Upside Down or Downside Up, this World Map Looks True in Both Directions

A bizarre 'planisphere palindrome' version of the Earth

This is a map that takes some time to get your head around; quite literally, because to appreciate it fully, you need to consider it both with its north side and its south side up [1].

The world, 'upside up'.Image:

To spare you the risk of neck injury, we're providing both versions: first with north on top, then south. And what do you know? There is no right side up -- or rather: there is no wrong side up. For this is a planisphere [2] palindrome, a planet-chart that can be 'read' the same way 'upside up' and upside down.

The world, 'upside down'.Image:

This is very strange. The size and distribution of the world's continents and oceans is random, the result of millions of years of continental drift. That process is still ongoing [3]: the way the world looks like on our maps is but a snapshot, even if it feels like an eternity from our human perspective.

It would seem impossible to find a pattern with global consistency in that random jumble of land masses and water bodies. A map showing the overlap of antipodean dry lands [4] doesn't seem to indicate any, at least. But the Italian artist Giacomo Faiella did find such a pattern.

In the 'upside up' version, the continents are a solid, walkable blue, the seas are a foamy yellow-white, and the north pole the frozen colour of ice. The map is centred on China, with Europe and Africa pushed to its western edge, and the Americas near its eastern rim.

Colour codes are relative, as shown by our immediate re-interpretation of them in the 'downside up' version. Here, the continents are the different hues of grass, from green to dry; the ocean is navy blue and it's the South Pole that is frozen, while the North Pole has reverted to open water. In this map, the longitudes of Europe and Africa retain retain the centrality that they are traditionally accorded in Western cartography, while East Asia and the Americas are pushed to the edges.

It's fascinating to see how Mr. Faiella has managed, with some cajoling of geographic veracity, to find correspondences between features on the opposite sides of the world.

The Mediterranean Sea in the 'up' version is Australia in the 'down' one (and vice versa, of course). That little fleck to the south of Australia that represents Tasmania? That's the Adriatic Sea in the other map, between Italy and the former Yugoslav states.

The Black and Caspian Seas to the Mediterranean's east transform into the main western islands of the Indonesian archipelago: Java and Sumatra, respectively. The Red Sea becomes the Philippines, the Persian Gulf the Thai-Malay Peninsula. India, that triangle pointing south, transmogrifies into the adjacent Bay of Bengal, a triangle pointing north.

Fantastically, miraculously, South America becomes the North Atlantic ocean, and the North America continent changes into the South Atlantic. Two dots vaguely reminiscent of the Great Lakes become the (much smaller) Falkland Islands [5].

The two islands of New Zealand transform into the North Sea and the Baltic Sea, with the Cook Strait between both islands becoming the Jutland [6] peninsula of Denmark. The Japanese archipelago corresponds with a string of Africa's Great Lakes, while Madagascar has a ghostly pendant in the Sea of Okhotsk.

And on it goes -- we'll leave you to work out the other correspondences. Like we said, some geographic cajoling has taken place. Australia and New Zealand are nowhere near as close to South America; nor are North America and northern Europe attached to Greenland. You have to squint a little, but this works as a world map. It's incredible that it works as two world maps.

Many thanks to Mr. Faiella for sending in this map. Find out more on his map-based art at his Pataphysical Atlas.

Strange Maps #594

Got a strange map? Let me know at

[1] Modern maps are usually oriented towards the north, in the tradition of Ptolemy's Geographia. However, for sacral reasons, maps in the Middle Ages often had east 'up' - hence our word 'orientation'.

[2] Planisphere describes the representation of a globe on a flat surface - i.e. a world map; but also the parking disk-like instrument made up of two adjustable disks rotating on a pivot, used to calculate which stars and constellations are visible in the night sky at any particular time.

[3] It's no coincidence that the eastern shoreline of South America 'fits' with that of western Africa's: both land masses once were part of Pangaea, the single supercontinent that broke up about 200 million years ago. The Atlantic Ocean continues to widen at an annual rate of 25 millimetres (about an inch) -- about the rate your fingernails grow. Back in 1968, an Air France commercial dreamed of the time when it was still no wider than a river. See #474.

[4] See #104.

[5] or las Malvinas. A bit more on Anglo-Argentinian animosity in the Antarctic and its periphery in #591.

[6] Where does Jutland begin, and where does it end? See #46.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
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  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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