Most maps distort the true size of the world’s countries because of the inherent geometric problems of transcribing curved areas from a globe (Earth) to a flat piece of paper (a map). Most notorious, of course, is the Mercator projection, which exaggerates the size of high latitude northern hemisphere countries like Russia, Greenland, and Canada while fairly accurately depicting the middle latitudes. Although the Mercator projection served well its historical purposes of guiding sailing ships across the world’s oceans, unfortunately Mercator maps still appears in public places (like school textbooks and the evening TV news), thus misleading people with an errant sense of our world’s continents and countries. But those projection distortions are covered elsewhere and are not really the topic of this post.
Instead, the focus is on a recent blogosphere conversation comparing the size of Africa to other large countries by using a jigsaw puzzle approach that fits the shape and size of numerous countries into an outline of Africa. Kai Krause, a computer graphics guy started it with his map where you see, first, Africa’s size compared to other large countries like China, India, Europe, and the United States, then, second, all of these countries (plus a few more) stuffed inside of Africa. The point, I assume, is that Africa’s size is so big that it could devour a handful of other countries. Ok, that’s cool.
The only trouble is that an unknown cartographer for the The Economist called Krause on the carpet for using the shapes and sizes of various countries as depicted on a Mercator projection map. Oh dear. So the Economist cartographer redrew the map using more accurate county size and shapes from a Gall’s Stereographic Cylindrical Projection. Details on how that was done are found here. So that’s also cool, right?
Except, frankly, I’m not sure how to process this information except to agree that Africa’s indeed a big, big continent. But after driving across the United States innumerable times, I KNOW the US is also a very big country; much bigger, in fact, when I have to drive it alone without company. And after flying from San Francisco to Europe hundreds of times, I also know that the distance between the West Coast and Frankfurt or Paris is also HUGE. Furthermore, having frequently driven all over Europe I know Europe was much, much larger back in 1962 when I drove my $200 1951 VW bug on the backroads of the Balkans than it was last year when I screamed down the autobahn from Berlin to Munich in a Hertz rental Land Rover at an outrageous rate of speed.
As for Africa, I’ve only been there once, up in the north where Morocco seemed rather large at the time because I was constantly dodging donkeys that wandered on to the highway. Later in the week, though, Morocco got even larger one afternoon while exploring the Sahara’s northern fringe when the Hertz rental car developed a terrible cough and threatened to expire 100 kilometers from the nearest settlement or human being. Talk about HUGE countries.