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New Ways to Look at the World
on November 25, 2008
Among the biggest problems in making an accurate map of the globe is that a sphere can never be a plane. If you take a globe and try to flatten it, you are certain to stretch or tear parts of it. Cartographers get around this problem in many ways. Some flat maps of the Earth show all the land masses and countries in the right shape, but they distort the size. Some maps show all the sizes proportional, but distort the shapes. "Since the sizes and shapes of countries are inevitably distorted by map projections, why not make the most of it?" This is the question asked by Daniel Dorling, Mark Newman, and Anna Barford[...]and who have now brought out an impressive book of novel maps, _The Atlas of the Real World: Mapping the Way We Live_ (Thames and Hudson). You might have seen maps similar to these before, usually devoted to populations. The shapes of the continents and countries are distorted in a population map so that a country that has a hundred million people is twice as large as a country that has fifty million people. The map might look funny - it isn't one that a navigator could ever use, but it serves a different purpose from traditional maps. It's not too distorted; after all, lands that are big in acreage are usually big in population, but it is easy to see on such a map (and of course the authors offer one) that for instance India is greatly swollen, while Russia is reduced nearly to a thin horizontal line.
If you can distort the globe for the purpose of showing population concentrations, why not distort it to show, say, exports of toys, or imports of toys? Those maps are here, too. There are 366 colorful maps in this big, glossy, handsome, and thought-provoking book. Some of the distortions are mild, some are so extreme as to look more like Jupiter than Earth. The authors have designed the book beautifully to promote an understanding of its graphics. There is one map on every page, each map made to the same scale as all the others. Every country has the same color on each map, and to make it easier to find them, and to see geographical patterns, the countries are grouped into twelve regions, each with its own color (the nations within are shades of that color). Every map has a commentary and a table to indicate in numbers some of the data that are displayed graphically. Maps that are related are grouped together in chapters, and some maps come in pairs on opposite pages. The toy export map, for instance, faces the toy import map. The export map shows an enormous China and Taiwan, and a surprisingly large Hungary, Italy, and Mexico. The US is shrunk to nothing. It is, however, swollen on the import map, as is England and other parts of Europe. Africa, which shows up exaggeratedly large or exaggeratedly small in many of these pages, is a pinpoint for export and a small blob (mostly South Africa) for import. Looking at toys this way is not frivolous; the comments remind us that since toys are not necessities, the import map is a fair display of disposable income. Other maps show female domestic labor, deaths from rabies, demonstrations against the war in Iraq, newspaper circulation, use of radios, housing prices, HIV rates, refugee origins and destinations, nuclear weapons, fuel consumption, train use, child obesity, and plenty more. There are worrisome maps about what is happening to forests or birds or amphibians. There is some hopefulness in the way the world has improved access to electricity or to the internet.
There is a profound lesson in the data displayed this way. "In a sense," the authors say, "these maps are doing just what maps have always done: showing us where we are now, allowing us to navigate our way through the world." The maps may have funhouse-mirror images of countries, but they show real links and interrelatedness. Some of the themes in the maps may be disturbing, but the volume itself reflects our increased ability, largely through computers and the internet, to gain and use statistics from all over the Earth about all sorts of subjects. It is thus a beautiful and awe-inspiring document of new ways of understanding, and it is one of the most visually fascinating books ever.