A few years ago in Vienna, while touring with our university chorus, I and three companions, one male and two female, wanted to find our way from the edge of the city to Vienna’s famous giant wooden Ferris wheel. We men, of course, did the logical thing and began studying the subway map. The women ignored the map and started asking passers-by for directions.

I and the other male found this quite annoying. The map was there for the express purpose of people like us, trying to find our way from point A to point B. Why did the women insist on pestering total strangers for information already clearly presented? (The fact that they received directions before we deciphered the map was immaterial. This was a matter of principle!)

It’s probably not safe to say that all men would rather read a map than ask for directions, while all women would rather ask for directions than read a map (in fact, I’m darn sure it’s NOT safe to say), but I know that I prefer the certainty of a map to instructions like “turn left at the third pot-hole” and “turn right by the big tree, not the big forked tree but the big straight tree,” which come in long strings and always end with, “you can’t miss it.” (Ha!)

Fortunately, over the centuries many other people have agreed with me.

The first known map, dated to around 3,000 B.C., is a small clay tablet portraying somebody’s estate in ancient Sumeria. This started a trend: most early maps outline real estate plots (still a popular use) or construction specifications (ditto). Maps showing property boundaries for the purpose of taxation are nothing new, either, dating to about the 14th century B.C. in Egypt. Necessity was the mother of that particular mode of mapping: the annual flooding of the Nile River kept wiping out the property markers.

Making maps of the whole Earth (or as much of it as was known) got underway with the Greeks; the first book on geography appeared at the end of the sixth century B.C. It showed a circular, flat Earth, but the idea of a globular Earth came along not too much later. In fact, Eratosthenes of Cyrene calculated the Earth’s circumference quite accurately in the third century B.C., and with Hipparchus developed a system of latitude and longitude, latitude being where you are north or south and longitude being where you are east or west.

The Romans were great mappers, because they had all that territory to keep track of, but in the Middle Ages not much happened with maps. The idea that the Earth was a globe even disappeared, with most Middle Ages maps (or should that be Middle-Aged maps?) showing it as a flat disk again. But as the Renaissance came along, and with it the great voyages of discovery, much better maps began to appear, leading up to today, when every location is mapped forty-eleven ways. The U.S. Geological Survey alone produces more than 10,000 different maps annually.

From a map-maker’s point of view, it’s a shame that the world isn’t flat, as originally thought; it would make things much easier. Because the world is round, the only accurate way to show its surface is with a globe, but globes are awkward to carry around. Instead, map-makers, or “cartographers,” have to choose a “projection” from which to work, transferring coordinates from the curved surface of the Earth to the flat surface of the map. There is always some distortion, but by choosing the projection best suited to the map’s purpose, a workable compromise can be reached.

A good example of a projection is the famous Mercator version, which is basically what you would get if you put a light inside a semi-transparent globe and projected the outlines of the continents onto a cylinder wrapped around the globe. This projection, or variations of it, is still in common use, although it has left many a school child with the impression that Greenland is the size of the United States and that Antarctica is the biggest land mass on Earth. (It’s also very flattering to Canada!)

In addition to their historic functions of keeping track of real estate, roads and empires, maps today serve many other purposes. Geologic maps show everything from surface contours to the shape of the underlying bedrock to where to dig for oil. Distributional maps show the relative densities of everything from population to Polynesian restaurants.

There are soil maps, land-use maps, economic maps, zoological and botanical maps, statistical maps, political maps, topographic maps (including a particular kind call an orthophotoquad, based on photos taken from the air or information from remote sensors, which I mention only because “orthophotoquad” is such a wonderful word), weather maps and historical maps.

Whatever they’re used for and however they’re made, maps perfectly exemplify the human impulse that’s the basis of science: the impulse to find patterns around us, to record those patterns, and then to build new knowledge on the insight those patterns provide.

Which is why I told our female companions in Vienna that by asking directions, rather than reading the map, they were disrupting humanity’s scientific development.

Their response was some muttered nonsense about the male ego which, naturally, I ignored.

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