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Australia Most world maps show north at the top. But it doesn't have to be that way

00:21  02 august  2020
00:21  02 august  2020 Source:   abc.net.au

Most world maps show north at the top. But it doesn't have to be that way

  Most world maps show north at the top. But it doesn't have to be that way Why do most world maps depict north up top? And how does that tendency shape our perceptions of what is valuable or superior? Gary Nunn explains.While online meetings have many advantages, they also come with downsides: In my case, they strip back the privacy of my most personal of spaces — my bedroom —and expose the adornments on my wall to critique.

Why are almost all modern maps the same way up? Caroline Williams explores the intriguing history The uncomfortable truth is that despite almost everybody imagining that the world is this way up Early Islamic maps favoured south at the top because most of the early Muslim cultures were north

As well, as this, it seems the fact that our maps typically put north at the top is a mere convention but has been accepted as correct in most of the world . In 2005, Google Earth presented a world in which the area of most concern to the used could be at the centre, and which - with mapped content

The way we display world maps is steeped in the politics of tradition, nationalism, religion, race relations and a possible fixation with the northern hemisphere. (Pexels: Andrea Piacquadio) © Provided by ABC NEWS The way we display world maps is steeped in the politics of tradition, nationalism, religion, race relations and a possible fixation with the northern hemisphere. (Pexels: Andrea Piacquadio)

I gave a presentation recently over one of those Zoom group calls. When I asked for questions at the end, I was hit with an unexpected doozy: "Why is your world map upside down?"

While online meetings have many advantages, they also come with downsides: In my case, they strip back the privacy of my most personal of spaces — my bedroom —and expose the adornments on my wall to critique.

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The simple answer to the question was this: It isn't upside-down at all.

In a flip of convention, my giant, framed world map displays the southern hemisphere — Australia included — at the top. It's a twist, but not strictly speaking a distortion.

"Many people don't really think about the planet as a sphere moving in space where up or down are purely conventions," says Chandra Jayasuriya, a cartographer at the University of Melbourne.

"Look at the planet from different points in space and you'll see a different view of the Earth, with countries placed in a different order to what we see from a standard map."

That may seem obvious, but my 'upside-down' map confounds most people who see it. But of course it does: Even NASA has been known to flip photos of the Earth taken from space which depict south on top of the globe to avoid creating confusion.

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So where does 'north up' culture come from?

The way we display world maps is steeped in the politics of tradition, nationalism, religion, race relations and a possible fixation with the northern hemisphere.

An explanation on my own map reads:

"Traditional maps are drawn from the perspective of the first European explorers and cartographers — with the northern hemisphere at the top. We think it's time to break with tradition and show the world from the perspective of all those people living in the southern hemisphere. After all, there is no ancient geographical feature saying 'this way up'!"

The most common world map (the one you probably have on your wall) is called the Mercator map, named after Flemish cartographer Geradus Mercator. It was designed in 1569 for aiding marine navigation.

"It was never meant to show the sizes of countries accurately," says Dr Jayasuriya.

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There's so much more to the world than we can usually glean from a traditional map of a place. While not a real map in the sense that it doesn ’ t depict reality, this interesting shift illustrates what the world This almost painfully colorful map shows the world ’s countries with their respective flags

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Why, then, was north put on top? And is the world's north-up culture affecting our perception of what is valuable or superior?

The first thing to say is that it hasn't always been thus. East and south have previously been placed on top of the world map.

South on top was conventional in early Islamic maps to depict the Muslim cultures north of Mecca. Other maps had east on top because the sun rises there.

But sometime in the 12th century, when the compass was adopted for navigation in Europe, north on top became (and largely remained) a thing.

"The 'magnetic north' shown in the compass, and the understanding that the earth spins on an axis that points to the north, were the main factors that influenced the drawing of maps with the north on top," says Dr Jayasuriya.

In the 15th century, Europe became the centre of map-making, so the north on top convention was reinforced. It also marked a great European expansion of global navigation, hence Mercator's rise in popularity.

Which world map is most accurate?

But Mercator's map doesn't accurately depict how the world actually looks.

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You'll always get distortions when mapping a sphere onto a two-dimensional space and so no map is strictly accurate. However, the popular Mercator world map distorts shapes and sizes as you move away from the equator.

According to Dr Jayasuriya, Mercator's version is "extremely bad" for depicting the relative sizes of countries: "That's why Greenland, which is only about 1/14th the size of Africa, looks the same size as Africa," she says.

It also looks bigger than South America — a very misleading distortion, given South America is actually nine times larger.

A more accurate depiction is the Gall-Peters projection, which shows the equal and true areas of countries but includes some of the shape distortions involved in mapping a globe.

But the Gall-Peters version has also been shaped by politics. Professor Viv Forbes, a cartographer from the University of Western Australia, says it had wide coverage in the late 1960s.

"That was when social scientists and politicians jumped on the bandwagon of decrying the notions of 'developing and developed countries', 'the advantaged and disadvantaged persons', the 'north-south divide'," he says.

Many countries, such as the United States, place their nation at the centre of their world map projections. "It's a gimmick," Professor Forbes says. "They feel that a world map should have the Americas in the centre — namely, focused upon."

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Where does that leave Australia?

Joaquin Torres Garcia, an Uraguayan painter who wanted to make a political point about South America, came up with the rarer south-on-top projection in the early 20th century.

In 1979 the mantle of the south-on-top projection was taken up in Australia by Stuart McArthur, who wanted to confront "the perpetual onslaught of 'downunder' jokes — implications from northern nations that the height of a country's prestige is determined by its equivalent spatial location on a conventional map of the world".

Cartographers still refer to this as "McArthur's Universal Corrective Map of the World", although it has sold vastly fewer copies than its north-up predecessor.

Black Lives Matter and maps

A recent viral video called How Maps Teach Racism in School suggests the politics of map-making runs even deeper. It argues Mercator's projection is a distortion of importance and size "so all the countries in which there are predominantly white people are larger".

For cartographer Dr Jayasuriya, however, its allegations of school indoctrination and racism may be overstated. "I don't agree the Mercator projection was designed to belittle non-white people," she says.

"It's true that the Mercator projection shows some countries populated by whites seem larger than they are. But is that being racially insensitive? Not obviously so to me."She does agree, though, that maps for general use "should show country sizes more accurately so that relative sizes are not strongly distorted".

Perhaps we'll see sales of McArthur's world map, or the Gall-Peters world map climb over time.

Certainly, a move away from Mercator's marine navigation projection could be healthy, Dr Jayasuriya says: "Displaying maps differently helps people see the world from different perspectives."

Gary Nunn is a freelance journalist. Twitter: @garynunn1.


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