarithmic map of the entire known universe, using data by researchers at Princeton University and updated as of May 2022.

How Does the Map Work?

Before diving in, it’s worth touching on a few key details about the map.

First off, it’s important to note that the celestial objects shown on this map are not shown to scale. If it was made to scale with sizes relative to how we see them from Earth, nearly all of the objects would be miniscule dots (except the Moon, the Sun, and some nebulae and galaxies).

Secondly, each object’s distance from the Earth is measured on a logarithmic scale, which increases exponentially, in order to fit in all the data.

Within our Solar System, the map’s scale spans astronomical units (AU), roughly the distance from the Earth to the Sun. Beyond, it grows to measure millions of parsecs, with each one of those equal to 3.26 light-years, or 206,000 AU.

Exploring the Map

The map highlights a number of different celestial objects, including:

  • The Solar System
  • Comets and asteroids
  • Star systems and clusters
  • Nebulae
  • Galaxies, including the Milky Way
  • Galaxy clusters
  • Cosmic microwave background—radiation leftover from the Big Bang

Featured are some recently discovered objects, such as the most distant known galaxy to date, HD1. Scientists believe this newly-discovered galaxy was formed just ​​330 million years after the Big Bang, or roughly 8.4 billion years before Earth.

It also highlights some newly deployed spacecraft, including the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is NASA’s latest infrared telescope, and the Tiangong Space Station, which was made by China and launched in April 2021.

Why is it called the “Observable” Universe?

Humanity has been interested in space for thousands of years, and many scientists and researchers have dedicated their lives to furthering our collective knowledge about space and the universe.

Most people are familiar with Albert Einstein and his theory of relativity, which became a cornerstone of both physics and astronomy. Another well-known scientist was Edwin Hubble, whose findings of galaxies moving away from Earth is considered to be the first observation of the universe expanding.

But the massive logarithmic map above, and any observations from Earth or probes in space, are limited in nature. The universe is currently dated to be around 13.8 billion years old, and nothing in the universe can travel faster than the speed of light.

When accounting for the expansion of the universe and observed objects moving away from us, that means that the farthest we can “see” is currently calculated at around 47.7 billion light-years. And since light takes time to travel, much of what we’re observing actually happened many millions of years ago.

But our understanding of the universe is evolving constantly with new discoveries. What will we discover next?

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Technology

33 Problems With Media in One Chart

In this infographic, we catalog 33 problems with the social and mass media ecosystem.

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33 Problems With Media in One Chart

One of the hallmarks of democratic society is a healthy, free-flowing media ecosystem.

In times past, that media ecosystem would include various mass media outlets, from newspapers to cable TV networks. Today, the internet and social media platforms have greatly expanded the scope and reach of communication within society.

Of course, journalism plays a key role within that ecosystem. High quality journalism and the unprecedented transparency of social media keeps power structures in check—and sometimes, these forces can drive genuine societal change. Reporters bring us news from the front lines of conflict, and uncover hard truths through investigative journalism.

That said, these positive impacts are sometimes overshadowed by harmful practices and negative externalities occurring in the media ecosystem.

The graphic above is an attempt to catalog problems within the media ecosystem as a basis for discussion. Many of the problems are easy to understand once they’re identified. However, in some cases, there is an interplay between these issues that is worth digging into. Below are a few of those instances.

Editor’s note: For a full list of sources, please go to the end of this article. If we missed a problem, let us know!

Explicit Bias vs. Implicit Bias

Broadly speaking, bias in media breaks down into two types: explicit and implicit.

Publishers with explicit biases will overtly dictate the types of stories that are covered in their publications and control the framing of those stories. They usually have a political or ideological leaning, and these outlets will use narrative fallacies or false balance in an effort to push their own agenda.

Unintentional filtering or skewing of information is referred to as implicit bias, and this can manifest in a few different ways. For example, a publication may turn a blind eye to a topic or issue because it would paint an advertiser in a bad light. These are called no fly zones, and given the financial struggles of the news industry, these no fly zones are becoming increasingly treacherous territory.

Misinformation vs. Disinformation

Both of these terms imply that information being shared is not factually sound. The key difference is that misinformation is unintentional, and disinformation is deliberately created to deceive people.

Fake news stories, and concepts like deepfakes, fall into the latter category. We broke down the entire spectrum of fake news and how to spot it, in a previous infographic.

Simplify, Simplify

Mass media and social feeds are the ultimate Darwinistic scenario for ideas.

Through social media, stories are shared widely by many participants, and the most compelling framing usually wins out. More often than not, it’s the pithy, provocative posts that spread the furthest. This process strips context away from an idea, potentially warping its meaning.

Video clips shared on social platforms are a prime example of context stripping in action. An (often shocking) event occurs, and it generates a massive amount of discussion despite the complete lack of context.

This unintentionally encourages viewers to stereotype the persons in the video and bring our own preconceived ideas to the table to help fill in the gaps.

Members of the media are also looking for punchy story angles to capture attention and prove the point they’re making in an article. This can lead to cherrypicking facts and ideas. Cherrypicking is especially problematic because the facts are often correct, so they make sense at face value, however, they lack important context.

Simplified models of the world make for compelling narratives, like good-vs-evil, but situations are often far more complex than what meets the eye.

The News Media Squeeze

It’s no secret that journalism is facing lean times. Newsrooms are operating with much smaller teams and budgets, and one result is ‘churnalism’. This term refers to the practice of publishing articles directly from wire services and public relations releases.

Churnalism not only replaces more rigorous forms of reporting—but also acts as an avenue for advertising and propaganda that is harder to distinguish from the news.

The increased sense of urgency to drive revenue is causing other problems as well. High-quality content is increasingly being hidden behind paywalls.

The end result is a two-tiered system, with subscribers receiving thoughtful, high-quality news, and everyone else accessing shallow or sensationalized content. That everyone else isn’t just people with lower incomes, it also largely includes younger people. The average age of today’s paid news subscriber is 50 years old, raising questions about the future of the subscription business model.

For outlets that rely on advertising, desperate times have called for desperate measures. User experience has taken a backseat to ad impressions, with ad clutter (e.g. auto-play videos, pop-ups, and prompts) interrupting content at every turn. Meanwhile, in the background, third-party trackers are still watching your every digital move, despite all the privacy opt-in prompts.

How Can We Fix the Problems with Media?

With great influence comes great responsibility. There is no easy fix to the issues that plague news and social media. But the first step is identifying these issues, and talking about them.

The more media literate we collectively become, the better equipped we will be to reform these broken systems, and push for accuracy and transparency in the communication channels that bind society together.

Sources and further reading:

Veils of Distortion: How the News Media Warps our Minds by John Zada
Hate Inc. by Matt Taibbi
Manufacturing Consent by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky
The Truth Matters: A Citizen’s Guide to Separating Facts from Lies and Stopping Fake News in its Tracks by Bruce Bartlett
Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare by Thomas Rid
The Twittering Machine by Richard Seymour
After the Fact by Nathan Bomey
Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now by Jaron Lanier
Zucked by Roger McNamee
Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Highjacking of the American Conversation by Andrew Marantz
Social media is broken by Sara Brown
The U.S. Media’s Problems Are Much Bigger than Fake News and Filter Bubbles by Bharat N. Anand
What’s Wrong With the News? by FAIR
Is the Media Doomed? by Politico
The Implied Truth Effect by Gordon Pennycook, Adam Bear, Evan T. Collins, David G. Rand

 

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