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Maps Give Glimpse Of How The World Really Looks

Nov 22, 2008 (All Things Considered)

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The world is not flat.

You knew that — but if you believe most maps of the world, we live on a neat, flat rectangle. Greenland? Huge. South America? Average.

None of that is true, of course. It's the consequence of mapping a spherical globe onto a flat plane, and it's also a classic example of the way maps can be misleading.

"Maps can be misleading, absolutely," says Mark Newman of the University of Michigan, who is a co-author of the book The Atlas of the Real World: Mapping the Way We Live. "Your standard map of the world makes the North Pole look huge and the equator look very small. And we just accept it the way it is."

Newman is perhaps best known for his electoral maps. Traditionally, the view is a virtual sea of red through the middle of the country, flanked by blue coasts. Looking at big red Montana, one may think it has much more influence than little blue New York - a third of Montana's size.

The reality is that New York has more than 10 times the number of electoral votes, because its population is so much bigger.

"If you just counted the amount of color, you might think the Republican Party won by a landslide," Newman tells NPR's Andrea Seabrook. "The way we do it is we change the sizes of the states to represent how many people are living in each one."

On Newman's map, New York is 10 times the size of Montana. "If you do that, you get a map where you can really tell instantly by looking at it which party won, because whichever one has more of their color is the one that won the election."

Newman's new book takes this concept and applies it to the entire globe. On a map of car exports per capita, for example, Japan becomes gigantic — bigger than most continents — by virtue of its vast numbers of automobile exports.

Readers also can view a series of maps of world population estimates from the year 1 all the way to 2300. The countries grow or shrink over time depending on what parts of the globe are population hot spots.

"The point is that there are many more things about understanding what the world is about than merely how many acres there are in a country," Newman says. "There are many other things that are important from a human perspective."

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