"The True Size" map lets you move countries around the globe, to show how big they really are

The US, China and India combined: still not quite as big as Africa. Image: The True Size.

The problem, you see, is that the earth isn't flat. This is generally considered to be a good thing: it means you can travel east from Hong Kong to Los Angeles, for example, without falling over the edge – but it's a right pain in the bum for cartographers.

That’s because the surface of a sphere cannot be turned into a flat sheet without some major distortions around the edges. The Mercator Projection is a case in point. Invented by a Flemish geographer, Gerardus Mercator, in the 16th century, it re-imagines the earth as the surface of a cylinder.


When laid out flat, it’s pleasingly rectangular, and its eastern and western edges line up neatly. This projection is pretty useful if you're, say, trying to steer a ship across an ocean, so in its 446 years of life it's become one of the standard maps of the world.

But it's also done some odd things to our idea of how the world looks. In reality, lines of longitude converge at the poles; on the map, they're parallel. As a result, the closer you get to the poles, the more distorted the map becomes, and the bigger things look relative to their actual size.

Thus it is that we’ve all got stuck with maps of the world which show Africa (30.4mkm2) as basically the same size as Greenland (2.2mkm2), rather than a whole order of magnitude bigger.

Until now.

The True Size is a website that lets you compare the size of any nation or US state to other land masses, by allowing you to move them around to anywhere else on the map. So, when left right up in the north of the map, Greenland does indeed look huge:

Place it next to Africa though, and you can see it really isn't all that:

You can see how vast India is, next to uppity islands that conquered it:

Or how small even a big European nation like France would be in Africa:

Some US states are actually pretty big...

...but even the US looks tiny next to Africa. Africa is huge:

The site is the work of James Talmage and Damon Maneice, who were inspired by (what else) an episode of The West Wing. It’s worth quoting an entire speech from the episode in question, in which a guest character argues that cartography can warp how we view the world:

When Third World countries are misrepresented they're likely to be valued less. When Mercator maps exaggerate the importance of Western civilization, when the top of the map is given to the northern hemisphere and the bottom is given to the southern... then people will tend to adopt top and bottom attitudes.

Mercator maps exaggerate the importance of Western civilization, when the top of the map is given to the northern hemisphere and the bottom is given to the southern... then people will tend to adopt top and bottom attitudes.

Or, to put it another way, Africa is much, much bigger than you think it is – and Europe much, much smaller.

You can play with The True Size map here.

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What is Europe? We’ve been arguing about it for 400 years

Well, it's here somewhere. Image: Google.

It is tempting to regard the history of Europe as a tale of gradually closer union, an evolution now imperilled by the forces of nationalistic populism that have brought Brexit and the growth of far-right political parties across the continent. In reality, the story is not such a neat one – and the meaning of Europe has always been up for debate. The Conversation

Take the 16th century as an example. Back then, Europe as an idea and a marker of identity was becoming more prominent; so much so that, by 1623, English philosopher Francis Bacon could refer to “we Europeans” and the continent was depicted as a queen.

Europe As A Queen, 1570. Image: Wikimedia commons.

The cultural movement of the Renaissance sparked an enthusiasm for all things classical – including the word “Europe”, which may have derived from the Greek name for the goddess Europa. At the same time, the voyages of discovery following Christopher Columbus’s landing in the Americas in 1492 led to a greater knowledge about the world at large. With this came a corresponding deepening of the sense of “us” versus “them”, of what supposedly made Europe and Europeans different.

This identification with people from across the continent had also been spurred by the westward advance of the Ottoman Empire following the fall of Constantinople in 1453. The Reformation and subsequent breakup of the church weakened the idea of Christianity as a unifying badge of identity, and so Europe was able to articulate this growing collective sentiment.

A little used word

Yet some of the major thinkers of the period rarely used the word “Europe”. The term appeared only ten times in the works of writer William Shakespeare, where it was used not with any specific geographical meaning but for rhetorical exaggeration. In the play Henry V the Constable of France assures the Duke of Orleans that his horse “is the best horse of Europe”. And in Henry VI, Part 1 the Duke of Bedford promises that his soldiers’ “bloody deeds shall make all Europe quake”.

It is telling that three of Shakespeare’s ten utterances belong to that master of comic overstatement, Falstaff. In Henry VI, Part II he says: “An I had but a belly of any indifference, I were simply the most active fellow in Europe.” These are not the stirrings of a sense of cultural unity, of Europe as a great civilisation. The word “Europe” as Shakespeare used it is empty of meaning beyond that of a vast expanse.

The French writer Michel de Montaigne. Image: Wikimedia commons.

The term popped up even less in the writing of French philosopher Michel de Montaigne – just once in the 107 chapters that make up his Essays. Montaigne used the word as a geographical marker: recalling the myth of Atlantis, he wrote of the kings of that island extending their “dominion as far into Europe as Tuscany”. Curiously, this sole instance of the term Europe appeared in an essay about the New World, On Cannibals, in which Montaigne wrote about the customs of the Tupinambà people of Brazil. Although he contrasted them with what he calls “us”, he did not use the word Europe in these comparisons.


A contested concept

But his contemporaries do. André Thevet, a Franciscan friar who had also journeyed to South America, wrote enthusiastically of the Spanish conquest of the New World: “You will find there towns, castles, cities, villages, houses, bishoprics, states, and all other ways of living that you think it was another Europe”. Thevet championed the superiority of what he called “our Europe”.

Montaigne was much more sceptical: “We may call these people barbarous in respect to the rules of reason, but not in respect to ourselves who in all sorts of barbarity exceed them.” Where Thevet regarded Europe as a cultural model to be exported, Montaigne condemned empire building in the New World. Montaigne articulated a sense of affinity with the Spanish and Portuguese by referring to “we”, “us” and “ourselves”, but – though like Thevet he could have done – he did not name this community Europe.

Some people continued to prefer the label “Christendom” to articulate a collective identity. But others were not wedded to such overarching notions of belonging. Jean de Léry, a Calvinist pastor who had travelled to Brazil, did not use the word “Christendom” and used “Europe” sparingly in a geographical, not a cultural, sense. Léry had suffered at the hands of Catholics during the French Wars of Religion and felt no affinity with them. His allegiances were much smaller – to Calvinism and to France.

Just like today, in the 16th century the meaning of Europe was not straightforward. It was contested between those who used the word as something more than a geographical area and those who did not – between those who saw the continent as a cultural idea of unity and those whose sense of community and belonging was much smaller.

Niall Oddy is a PhD candidate at Durham University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.