The World: Science and Art

The only true map of the world is a globe. Transforming a three-dimensional sphere into a two-dimensional plane inevitably results some form of distortion. This can be mitigated by only mapping a small portion of the globe, but any attempt to depict the entire world on a flat map always results in some kind of distortion. The mapmaker therefore has to choose what kind of distortion will be included and how that can best serve the purpose of their map. For instance, Gerhard Mercator (1512-1594) developed a mathematical projection method that enlarged areas towards the poles — the Mercator projection magnifies Greenland to fourteen times its actual size — but also aided navigation by permitting the charting of straight-line courses.

The three maps in this gallery were drawn at a time when Europeans were only beginning to explore the rest of the world. As a result, they often include incomplete coastlines to acknowledge gaps in knowledge as well as annotations that indicate which traveler had first sighted a given location. Accurate information is essential for proper cartography, but the act of exploration commonly involved gaps. Sometimes, that meant that the gaps were filled with myths or theories: early European world maps commonly include a southern continent called Terra australis incognita (literally, “the southern unknown land”), Terra australis, or Magellanica, after the explorer Fernão de Magalhães (1480-1521) whose ill-fated expedition was the first to successfully circumnavigate the world. European geographers believed that there had to be a giant landmass to the south which provided a necessary counterweight to the landmasses in the northern hemisphere. As a result of this theory, the real southern continents of Australia and Antarctica were sometimes assumed to be parts of this theorized one.

As you look at these maps, think about them from a designer’s perspective, a blending of science and art. There were numerous scientific challenges inherent in depicting the planet on a single flat sheet of paper and although the maps may not be completely accurate, they are still easily recognizable as maps of the world. Artistically, the maps are all done to a very high standard, showing off the skill of the engravers and printers involved in their production. How has that fusion of science and art influenced the design? How have our tastes today changed?