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Author Topic: Why are maps the way they are?  (Read 4205 times)

Offline thedoc

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Why are maps the way they are?
« on: 13/01/2015 01:30:01 »
Ernest Johnstone asked the Naked Scientists:
   
If the early explorers had been in the Southern Hemisphere - ie Australia, South America or South Africa and not Europe/Asia would our maps have been drawn the other way around?

What do you think?
« Last Edit: 13/01/2015 01:30:01 by _system »


 

Offline Caleb

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Re: Why are maps the way they are?
« Reply #1 on: 13/01/2015 04:38:19 »
I am not sure about the answer, but I have heard it suggested that the reason why North is at the top, and South is at the bottom, is because of sundials. Seems to me that sundials would go clockwise in either Hemisphere, but I do not know.

Another factor may well be how people write--and that is, most people are right-handed (about 6/7), and that may have impacted how maps are made.

A very interesting focus! And one that science-writers should have a very nice article on.

Yours,

Caleb
 

Offline David Cooper

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Re: Why are maps the way they are?
« Reply #2 on: 13/01/2015 17:49:52 »
You're absolutely right on the sundial point - they go clockwise in both hemispheres, but they look as if they go the wrong way in the southern hemisphere because people stupidly look at them without realising they're standing upside down.
 

Offline cheryl j

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Re: Why are maps the way they are?
« Reply #3 on: 13/01/2015 18:13:56 »
Does the traditional orientation of maps have anything to do with finding latitude using the North star?
 

Offline alancalverd

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Re: Why are maps the way they are?
« Reply #4 on: 13/01/2015 22:14:22 »
Most of what we regard as formal navigation began in the northern hemisphere, with Greek geometry and Arab astronomy in the west, and the Chinese use of magnetic compasses in the east.

Native exploration of Australia, Inca travels across the south Pacific, and the colonisation of New Zealand, used quite different mapping and directionfinding techniques which did not translate easily to printed paper maps. The dominance of the Royal Navy led to the establishment of the Greenwich Meridian as the world origin of longitude and time (particularly after Harrison's chronometer made celestial navigation usefully accurate over long distances) and the closeness of Polaris to the magnetic north and the earth's spin axis pretty well closed the deal.     
 

Online evan_au

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Re: Why are maps the way they are?
« Reply #5 on: 16/01/2015 10:34:40 »
In Australia, you sometimes see a map of the world with Australia and New Zealand top & center (unlike Northern hemisphere maps which often have them in a bottom corner somewhere).

Many years ago, a school headmaster I know came to me, bothered because one of his teachers had placed such a map in a classroom. He was concerned that it was just "wrong", and might forever corrupt the students, preventing them from becoming useful members of society! (OK, I exaggerate...)

Anyway, I assured him that it was just a convention, and there is nothing fundamentally wrong with hanging your map upside-down.
 

Offline CliffordK

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Re: Why are maps the way they are?
« Reply #6 on: 16/01/2015 20:00:41 »
Does the traditional orientation of maps have anything to do with finding latitude using the North star?

I don't believe you can see the North Star from the south, so hopefully that isn't your only navigation cue.

The Polynesians were another seafaring southern culture with quite significant navigation, and in fact discovered the Hawaiian islands long before Captain Cook discovered them.  They used some kind of a stick chart for navigation quite unlike our modern maps.
 

Online evan_au

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Re: Why are maps the way they are?
« Reply #7 on: 17/01/2015 08:59:28 »
Psychologically, we see people who are taller to be more esteemed than those who are shorter - even the terms "higher class" or "upper class" and "lower class" reflect that height bias.

So it is natural that people would want to see their country as high as possible on the map.

Since the English-language world world had its origins in the Northern Hemisphere, it's not surprising that UK and Canada/USA are at the top of the map (and it's not surprising that some people from the Southern Hemisphere might prefer the opposite convention).

The same could be said for maritime explorers from Holland, France, Spain, Portugal and China.
 

Online evan_au

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Re: Why are maps the way they are?
« Reply #8 on: 17/01/2015 09:12:41 »
A different kind of map was produced for Muslim traders.

Because Islam required them to pray towards Mecca, they produced maps with Mecca at the center, providing an easy way to determine the direction to Mecca, without the distortions of angles that occur on our conventional maps like the Mercator projection.

You now can get many apps for your smartphone that perform the same function.
 

Offline alancalverd

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Re: Why are maps the way they are?
« Reply #9 on: 17/01/2015 09:17:58 »
Roman maps of Britain, some of which persisted in use into the Middle Ages, show north on the left.

I'm intrigued by the accuracy of Roman longdistance surveying: how did they choose the route for Hadrian's Wall? It's the narrowest part of the island, but this is a big island - you can't see the sea from the middle, even when the rain stops!   
 

Offline CliffordK

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Re: Why are maps the way they are?
« Reply #10 on: 17/01/2015 22:11:10 »
One may note that there are many things that we just take for granted, but weren't always the case.

The compass was invented sometime around 1000 AD. 

The "Round Earth" was probably invented and forgotten several times pre-Columbus.  The same would have been true of the geocentric vs heliocentric celestial interpretation (and now the galaxy and universe).

So, it wouldn't be unexpected to have different coordinate axes.  In fact, one might be tempted to orient the rising sun at the top of the map and the setting sun at the bottom of the map (or was it rising from the bottom and setting at the top).

Once you build a globe, and add a North and South pole, then one comes up with a grid (longitude/latitude). 

With the globe one may still have to choose up/down vs right/left for the main N/S axis.  However, consider mounting the globe on a pedestal.  If you can both spin it on the N/S axis, and walk around it, the only way to keep stability in the axis is to orient the spin axis vertically. 

One still has to orient N/S with the top or bottom.  It may be a coin toss. 

If one is looking down at a globe, then it is nice to put the "important stuff" at the top.  Sometimes I'll flip a globe if I'm looking at Southern Stuff.  In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if upside-down globes would be common in the South.

Hmmm, most of the upside-down globes I'm seeing on Google just have upside-down text.  Do the Australians also learn to read upside-down?  There are a few, though.  It would make a lot of sense for southern students (not that there is a lot of non-ocean stuff to see in the South)



It is also our convention to read/write left to right, top to bottom.

Some written languages reverse the right/left, and some write vertically, but I believe most or all of our languages write from top to bottom.
 

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Re: Why are maps the way they are?
« Reply #10 on: 17/01/2015 22:11:10 »

 

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