Size Matters

by David Hollander MFA ’97

Cartographers devising world maps must distort something in order to depict our spherical earth in two dimensions. The map displayed in your grade-school social studies class was most likely the Mercator projection, originally devised as a navigational tool for seafarers. On the Mercator, land masses are increasingly distorted (and enlarged) the farther they are from the equator—which is why Greenland appears about the size of Africa despite being 14 times smaller.

Twentieth-century cartographer Arno Peters insisted that all maps demonstrate political biases. The Mercator, he argued, diminishes—both physically and psychologically—the underdeveloped nations near the equator, while inflating Europe’s size and significance. In 1974, he created an alternative: the Peters projection, which keeps the relative proportions of land masses intact but warps their shapes.

History faculty member Priscilla Murolo ’80 thinks this is an instructive tradeoff. “You can see why problems of world food security depend so much on the global south,” she says. “Look at all that land mass!” Still, if you’re sailing around the world, bring your Mercator; the Peters map’s coastlines are notoriously inaccurate.