It's tough to represent a three-dimensional world in a two-dimensional map. The most common way of getting around this problem is to use a Mercator projection. This method of map-drawing, invented by Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator in 1569, found favor because it preserved local angular relationships, making navigation easier. However, it also massively distorts size and distances as you get closer to the two poles.
Given how popular the Mercator projection is, it's wise to question how it makes us view the world. Many have noted, for example, how the distortion around the poles makes Africa look smaller than Greenland, when in reality Africa is about 14.5 times as big. In 2010, graphic artist Kai Krause made a map to illustrate just how big the African continent is. He found that he was able to fit the United States, India and much of Europe inside the outline of the African continent.
Inspired by Krause's map, James Talmage, and Damon Maneice, two computer developers based out of Detroit, created an interactive graphic that really puts the distortion caused by the Mercator map into perspective. The tool, dubbed "The True Size" allows you to type in the name of any country and move the outline around to see how the scale of the country gets distorted the closer it gets to the poles.
Of course, one thing the map shows well is the sheer size of Africa. Here it is compared with the United States, China and India.
However, it's also very good for putting other things into perspective. Did you realize, for example, that Australia was pretty much the same size as Europe?
While the map was first created in 2013, it's recently enjoyed a surge in social media attention. On Twitter, users have begun to share other things they found surprising:
— Dhruva Jaishankar (@d_jaishankar) August 17, 2015
— Clarke Thomas (@needcaffeine) August 17, 2015
— Esmit Pérez (@esmitperez) August 17, 2015
— Katie Putz (@LadyPutz) August 17, 2015
— AJ, but online (@ajchavar) August 17, 2015
— Ishaan Tharoor (@ishaantharoor) August 17, 2015
— Jeff M. Smith (@Cold_Peace_) August 17, 2015
"We hope teachers will use this in their classrooms as a fun way to help students understand just how big the world is," James Talmage, one of the creators of the map, explains in an e-mail. "Even though I have known about this phenomenon for years, I still find it surprising every time I play with the map. It's just shocking to see how small my home state of Michigan gets when I drag it to the equator."
Make sure you try out map yourself at the at TheTrueSize.com.
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Correction: The language of the post has been altered to say that Australia is roughly the same size, rather than larger, than Europe.