Two “Literal” Ways of Looking at the World

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Submission from Garry Mogge

Around the world, in government facilities, on university campuses, in public school classrooms, perhaps even in the safety of your own home, a battle is being fought. This war has been waged for centuries, and yet it is often misunderstood. It is a fight that can divide families, pit brother against brother, and literally define the world we live in. It is a battle over the right to influence our outlook on society itself. I am speaking, of course, about the Mercator Projection vs. the Gall-Peters Projection.

In 1569, in an effort to simplify seafaring navigation and find a way to present the world in which we live in a way people might more easily understand, Gerardus Mercator created his famous map of the earth, the Mercator Projection. For hundreds of years Mercator’s projection was the standard map used by civilization. It depicts the latitudes and longitudes that crisscross our world as parallel lines, therefore allowing any landmass to be plotted on a simple grid and given coordinates corresponding its position on the globe. Despite its utility, the Mercator Projection is certainly not without flaws.

Looking at Gerardus Mercator’s depiction of the world, one is sure to notice a few things that may seem out of the ordinary. For example, the Antarctic continent is shown as bigger than any of the other continents, whereas, in real life, it is the second smallest of them all. Another disturbing feature is the comparative size of Greenland to Africa. The two landmasses appear the same size when shown together, but in reality this is not the case. In fact, Africa is about fourteen times bigger than Greenland. These distortions of reality are attributable to the effect the Mercator Projection has in grossly altering sizes as the land forms near both poles; a glaring misrepresentation of where we stand.

There are opponents of Mercator’s view of the world; many of the most adamant tend to support an alternative called the Gall-Peters Projection. By stretching the shape of the world’s landmasses, James Gall in the 1800s and again Arno Peters in 1974 were able to create a projection that does not misrepresent the size of any of the continents relative to each other. Proponents of the Gall-Peters argue that it depicts a more socially impartial view of world, while the Mercator promotes a more Eurocentric view by showing the northern hemisphere with more land area than it actually has.

The Gall-Peters Projection, despite promoting a more equal view of non-European societies, has flaws as well. A popular geography blog puts it this way, “Africa becomes the world’s largest piece of spaghetti and Greenland gets steamrolled into a giant Arctic pancake.” In order to get accurate dimensions in a lateral plane, the Gall-Peters projection must drastically alter the shape of the familiar landmasses. Land near the equator is stretched vertically and land at the poles is stretched horizontally. The result is almost unrecognizable.

Neither system is perfect, and there is much dispute over whether either should be used at all. Coalitions of prominent geographic institutions have called for a ban on all rectangular coordinate maps. In the past twenty years, amongst the ongoing controversy, other projections have surfaced. The National Geographic Society has officially adopted one such projection, my personal favorite, the Winkel Tripel Projection.

The Winkel Tripel Projection was designed by German cartographer Oswald Winkel in 1921. He meant his projection not to eliminate distortions of area, direction, or distance, but to minimize the effect of all three in total. Hence the name “Tripel” (German: a combination of three elements). After its adoption by National Geographic in 1998, the previously disregarded Winkel Tripel has seen a huge increase in popularity. In many classrooms across the United States, it is not uncommon to find examples of Winkel’s map, in one of its many variations. The Winkel family website explains, “While just about every point in a Winkel Tripel map suffers from a small amount of each possible type of distortion, just about no point in such a map suffers from major distortions of any kind.”

Oswald Winkel’s projection suffers from compression, shearing, and tearing. It is neither equivalent, conformal, equidistant, nor azimuthal (showing correct distances from a center point). Those flaws that it does have, it has in moderation, and the effect is a depiction that simply looks right. It’s not surprising that the Winkel Tripel has gained a following in recent years. Critics of the Mercator Projection can’t complain about any eurocentrism, and, unlike the Gall-Peters Projection, the continents seem to fit nicely into the grid of the Winkel Tripel, an effect enhanced by its curved east and west edges. It just feels right to see the world with a little curve.

When we really think about it, the way we choose to look at our planet can say a lot about the vision we have for the world around us. Although the idea of a perfect world is genuinely inspiring, like a globe, it isn’t exactly practical or easily achievable. Barring the possibility of a perfect globe, which way of seeing the world would you choose?  Do you feel that one way of living is right for your purposes and that all others are hopelessly flawed? If so, you might be a proponent of either the Mercator or the Gall-Peters projections. Would you rather that all sides give a little and meet in the middle for a satisfactory compromise? The Winkel Tripel may be the projection for you. Where some see two different ways of looking at the world, others see an opportunity for a middle ground. And, in the long run, the middle ground just looks better.