Four Wildly Different Visions of Canada's Northeast

Instead of choosing sides, this map shows all versions of the cartographic argument. 

Paris in the 18th century was the hotbed of scientific cartography. But the shape of the Earth's continents was only as definite as the next explorer's tall tales. Clans of cartographers bitterly quarreled over how to map the sweep of newly discovered lands, and how to fill in the blanks. This quartet of four contrasting maps on a single sheet is a fossilized reminder of that disputatious era – and a curious, early example of comparative cartography. 


This is the Vaugondy-Diderot Map of the Hudson Bay and the Arctic (1772), made by Didier Robert de Vaugondy and first published as plate #9 in the Supplement to Diderot's Encyclopédie. It was thereafter also published in Vaugondy's own Receuil de 10 Cartes Traitant Particulierement de l'Amérique du Nord (1779). The legend reads:

MAP representing the different representations made of ARCTIC LANDS since 1650 until 1747, to be compared with the following Map, Plate #10 by Mr. de Vaugondy (1773).

Father and son Gilles (1688-1766) and Didier (c. 1723-1786) Robert de Vaugondy were scions of one of France's most influential mapmaking dynasties of the 18th century. They were lucky to inherit the map stock of Sanson (cf. inf.), but soon added their own rigorously researched maps to the mix.

Each of the four maps on this sheet shows the same area of North America's northeast, including Canada's Hudson, Baffin and Button Bays, the Davis Strait and the coast of Labrador, and a southern section of Greenland. But you have to squint to see the resemblance. The discrepancies between them are huge: the bays and peninsulas are shaped differently, islands present on one map are absent on the others. Some toponyms are still familiar today, while others have sunk into obscurity or have been relegated to the realm of myths.

It would have taken geology millions of years to move and mould land masses to the degree suggested here. It took cartography less than a hundred years, from the mid-17th to the mid-18th century.

The first map, in the top left corner, is an excerpt from Amérique Septentrionale ('North America'), a map produced in 1650 by Nicolas Sanson, better known for its portrayal of California as an island. Sanson (1600-1667) is often labelled the 'father of French cartography'. He taught geography to both Louis XIII and XIV as their Royal Geographer, a post to which two of his sons succeeded him.

Sanson's map places the name Estotiland on the northern part of Terre de Labrador, picking up one of the many phantom names first mentioned on the 1558 Zeno map of the North Atlantic (see also #62). The remarkably pointy northeast coast of Labrador is littered with Dutch names such as Ganse Bay (Goose Bay), and Zuydtoosthoeck (Southeast Peninsula), reflecting earlier Dutch exploration. The westernmost lands are Nouveau Danemark (New Denmark), while a seemingly unattached land (in green) just to the east of it is called New North Wales (refreshing, in light of all the attention South Wales usually gets). 

Amérique Septentrionale (1650) by Nicolas Sanson. (Image in the public domain, taken here from Wikimedia Commons)

In the top right corner, a variant of the same geographical area is lifted from America Septentrionalis, produced by Guillaume Delisle (a.k.a. De l'Isle) in 1700 for the Duke of Burgundy. Delisle (1675-1726), who studied under the famous astronomer Jean-Dominique Cassini, was famous for his series of African and American maps, updates of which showing Europe's evolving knowledge of their geographies. Guillaume was the first to name Texas on a map, the first to map the Mississippi correctly, and the one to finally consign the concept of California as an island to the dustbin of cartography. He too became Royal Geographer (and taught the subject to Louis XIV's son). And he too was part of a cartographic dynasty: his brothers Joseph-Nicolas and Louis would serve Peter the Great as astronomers and surveyors. The Delisles were great rivals of the Vaugondys.

On this map, the names on Labrador have been thoroughly frenchified, although Delisle acknowledges the persence of Esquimaux. The three separate islands on Sanson's map have merged into one, possessed of an impressive inlet, the Baie de Cumberland. New North Wales now is a nameless peninsula, on which Cap Confort is the only toponym.

A 1708 reissue by Covens and Mortier of Delisle's North American map from 1700. (Image in the public domain, taken here from Wikimedia Commons)

The next map, bottom left, is also an extract of a larger Delisle map. His Carte du Canada ou de la Nouvelle France (1703) was the first to correctly depict the latitude and longitude of Canada – the result of 7 years of (desk-bound) research – and would remain the standard for many years to come. It is remarkable for its blank spaces, unknown regions which other mapmakers would have filled with conjecture. Delisle's scientific rigour drove him to value first-hand, up-to-date knowledge of the features described on his maps, unlike Sanson, who would sometimes knowlingly publish mistakes and outdated facts. However, Delisle didn't mind hedging his bets by including doubtful features on the map, adding the proviso that their accuracy remained to be established.

Here, Delisle names the island he merged on his previous map James Island (also Île de Jacques), but redivides it into three parts. The Île de Bonne Fortune off the southern tip has disappeared. The Cape Comfort peninsula is still unnamed, but much narrower. The Labrador coast carries the addition: Entrée trouvée par Davis en 1586, a reference absent from Delisle's previous map. The Passage de Bellisle has been renamed Détroit de Bell'isle, and the island to its south is now named Terreneuve (Newfoundland). 

Carte du Canada ou de la Nouvelle France by Guillaume Delisle, first published in 1704. (Image in the public domain, taken here from Wikimedia Commons)

 Finally, bottom right, an extract from a 1747 map based on the travels of the English explorer Henry Ellis (1721-1805), who had set out to discover the Northwest Passage – unsuccessfully, as so many before and after him. His expedition got him into the Royal Society, though. After a spell as slave trader sailing on Jamaica, Ellis was appointed governor of Georgia and later of Nova Scotia, when both were still British colonies. 

This last map is the only one not using a conical projection, but what looks like a Mercator projection. It is the only one to include Lac Supérieur, one of the Great Lakes south of the Hudson Bay and the Golfe St. Laurent, narrowing to the eponymous river that flows past Québec. Labrador is endowed with a Golfe de Davis on its eastern shore, and a Mer nouvellement découverte ('Newly Discovered Sea') on its west. The western shore of the Hudson Bay is shown in great detail, with many bays, capes and rivers named. The phantom island dangling off Greenland's southern coast looks a lot like Frisland, placed just to the east thereof on the Coronelli map shown in #62.

Nouvelle Carte de Parties, ou l'on cherche le Passage de Nord-Ouest dans les annees 1746 et 1747, Representant la route des Vaisseaux dans cett expedition, Par Henry Ellis. (Image in the public domain. Found here on Rare Maps)

Despite their differences, and their many overlapping accuracies, all four maps share at least one fallacy: each shows the Frobisher Strait dissecting the southern tip of Greenland, placing Cape Farewell, that island's southern tip, on a separate island. The Strait was named after Sir Martin Frobisher (c. 1535-1594), sometime pirate and one of the earliest explorers to search for the Northwest Passage. On one of his trips to the Canadian Arctic, Frobisher had mistaken what is now called Frobisher Bay, on Baffin Island, for a strait that might lead to all the way Asia. Somehow, that geographic error was compounded thereafter by moving the Strait to Greenland. 

The four maps on the Vaugondy-Diderot sheet contain much more convergence and divergence, truth and error. Explore at leisure, but don't get lost! For more on Vaugondy mapping the Arctic (but on the northwestern side of the American continent), see #548.

The Vaugondy-Diderot map and excerpts are in the public domain. Found here  on Wikimedia Commons.

Strange Maps #692

Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.

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Upstreamism advocate Rishi Manchanda calls us to understand health not as a "personal responsibility" but a "common good."

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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.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • 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.