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The problem with maps

Dr Shane McGuinness muses on the power of, and problems with maps.

Maps are incredibly powerful things.

They allow us to navigate around the world, finding places, people and fascinating stories along the way. However, it’s not as easy as you might think to generate a simple bird’s eye view of where we are in the world.

Some of the first maps were drawn to allow explorers to mark what they had found, putting their home at the very centre of their simple depiction and with faraway lands getting less and less detailed the further away they became. Despite this, these allowed trade routes to be established and empires to be drawn. The problem with maps, however, is that it is very hard to accurately put our spherical planet onto a flat sheet of paper. Which way is up? Where does East begin and West end? As a result of all of these problems over the centuries, lots of maps of the same place can look very different, depending on who drew them.

For the Middle East, there is a long history of attempting to map it. Being home to the oldest settled civilisations on the planet, some of these maps go back an awful long way. Take, for example, Ptolemy’s map of the Middle East.

Over the years, maps improved in accuracy and usefulness, with inventions like the astrolabe and the sextant (equipment that judged position based on stars, angles and time) giving greater value to these simple pieces of paper. This allowed much better maps to be drawn and trade routes to be planned. Explorers could go further, find distant lands and even carve out empires for their king or queen.

In the 20th century, mapping became a true science, using colour, accurate numbered locations and standard place names. However, this still required a huge amount of work. Nations undertook massive surveying programmes that lasted decades and sometimes involved dragging enormous chains across land to get accurate distances!

Nowadays, mapping no longer relies on dragging chains or looking up at the stars, but requires us to look down from space. Modern systems of satellites orbiting the earth allow locations to be found with incredible accuracy and for maps to become not just pieces of paper but to be actual photographs of the real world from above, exactly what Ptolemy was trying to achieve all those years ago. Right now, anyone can navigate to within a few meters using their phones; something early explorers could really have done with!

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