Posts Tagged ‘geography’
(Roughly) Daily is headed into a brief hiatus, as your correspondent is hitting the highways of his humid homeland. Regular service should resume on April 26. Meantime…
Britain split from mainland Europe to become an island thanks to catastrophe — that might sound political, but in fact it’s geographic. Thousands of years before the UK opted to leave the European Union, a process called Brexit, a different separation occurred. Unlike the political one, it was relatively simple, and probably composed of just two stages.
First, a review of geography: England is separated from the rest of Europe by a body of water called the English Channel; the bit of water where England is closest to France is called the Dover Strait. But the strait wasn’t always there — it was likely created by two major erosion events, according to a study published today in Nature Communications. The first one likely happened around 450,000 years ago, around the same time Neanderthals first appeared in Europe. That’s when huge amounts of water spilled over from a large lake sitting at the edge of a massive ice sheet that stretched from Britain to Scandinavia. The second one may have occurred 160,000 years ago, when catastrophic flooding opened the Dover Strait. When the ice age ended and sea levels rose, water flowed into that gap. Just like that, Britain became an island…
* Jeanette Winterson,
As we cope with separation anxiety, we might spare a thought for Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon; he died on this date in 1788. A naturalist, mathematician, cosmologist, and encyclopédiste, Buffon formulated a crude theory of evolution, and was the first to suggest that the earth might be older than suggested by the Bible: in 1778 he proposed that the Earth was hot at its creation and, judging from the rate of its cooling, calculated its age to be 75,000 years, with life emerging some 40,000 years ago.
In 1739 Buffon was appointed keeper of the Jardin du Roi, a post he occupied until his death. There he worked on the comprehensive work on natural history for which he is remembered, Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière. He began in 1749, and it dominated the rest of his life. It would eventually run to 44 volumes, covering quadrupeds, birds, reptiles and minerals. As Max Ernst remarked, “truly, Buffon was the father of all thought in natural history in the second half of the 18th century.”
“Plato intended to write a long fable about legendary Atlantis; like Solon, he never did write it. Yet there existed beyond the Atlantic an unvisited land, after all”*…
The lost continent of Mauritia likely spanned a great swathe of the Indian Ocean before it was torn apart by indomitable geologic forces and plunged into the sea. Now, a good chunk of it may have been found.
In 2015, researchers visited the island of Mauritius, east of Madagascar, to study volcanic rocks. While there, they unearthed something unexpected. Embedded in the rocks were ancient crystals, dated up to three billion years old—300 times older than the island’s young volcanic surface. Rocks this old come from Earth’s continents, but there aren’t any continents around Mauritius. It’s surrounded by boundless sea in all directions. There was just one place left for the researchers to look—down. Their findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, suggest that the curious crystals came from a long-forgotten place buried well beneath the island…
Plumb the depths of Earth’s history at “Scientists may actually have found a lost continent.” See also here (from whence, the illustration above)
* Russell Kirk
As we take tectonics into account, we might spare a thought for René Descartes, the French philosopher and mathematician who thought and therefore was; he died on this date in 1650.
Many contemporaries (perhaps most notably, Pascal) rejected his famous conclusion, the dualist separation of mind and body; more (Voltaire, et al.), since. But Descartes’ emphasis on method and analysis, his disciplined integration of philosophy and physical science, his insistence on the importance of consciousness in epistemology, and perhaps most fundamentally, his the questioning of tradition and authority had a transformative– and lasting– effect on Western thought, and has earned him the “title” of Father of Modern Philosophy.
“In order to improve the mind, we ought less to learn than to contemplate.”
– Rene Descartes
Your correspondent is off for his annual sojourn in the land of dunes and deep fried food; regular service should resume on or around August 16. Meantime, in the hope of inspiring readers to serendipitous travels of their own…
The notion that maps provide an objective or scientific depiction of the world is a common myth. The graphic nature of maps simplifies reality, giving makers and users a sense of power without social and ecological responsibilities. Details like the coloring of areas or the different sizes in typography can have great political consequences. For example, when names of towns are omitted from a map, it can imply that the area is not of interest, while adding names, details, and other information suggests it is an area of importance.
Mapmaking is a very old trade, but modern cartography originated in the age of European colonialism. Maps were indispensable for ships to navigate the oceans, and they legitimized the conquest of territories. Sometimes just mapping a newly found territory was enough to conquer it, without having to step ashore or have any knowledge of the indigenous population and history.
Even the fact that we put north on the top of the map is a result of the economic dominance of Western Europe after 1500. A map does not have a privileged direction in space. After all, the Earth has no up or down, and no geographical center…
As we struggle to find our bearings, we might spare a topographical thought for Peter Hodgson; he died on this date in 1976. An advertising and marketing consultant, Hodgson introduced Silly Putty to the world. As The New York Times recounted in his obituary,
The stuff had been developed by General Electric scientists in the company’s New Haven laboratories several years earlier in a search for a viable synthetic rubber. It was obviously not satisfactory, and it found its way instead onto the local cocktail party circuit.
That’s where Mr. Hodgson, who was at the time writing a catalogue of toys for a local store, saw it, and an idea was born.
“Everybody kept saying there was no earthly use for the stuff” he later recalled. “But I watched them as they fooled with it. I couldn’t help noticing how people with busy schedules wasted as much as 15 minutes at a shot just fondling and stretching it”.
“I decided to take a chance and sell some. We put an ad in the catalogue on the adult page, along with such goodies as a spaghetti-making machine. We packaged the goop in a clear compact case and tagged it at $1.00”.
Having borrowed $147 for the venture, Mr. Hodgson ordered a batch from General Electric, hired a Yale student to separate the gob into one ounce dabs and began filling orders. At the same time he hurried to get some trademarks.
Silly Putty was an instant success, and Mr. Hodgson quickly geared up to take advantage of it…
A Facebook friend recently noted that Turkey was “a remarkably rectangular country.” I wondered how it compared to other countries, and this post shows my answers (Turkey is 15th; Egypt is the most rectangular; full table below). I defined the rectangularness of a country as its maximum percentage overlap with a rectangle of the same area, working in the equirectangular projection (i.e., x = longitude, y = latitude). Ideally each country would get its own projection, but equirectangular rectangles feel at least linguistically thematic and are easier to code…
* Nicholas Chrisman, Professor of Geomatic Sciences, Université Laval
As we get square, we might send paradigm-shaping birthday greetings to a woman who enabled mapping of an altogether different– and world-changing– sort: Rosalind Franklin; she was born on this date in 1920. A biophysicist and X-ray crystallographer, Franklin captured the X-ray diffraction images of DNA that were, in the words of Francis Crick, “the data we actually used” when he and James Watson developed their “double helix” hypothesis for the structure of DNA. Indeed, it was Franklin who argued to Crick and Watson that the backbones of the molecule had to be on the outside (something that neither they nor their competitor in the race to understand DNA, Linus Pauling, had understood). Franklin never received the recognition she deserved for her independent work– her paper was published in Nature after Crick and Watson’s, which barely mentioned her– and she died of cancer four years before Crick, Watson, and their lab director Maurice Wilkins won the Nobel Prize for the discovery.
Across the board, the Mercator projection of the Earth—which has been our baseline for world maps since the 16th century—skews the actual size of countries so they look bigger (and therefore, more important than they are) when they fall within the middle of the Northern Hemisphere. It’s not just bad design, it has real geopolitical implications. For example, in most people’s minds, Greenland is a much larger country than Australia. But the reality is that Australia dwarfs Greenland. Likewise, you probably think Africa and North America are roughly the same size, but Africa can swallow all of North America and Greenland with room for all of Western Europe to spare. And so on… [To redress misperception] James Talmage and Damon Maneice created The True Size. The web app lets you drag-and-drop different countries on a world map and see how they shrink or grow on a standard Mercator Projection map. It’s a simple tool, but an eye-opening one that can be quickly used to show just how skewed our maps really are…
More at “This Interactive Proves Just How Wrong Our World Maps Really Are.” Visit The True Size here.
As we ponder perspective, we might might spare a thought for Eratosthenes of Cyrene; he may have died on this date in 194 or 195 BC. (His exact birth and death dates are lost, so this is as good a day as any to celebrate him.) A mathematician, geographer, poet, astronomer, music theorist, and Chief Librarian at Alexandria, Eratosthenes is probably best remembered as the first person to calculate the circumference of the Earth (which he did remarkably accurately), to calculate the tilt of the Earth’s axis, and to calculate the distance from the Earth to the Sun (which, again, he did very accurately); and he created the Leap Day.
In his three-volume work Geography (Geographika), Eratosthenes described and mapped his entire known world, dividing the Earth into five climate zones: two freezing zones around the pole, two temperate zones, and a zone encompassing the equator and the tropics. He placed grids of overlapping lines over the surface of the Earth, using parallels and meridians to link together every place in the world– in the process, coining terminology still in use… He had invented the discipline of Geography.
“The true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding”*…
On the heels of last Sunday’s look at the NYPL Labs’ extraordinary interactive version of the Green Books, another visit to the Library, which has taken advantage of it’s enormous public domain collection to enable one to compare the photos from the 1911 Fifth Avenue from Start to Finish collection with 2015’s Google Street View. The work of Bert Spaan, it illuminates one of the Big Apple’s most storied thoroughfares:
Fifth Avenue, the street that became the social and cultural spine of New York’s elite, first appeared on the Commissioners’ Map of 1811. At that time, it was merely a country road to Yorkville (then just a tiny self-contained village), but in the proposed grid plan it would be a grand boulevard. As the City grew and prospered Fifth Avenue became synonymous with fashionable life, the site of mansions, cultural and social institutions, and restaurants and shops catering to the elite. In 1907, alarmed at the approach of factories, the leading merchants and residents formed the Fifth Avenue Association. The Save New York Committee became a bulwark against the wrong kind of development. Perhaps inspired by this contemporary movement, photographer Burton Welles used a wide-angled view camera in 1911 to document this most important street from Washington Square, north to East 93rd Street.
Take a stroll at “Street View, Then & Now: New York City’s Fifth Avenue.”
* John Updike
As we spread the news, we might recall that it was on this date in 1988 that three armed men entered the Bank of America’s World Trade Center location, disarmed two Brink’s guards delivering money to a currency exchange center there, then fled with with $1.6 million. The heist was the brainchild of former mob boss Ralph Guarino. Given the heightened security on the heels of the 1993 WTC bombings, he needed help from a long-time employee of the facility, who handed over his ID badge and informed Guarino of the next expected delivery of cash to the bank; three hired goons were dispatched to carry out the robbery on that day. The three entered the bank via passenger elevator early in the morning, tying up employees and stuffing cash into duffel bags as planned. Luckily for law enforcement, the theives were not very discreet; only one of the the trio bothered to cover his head, so the other two were readily identifiable on security cam footage. They were apprehended quickly following the robbery, leading to the capture of Guarino, who chose becoming an FBI informant over jail time.
The heist is unpacked in detail in the 2003 book Made Men.
The first of 11 questions designed to test “How well do you really know your country?”
Choose any one of 33 countries, then take the quiz.
* Dan C. Quayle (campaigning for the Vice Presidency in 1988)
As we prune our preconceptions, we might spare a thought for Rube Goldberg; he died on this date in 1970. A cartoonist, sculptor, author, engineer, and inventor, he is best remembered as a satirist of the American obsession with technology; his series of “Invention” cartoons used a string of outlandish tools, people, plants, and steps to accomplish simple, everyday tasks in the most complicated possible way. (His work has inspired a number of “Rube Goldberg competitions,” the best-known of which, readers may recall, has been profiled here.)
Goldberg was a founder and the first president of the National Cartoonists Society, and he is the namesake of the Reuben Award, which the organization awards to the Cartoonist of the Year.