Science Faction: The World Does Not Look The Way You Think It Does...

I am a science fiction writer but I have always been interested in science in general. I find Chemistry a bit dry but both Biology and Physics both stir the imagination. Here on Rob Sanders Speculative Fiction, both Science Fiction and Science Fact meet in the monstrous hybrid that is ‘Science-Faction’! Up today: the recent discovery of planet Kepler 22-b. The exciting thing about Kepler 22-b is that although huge it is an Earth-like planet recently discovered by astronomers in another solar system. Kepler’s sun is remarkably like our own and the planet itself occurs in a habitable zone, at a distance from its sun that would allow life as we know it to exist there. At this distance, liquid water might also be able to exist on the planet’s surface.

People have always been interested in the search for new worlds and new life. With new technological advances, the discovery of these Earth-like planets becomes a more frequent event. It’s not just the hardware: we are increasingly aware of what we’re looking for. Even before these advances, interest in such worlds was hot. Science Fiction writers explored worlds like these in their work feeding a hunger for detail and adventures in such environments among readers. I’m very happy to be part of that tradition, as both writer and reader.

Looking at artistic renderings of far off worlds reminds me of our own fair planet. Most people have a good idea how our home planet appears, either as the blue marble spinning through space or represented on a map. The world does not necessarily look the way you think it does, however. Here are three revealing and disturbing ways in which the Earth can be viewed differently.

1. The Map You Know And Love Is Simply Wrong

The maps in atlases, on children’s bedroom walls and in classrooms is well known and understood by the general populous to be a fair representation of the globe in pictorial form. This is called the Mercator Projection and although being very common, presents us with a problem. The shapes, and crucially, the sizes of features of the Earth’s layout are distorted. On the Mercator map, the areas furthest from the equator are exaggerated. This means that the world does not in fact look like you think it does when looking at the map. For example, on the Mercator, Greenland looks almost as big as Africa when in fact Africa is 14 times larger than Greenland. Alaska is almost as large as Brazil on the Mercator Projection map when actually Brazil is 5 times larger than Alaska. The issue with this - apart from what you have been taught and shown just being wrong – is that such pictorial distortion also distorts the way people view the world. People equate size with power and importance and the Mercator Projection map makes continents dominated by Western, First World countries like North America and Europe appear larger than they are. Continents dominated by Third World countries like South America and Africa conversely look smaller than they actually are. In terms of my own country, the British Isles looks a respectably large island on the Mercator but in actual fact is pretty tiny. There isn’t a map that’s been drawn that doesn’t have some issues with representation, but for a different view of the world, with continents and countries resisting this distortion and shown relative to their true sizes, you might want to check out the Gall-Peters projection map. It appears weird but the truth often does.

2. The Map You Know and Love Is Simply Upside Down

Maps likes the Mercator and even the Gall-Peters Projection universally represent the world from North to South. This makes sense to most people since they equate North with up on a map and the North Pole at the top of the planet. What’s the problem with that? The problem is that there is no up or down in space. There is no North or South. North and South are labels we give to specific orientations. What is up or down, in respect to the planet as a whole, as viewed from space, is completely open to interpretation. Maps, however, tend to put North America and Europe at the top and South America and Africa at the bottom. This is no accident. Once again, people equate power and importance with being at the top and disadvantage and unimportance with being on the bottom. The rather arbitrary view of the planet in this way continues to reinforce prejudices that exist towards countries and peoples in these positioned locations. Viewing a reversed map can be unsettling but perfectly natural. In fact, the famous ‘Blue Marble’ photograph of the Earth taken by Apollo 17 and reproduced in thousands of books, did not originally look the way it did. There is no up or down in space. When the astronauts took the picture, the Southern Hemisphere was at the top and the Northern Hemisphere at the bottom. NASA reversed the photograph so it conformed with expectations of the globe in relation to its representation on maps. It seems up really can be down and down can be up.

3. How The Hell Do You Really Know What The World Looks Like?
Really. How can you KNOW? Pictures, maps and diagrams can be doctored and changed for even the most innocuous of reasons. Are you an astronaut? Have you been up there and had a look? We place a great deal of trust in representations that reduce complexities down to easy to understand pictures and schematics. People honestly believed that the world was flat until enough of them (from whichever direction they were travelling) struck out across the horizon. Surely it would be naive to believe that we have come to understand everything about our planet – even the way it really looks. Forget the ‘Blue Marble’ and NASA’s up-close misrepresentation and tampering. Probably the most unsettling representation of the Earth – and to bring us full circle – is this photograph of the Earth transmitted back from Voyager 1. The Voyager probe was launched in 1977 and is now passing through the outer reaches of our solar system at a distance of over six billion kilometres (which is still microscopic in galactic terms). That’s how the world looks - a tiny blue dot, totally alone in the darkness of deep space.


GMort. said...

Very cut out this educational stuff and start writing me a follow-up to Atlas Infernal ;-)

If you could somehow include a lot of Joaqhuine in it that would also be wonderful.....

Anonymous said...

Nice article, Rob!

It's also interesting to note that different nations present different projections on their world maps, particularly in schools and one the news. Russia, for example, has one where Russia and central asia take centre stage, with Europe and America very much at the periphery. Likewise in Japan, where the Japanese archipelago sits at the centre of the world map, with Europe on the extreme left, America on the extreme right, and little at all about the Atlantic Ocean.

Politics indeeds shapes our view of the globe as well as the world. :-)


It is pretty world-shaking for people. They really do think of their own countries as a natural centre of the globe. It doesn't occur to people that their maps are particular to their part of the world. : )