What do maps of the world, caricatures and Donald Trump all have in common? They all distort the truth; Trump achieves this with the careful use of language, while caricatures and maps succeed in their deception by visual means (although the same might apply to Trump’s toupee). As with caricatures, where the head is grossly enlarged, world maps also experience a distortion in their true dimensions.
In 1596, Gerardus Mercator created his universally recognisable map of the world via the Mercator projection. This was particularly useful for marine navigation as it allowed a curved course (due to the curvature of the Earth) to be depicted as a straight line. Consequentially, however, the size of a landmass would increase exponentially with increasing distance from the equator. For example, when comparing Africa and Greenland, they appear to be of similar size; yet, Africa is approximately fourteen times larger. In fact, India, North America and China can all comfortably fit within Africa. The distortion, however, was not carried out for overtly political reasons but as a matter of necessity when representing a three dimensional image on a two dimensional rectangle. There have been hundreds of attempts to try and remedy this with Goode, Armadillo and Robinson’s map projections. Mercator’s distortion, however, is worst than most, making Europe appear much larger than it actually is. As a result it has been accused of Eurocentricity (although the penguins further north benefit most). If it were a caricature, Europe would be equivalent to the galactically proportioned head of David Cameron and Great Britain would be his forehead.
While this has an array of social, political and geo-political implications, particularly for the politically correct, for the purpose of our cycle I am more interested in itsdirect effects on our perceptions of size and scale. It is with a feeling somewhere between glee and dread that I can announce we are cycling further than it appears on ‘the map’, although the actual distance has regrettably not been shrunk. Our crossing of Mongolia will likely take longer than the two seconds that I spend traversing the country with my finger. If maps are now ‘your thing’ have a look at the The True Size website (link) which allows you to move individual countries to see their ‘correct size’ based on the Mercator projection. I was stunned to see how much larger China appeared to be if you mounted it on top of Russia. Viewing the more modern Peters Map (link); you are presented with a much more accurate indicator of the scale of different countries relative to one another. Indeed, this map is becoming increasingly used.
It is to some extent irrelevant whether you use Mercator’s, Peter’s or any other of the vast array of maps. Whether every inch of Eurasian heartland is accurately represented is essentially meaningless. Distance is distance and a truer understanding of shape, size and scale will come from, I believe, travelling and, at times, enduring the slow miles along our journey. Yet, for those who have cycled down the lengths of Africa and South America the scale of their undertaking has not been properly acknowledged by the most ubiquitous map. Those in Europe however receive less of my sympathy.