Buckle your seatbelt everyone – science is embracing flat Earth. Well, sort of.
Creating a map of Earth is difficult, as the spherical shape (yes, it is round) means it is mathematically impossible to flatten out into an accurate paper map. When people try, whole continents get distorted, with the most famous being Africa, a continent that is frequently underrepresented in size on most world maps.
Furthermore, maps are usually based on the country that creates them. Each country has a map that sees them bang in the center, meaning a different arrangement throws off many people.
In the pursuit of a better alternative, researchers from Drexel University in Philadelphia and Princeton University have designed a new 2D map that is flat and centered around each pole. The authors of this paper claim their results are the most accurate 2D map to date, publishing their creation in a preprint (not yet peer-reviewed) on arXiv.
The two-sided map. Video credit: Video by J. Richard Gott, Robert Vanderbei and David Goldberg
The map combines the accuracy of a globe with the ease of a 2D map, by printing the map on two sides of a disk. It is essentially a flat-pack globe, doing away with the bulk whilst retaining the accuracy. Their invention could easily fit in the pocket of a wayfaring pirate or explorer, and the researchers hope it will become the accepted world map.
“Our map is actually more like the globe than other flat maps,” said J. Richard Gott, emeritus professor of astrophysics at Princeton, in a statement. “To see all of the globe, you have to rotate it; to see all of our new map, you simply have to flip it over.”
In 2007, David Goldberg, a professor of physics at Drexel University, and Gott compiled existing maps and created a system to score each based on a number of criteria, such as distance errors and lopsidedness. This system quantifies each new map with a Goldberg-Gott score, providing a basic accuracy ranking in which the lower the score, the better. The Mercator projection, which is the most well-known map across the world, has a score of 8.396. Compared to the new map, which has a score of just 0.881, it is clear the new design is far less distorted.
Whilst it is the most accurate to date, it still does not exactly represent the correct distances of the globe.
“One can’t make everything perfect,” said Gott. “A map that is good at one thing may not be good at depicting other things.”
In the pursuit of a near-perfect map, people have taken some crazy angles. The Dymaxion polyhedral projection, popularized in 1943, shattered the map apart to connect all the countries while leaving the oceans broken up. It created a map with decent country size accuracy, as well as a round Antarctica (rare to see in 2D maps), but the odd shapes make it extremely hard to follow. Gott improved on this design, drawing inspiration to create a double-sided map instead.
The researchers have now expanded their horizons to create disk maps for many different planets.