Admit it. We all have our favorite map of the world, where the place we call home is right in the center. When this world map is flipped or shifted to the left or right, everything seems… out of balance.
More than just a class feud, it’s a reflection of how cards can shaping our view and understanding of the world.
Last year, a group of researchers revealed their reimagined version of the planet in a double-sided map. It’s round, much like the Earth, but also flat like a pancake – in an effort to give us a less distorted view of the world.
“We offer a radically different type of card”, said Princeton University astrophysicist J. Richard Gott, who designed the new spread along with mathematician Robert Vanderbrei and physicist David Goldberg of Drexel University in Philadelphia.
The trio set out to make a flat map with as little error as possible after create a system to rate existing cards on how unbalanced or asymmetrical they are, and how many areas and distances on the maps have been distorted.
“We believe this is the most accurate flat map of Earth to date,” the researchers wrote when they published their methods on the arXiv prepublication website before peer review.
“Not every flat map of the sphere can be perfect, but ours does much better than previous maps at minimizing errors in local shapes, areas, bending, imbalance, distances, and boundary cuts,” Gott told ScienceAlert; he does improved on his last effort In the process.
With satellite technology, airborne lasers and melds of big data, scientists today are well equipped to map everything from carbon-breathing forests and shifting continents to the way humans have wreaked havoc on Earth.
But they’re still struggling with how to turn our Christmas bauble from a planet to a flat map. Because while we’d like maps to help us visualize the way things are, they also distort the world tremendously.
This is mathematically impossible to represent the surface of a sphere as a flat map without any form of distortion, cartographers must therefore use some mathematical tricks to faithfully represent some land features while sacrificing others.
Some world maps are designed to preserve the shape of countries (called Lambert conformal conic projections), while other maps—those globes that bulge at the equator—preserve area; these are Mollweide projections.
Overlaying hundreds of maps at once shows how distorted the world is when cartographers try to flatten the globe, like data scientist Michael Freeman of the University of Washington Information School, reveals in this interactive visualization:
Fun interactive tool from @mf_viz allows us to overlay hundreds of map projections at once. A great visual way to understand card distortion. The areas along the equator of course remain the same. Source: https://t.co/8VpoQPaU7j pic.twitter.com/jPeCnOOkEG
—Simon Kuestenmacher (@simongerman600) February 16, 2021
From the maps we already have, the best all-rounder is a compromise. Known as the Screening of Winkel Tripeland used by National geographic for his world maps, he minimizes distortion of area, direction and distance.
Although it’s still not perfect, as the Pacific Ocean is cut between Japan and California, which makes it appear much wider than it actually is.
More recently, American architect Buckminster Fuller and Japanese artist and architect Hajime Narukawa have both attempted to unveil the world in different ways. Others are just having fun spreading the Earth like an orange peel.
But this “radically different” map, a two-sided flat disc, was created using an entirely different approach.
“We’re basically crushing the globe, like we crushed it with a steamroller,” Gott told ScienceAlert.
It gives a more accurate representation of the world than existing flat maps, researchers say – by their own score.
“Our map actually looks more like the globe than other flat maps,” Gott said. “To see the whole globe, you have to rotate it; to see our entire new map, you just need to flip it.”
The northern and southern hemispheres can be placed on either side, with the equator around the edge, as you can see above.
“It’s a card you can hold in your hand,” said Gottwho feels that people might like to print it on plastic or cardboard, which might appeal to any avid hiker or tourist who knows full well that paper maps stretched out at arm’s length never quite fold up from the same way.
“We have continuity over the equator”, Gott keep explaining. “Africa and South America are draped over the edge, like a sheet on a clothesline, but they are continuous.”
This means that distances across oceans or across the poles are both precise and easy to measure, researchers saidso it could be a useful tool for teaching children about the world.
Even with its improvements, there are still some distortions with this disk map, but not as significant as with other projections. The areas at the edges are 1.57 times larger than at the center, and the distances can be around one-fifth.
“No one-sided flat card can do that,” Gott said.
Who knows if it will make a splash in the classroom or end up tucked away in a box like your old CD collection? But at the very least, this map puts a new spin on the term “Flat Earth.”
A version of this article originally appeared in February 2021.