Nothing’s Where You Think It Is

The Mercator Projection

The Mercator Projection

If you read a lot of fantasy, you know how important the map can be. From Middle Earth to Westeros, maps do a great job of setting the scene. Of course, it helps that there’s no need to translate the map from a sphere to a rectangle.

(Yes, that was my flimsy attempt to segue from my interest in fantasy to my interest in this topic.)

One of my favorite West Wing episodes features the Organization of Cartographers for Social Equality (OCSE), which wants the US to replace the Mercator projection (the map you’re used to seeing in textbooks and the news) with the Gall-Peters projection.

The Gall-Peters Projection

The Gall-Peters Projection

CJ: What the hell is that?
OCSE rep: It’s where you’ve been living this whole time.

As you can see, that’s a huge difference, especially in the northern hemisphere. In order to preserve straight longitudinal lines for navigation purposes, the Mercator projection distorts regions near the poles. Here’s a short article and video explaining the why and how of this distortion. For one example, see how Greenland seems to be the same size as Africa? It’s actually 14 times smaller.

But wait, you say. What does any of this have to do with social equality? Well, the OCSE also argues that the Mercator projection emphasizes the first world in the northern hemisphere over the third world in the southern. Their solution? Flip the map.

The OCSE's recommendation

The OCSE’s recommendation

CJ: But you can’t do that.
OCSE rep: Why not?
CJ: Because it’s freaking me out.

Yeah, it freaks me out too, CJ. I love that the OCSE thinks outside the box on this one, but it’d be so weird to implement after centuries of putting the northern hemisphere on the top. Let’s just switch to the Gall-Peters projection and call it a win!


Jennifer A. Johnson is a newly published fantasy writer thanks to The Adventure of Creation anthology. She's still revising her first novel, but you can sign up for her free newsletter to pass the time.