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Posts Tagged ‘geography

“Like guns and crosses, maps can be good or bad, depending on who’s holding them, who they’re aimed at, how they’re used, and why”*…

 

World Map

“A New and Accurat [sic] Map of the World,” John Speed 1626. For background, see here

We expect maps to tell us the truth. They seem trustworthy, after all: when you need to figure out how to get from Copley Square to Fenway Park, or if you’re interested in comparing the income levels of Boston’s neighborhoods, the first reference material you’re likely to seek out is a map.

But maps, truth, and belief have a complicated relationship with one another. Every map is a representation of reality, and every representation, no matter how accurate and honest, involves simplification, symbolization, and selective attention. Even when a map isn’t actively trying to deceive its readers, it still must reduce the complexity of the real world, emphasizing some features and hiding others. Compressing the round globe onto a flat sheet of paper, and converting places, people, and statistics into symbols, lines, and colors is a process inherently fraught with distortion.

Meanwhile, what we understand to be true is based on what we have seen in maps. For example, how do you know that New Zealand is an island off the coast of Australia if you’ve never been on a ship in the Tasman Sea or flown up in space to see it yourself? That fact about the world is one you can believe because you’ve seen it reproduced over and over again in maps produced by people and institutions that you trust…

Because they seem to show the world how it “really is,” maps produce a powerful sense of trust and belief.  But maps and data visualizations can never communicate a truth without any perspective at all.  They are social objects whose meaning and power are produced by written and symbolic language and whose authority is determined by the institutions and contexts in which they circulate.  From the Boston Public Library’s Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center, a remarkable online exhibit that explores the many ways in which maps and data can mislead: BENDING LINES: Maps and Data from Distortion to Deception. (Lots of fascinating information and LOTS of glorious maps!)

See also: “How to Detect the Distortions of Maps.”

And lest we underestimate the innate challenges facing cartographers, “The U.S. Is Getting Shorter, as Mapmakers Race to Keep Up.”

* Mark Monmonier, How to Lie with Maps

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As we aspire to accuracy, we might recall that it was on this date in 1784 that Élisabeth Thible became the first women to ascend in an untethered balloon (eight months after the first manned balloon flight).  When the balloon left the ground Thible, dressed as the Roman goddess Minerva, and her pilot, Monsieur Fleurant sang two duets from Monsigny’s La Belle Arsène, a celebrated opera of the time.  The flight lasted 45 minutes, covered four kilometers, and achieved an estimated height of 1,500 meters.  Their audience included King Gustav III of Sweden, in whose honor the balloon was named.

Thible

Élisabeth Thible on a later flight

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“In a series of forms graduating insensibly from some apelike creature to man as he now exists, it would be impossible to fix on any definite point where the term ‘man’ ought to be used”*…

 

fingerbone

Homo sapiens finger bone, dating back some 86,000 years, found at a site called Al Wusta in Saudi Arabia

 

Darwin turns out to right about the difficulty of dating the emergence of man, not only for the reason he intended (that our emergence from prior species was so gradual as to be indetectable as an “event”) but also because it’s turning out to be difficult to date the earliest examples we can agree are “man” and to figure out when they reached the places they settled…

The Nefud Desert is a desolate area of orange and yellow sand dunes. It covers approximately 25,000 square miles of the Arabian Peninsula. But tens of thousands of years ago, this area was a lush land of lakes, with a climate that may have been kinder to human life.

On a January afternoon in 2016, an international team of archaeologists and paleontologists was studying the surface of one ancient lake bed at a site called Al Wusta in the Nefud’s landscape of sand and gravel. Their eyes were peeled for fossils, bits of stone tools, and any other signs that might remain from the region’s once-verdant past.

Suddenly, Iyad Zalmout, a paleontologist working for the Saudi Geological Survey, spotted what looked like a bone. With small picks and brushes, he and his colleagues removed the find from the ground.

We knew it [was] important,” Zalmout recalled in an email. It was the first direct evidence of any large primate or hominid life in the area. In 2018, lab tests revealed that this specimen was a finger bone from an anatomically modern human who would have lived at least 86,000 years ago.

Prior to this Al Wusta discovery, evidence in the form of stone tools had suggested some human presence in the Nefud between 55,000 and 125,000 years ago. To anthropologists, “human” and “hominin” can mean any of a number of species closely related to our own. The finger bone was the oldest Homo sapiens find in the region.

The bone’s dating contradicts a well-established narrative in the scientific community. Findings, particularly from the area of modern-day Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon, known as the Levant region, have led to the understanding that H. sapiens first made their way out of Africa no earlier than 120,000 years ago, likely migrating north along the Mediterranean coast. These people settled in the Levant and their descendants—or those from a subsequent early human migration out of Africa—traveled into Europe tens of thousands of years later.

Only later, that story goes, did they journey into parts of Asia, such as Saudi Arabia. By some estimates, then, anatomically modern humans would not have been in what is now Al Wusta until about 50,000 years ago.

The fingerbone, then, adds a twist to the tale of how and when our species left the African continent and, with many starts and stops, populated much of the rest of the earth. A new crop of discoveries, particularly from Asia, suggest that modern humans first left Africa some 200,000 years ago, taking multiple different routes…

Politics, geography, and tradition have long focused archaeological attention on the evolution of Homo sapiens in Europe and Africa. Now, new research is challenging old ideas by showing that early human migrations unfolded across Asia far earlier than previously known: “Will Asia Rewrite Human History?

* Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man

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As we return to roots, we might spare a thought for Jean-Léon-François Tricart; he died on this date in 2003.  A physical geographer and climatic geomorphologist known for his extensive regional studies in numerous countries of Africa.

Tricart was a pioneer in many fields of physical geography including the study of a phenomenon central to the migration of early Homo Sapiens, the major dynamic role of climate in landscape evolution.

Screen Shot 2020-05-04 at 4.41.59 PM source

 

“When I was a kid my parents moved a lot, but I always found them”*…

 

pangea-with-modern-borders-1200

 

Pangea was the latest in a line of supercontinents in Earth’s history.

Pangea began developing over 300 million years ago, eventually making up one-third of the earth’s surface. The remainder of the planet was an enormous ocean known as Panthalassa.

As time goes by, scientists are beginning to piece together more information on the climate and patterns of life on the supercontinent. Similar to parts of Central Asia today, the center of the landmass is thought to have been arid and inhospitable, with temperatures reaching 113ºF (45ºC). The extreme temperatures revealed by climate simulations are supported by the fact that very few fossils are found in the modern day regions that once existed in the middle of Pangea. The strong contrast between the Pangea supercontinent and Panthalassa is believed to have triggered intense cross-equatorial monsoons.

By this unique point in history, plants and animals had spread across the landmass, and animals (such as dinosaurs) were able to wander freely across the entire expanse of Pangea…

Since the average continent is only moving about 1 foot (0.3m) every decade, it’s unlikely you’ll ever be alive to see an epic geographical revision to the world map.

However, for whatever life exists on Earth roughly 300 million years in the future, they may have front row seats in seeing the emergence of a new supercontinent: Pangea Proxima…

 

More– including how it happened and a larger version of the image above– at “Incredible Map of Pangea With Modern-Day Borders.”

* Rodney Dangerfield

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As we go with the flow, we might send historic birthday greetings to Dorothy Annie Elizabeth Garrod; she was born on this date in 1892.  An archaeologist who specialized in the Palaeolithic period, she was the first women to hold a chair at an Oxbridge university, serving as of Disney Professor of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge from 1939 to 1952.

200px-Dorothy_Garrod source

 

“Maps codify the miracle of existence”*…

 

Forgotten maps

 

Several years ago, I stumbled on a map so shocking to my modern workaday sensibilities that I couldn’t quite believe my eyes. “Oh, zounds, look at this old thing,” I almost certainly thought.

map

We live in a time when the data visualization establishment will have you know that pie charts are garbage graphics only to be employed by foolhardy amateurs. Similarly, your friendly neighborhood Carto-vigilante will put you on notice for allowing something as vile as overlapping symbols to appear on a map. Occlusion be gone! 🙅‍♀️️🗺🙅‍♂

But there was a time when people made and proudly shared maps of all kinds with relative impunity. And I believed I’d found one of them. After all, it had overlapping… pie charts! So, I took to Twitter, declared it a “forgotten map type,and went to bed.

Years (and countless throwaway tweets) later, I stumbled on that map again (so much for being “forgotten,” eh?) and pointed out its goofy New York label. In response, Toph Tucker noted he’d searched my timeline for more “forgotten map types” and come up empty. His comment was, simply, “well this is disappointing….

Fair.

So, I slowly amassed a more complete list…

Revel in geographer Tim Wallace‘s (@wallacetim) “Forgotten Map Types.” (And/or access them here.)

* Nicholas Crane, Mercator: The Man Who Mapped the Planet

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As we find our way, we might spare a thought for a cartographer of a different sort: Claude Elwood Shannon; he died on this date in 2001.  A mathematician, electrical engineer, and cryptographer, he is known as “the father of information theory,” of which he was the original architect.  But he is also remembered for his contributions to digital circuit design theory and for his cryptanalysis work during World War II, both as a codebreaker and as a designer of secure communications systems.

220px-ClaudeShannon_MFO3807 source

 

“This land is your land, this land is my land”*…

 

Willie Nelson

 

“City of New Orleans” isn’t a song about New Orleans. It’s a song about a train called the City of New Orleans. Willie Nelson didn’t write it. But he made it a Grammy Award-winning hit in 1984.

Looking back, it’s easy to see how Willie Nelson came to it. Over the course of his career—a five-decade ramblin’ run that spans recordings as far back as 1962 and as recent as last year—Willie has written endlessly about his affection for (and occasional vexation with) cities across the land…

No one map could track all the sites and cities Willie sings about. He’s recorded songs about rivers: the Rio Grande and the Pedernales, the Mississippi and the Ohio, the Rhine and the Jordan. He’s played songs about trains: the Midnight Special, the Wabash Cannonball, the Golden Rocket, the City of New Orleans. (And, of course, a song about rainbows.) Georgia, Montana, Tennessee, and Texas all loom large over his songbook…

Still,  the map above does contain a  great many of them… An appreciation: “On the Road Again: Mapping All the Cities in Willie Nelson’s Songs.”

* Woody Guthrie

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As we celebrate one red-head, we might also celebrate others: it was on this date in 1887 that the (fictional) action began in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes short story, “The Red-Headed League”– a piece that Conan Doyle ranked second on his list of his twelve favorite Holmes stories.

220px-Redh-02

Sidney Paget‘s illustration of Watson reading the newspaper to Holmes and Wilson in “The Red-Headed League” in The Strand Magazine, where the story first appeared.

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Written by LW

December 9, 2019 at 1:01 am

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