Friday, 8 March 2013

Maps and Philosophy

It's March, which means that the Bath Literature Festival is on. I was not very organised this year, and left it late to book tickets, so there were some events, such as Sandi Toksvig's, which I didn't get to go to because they sold out too fast.

However, all was not lost.

The first event I went to this year was on Saturday, to hear Prof. Jerry Brotton, speak about his recent book, A History of the World in Twelve Maps. I had not read the book, but it sounded as if it could be interesting, and it was.

Saturday was also the day of the Bath 1/2 Marathon, which meant that a lot of roads were closed, so I travelled in early, by train, and treated myself to a pub lunch and a pint before heading to the Guildhall for the talk. The marathon had mostly finished by the time I arrived in Bath, but there were still an awful lot of people wandering round wrapped in tin-foil. Fortunately the pub I  picked wasn't too crowded - maybe people who run (half) marathons are not very pub-orientated?

Jerry Brotton

Brotton explained that he is not a geographer,he is a professor of Renaissance Studies, and that his interest is in looking at the philosophy of map making. He then took us through his 12 maps, starting with a 7th C. Babylonian map (showing Babylon and the centre, and the wild places outside), an Islamic map from the 11th C (with South at the top) a Ptolemiac map, (noting that Ptolemy, in 150 BC, was writing about the difficulty of representing a globe, on a flat piece of paper) before moving on to speak about a Korean Map of 1409 (based on Chinese maps, and the first of the maps shown to be orientated with North at the top), the Hereford Mappa Mundi, which includes the Garden of Eden, and is orientated to the East,  and a then a 1492 Globe (unfortunately produced before Columbus came home, and therefore completely blank so far as the Americas are concerned)

All of these maps are what he described as 'egocentric mapping'; centred upon, and giving greatest prominence to, the nation where  it was produced.

He then moved on to speak about different projections, pointing out that Mercator's projection, and maps (1569) work very well for the purpose for which they were created; i.e. sailing the trade routes. He made the point that the earlier maps were not created with a view to helping you to get from A to B, and that once you start wanting to use maps for that purpose, your needs, and the way in which you design the maps, has to change.

Which led on to talking about more recent maps, including the Peters Projection (aimed to get away from  egocentric mapping to equal representation) and right up to Google maps, and the issue of whether it is a good thing to monetise geography in this way.

Brotton finished by explaining that he is a also involved in a project for the 2015 Venice Biennale, where a 3D map of the world is being created, using hydrographic maps to accurately represent the seabed and depth, as well as a relief map of the land surface. The finished map will be around the size of a football pitch, and will then be flooded to show the correct sea level.

It's a fascinating subject, and I'm glad I went, although there wasn't much in the talk itself which was completely new to me - I think Prof. Brotton may have slightly underestimated the level of general knowledge about the subject (People mostly know that the Greeks and Egyptians etc. knew the world was a globe, don't they?) but it was, nevertheless, an interesting overview.

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