Each map is worth a thousand pictures

The Data Atlas of the World specialises in simple yet revealing maps of the world.

​Cartogram of population sizes per country.

Cartogram of population sizes per country.

Image courtesy of Carrie Osgood / Data Atlas of the World
  • Few simple things are as expressive as a well-crafted cartogram.
  • The Data Atlas of the World provides a simple overview of complex data.
  • Based on neutral datasets, this growing collection offers context without bias.

A picture is worth a thousand words, they say. And a map? If it's a good one: at least a thousand pictures. Few simple things are as immediately expressive as a well-crafted cartogram – a map adapted to demonstrate the range of a certain dataset.

For some good examples, head over to the Data Atlas of the World, a growing collection of world maps, each revealing at a single glance the state of the planet, for such aspects as the population density, the distribution of religion, the level of corruption, variations in life expectancy and GDP, and many other parameters.

Here are a few examples:

Country sizes

What if the best cartographic projection is not a map but a cartogram instead?

What if the best cartographic projection is not a map but a cartogram instead?

Image courtesy of Carrie Osgood / Data Atlas of the World

Wait a minute, do we need a special map to show us how big the world's countries are? Don't our regular maps do a good enough job? Actually… No.

The earth is a globe – almost everyone is on board with that (see #1017). That's a three-dimensional object – one dimension more than your standard, flat map. Ergo: any cartographic projection of a globe onto a map will lead to some distortion of geographic fact.

And the Mercator projection, still popular after all these centuries, will do so more than most – especially towards the north and south poles. Check out #954, an earlier post showing you how to drag and drop whole countries on top of each other to get a sense of their actual sizes.

However, this map neatly solves the problem of the missing dimension. It turns each country into a circle corresponding to its geographic size – without the distortive effect of cartographic projection.

Russia clearly is the world's largest country, but not as large as 'Mercator Russia'. The other geographic giants stand out immediately: Canada, the US, Brazil, China and Australia – curiously, all just about of equal size.

Sprinkled across most continents are mid-sized nations like Argentina, DR Congo and India. Only Europe consists entirely of countries that are either relatively small – yes, that includes you, France, UK and Germany – or positively tiny.

Population sizes

Territorial giants can be population mini-mes, and vice versa.

Territorial giants can be population mini-mes, and vice versa.

Image courtesy of Carrie Osgood / Data Atlas of the World

Isn't it curious that Argentina and India are in the same geographic size category? Because their population sizes almost couldn't be farther apart: India has 1.4 billion inhabitants, give or take a few million. Argentina only has about 45 million. That's one thirty-first of India's population!

This map reflects that difference. The dataset powering the cartogram isn't area, but population. And it's a whole different world.

A geographic mini-me like Bangladesh now rivals a territorial giant like Russia for size. (In fact, there are now considerably more Bangladeshi than Russians: 165 vs. 146 million). As mentioned, India blows Argentina away. And China is the biggest cheese wheel on this map, about 50 million inhabitants ahead of India – for now.

Canada and Australia, so visible on the previous map, have shrivelled away – totally overshadowed by their respective neighbors, the US and Indonesia. Nigeria is Africa's population superstar, while it's now more obvious which are the so-called Big Five countries in western Europe: the UK, France, Germany, Spain and Italy.

CO2 emissions

Emission levels are a crude indication of economic development \u2013 and a more acute one of environmental damage.

Emission levels are a crude indication of economic development – and a more acute one of environmental damage.

Image courtesy of Carrie Osgood / Data Atlas of the World

Here's another way the global cookie crumbles: Carbon dioxide emissions. As a by-product of industrialisation, it's a crude measure of a country's economic maturity.

But as a greenhouse gas, CO2 contributes to climate change. Most countries have agreed to cut back their emissions. In virtual unanimity, the world's countries in 2016 decided to reduce their CO2 emissions.

As this map shows, they've got their work cut out for them. If we look at CO2 emissions in absolute terms, China again leads the world, with the US and India in second and third place.

Put together, Europe's various states put the continent firmly on the world map, with major contributions by Russia and Germany.

Africa's CO2 emissions are negligible by comparison, except for South Africa, the continent's most industrialised economy. In Latin America, only Mexico and Brazil belch out CO2 in world-class quantities.

The emissions of the world's most advanced economies have to start coming down quickly – as per the 2016 Paris Agreement. In the first place, to avoid overheating the planet.

But by extension, the more sustainable methods of energy generation now being developed will also give developing economies a chance to catch up without frying the planet. The alternative? Just imagine each of those circles in Africa swelling to European size. Then we might as well start packing our bags for Antarctica (see #842).


Strange Maps #1022

For these and many more insights into the world today and tomorrow, visit the Data Atlas of the World. The collection grew out of a world map of religions, previously discussed here (see #967).

These and other samples are free to view. More (and more detailed) maps with country labels and data specifics are available behind the paywall.

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

    This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

    A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

    Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
    Surprising Science
    • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
    • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
    • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

    First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

    Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

    All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

    BepiColombo

    Image source: European Space Agency

    The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

    Into and out of Earth's shadow

    In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

    The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

    In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

    When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

    Magentosphere melody

    The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

    BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

    MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

    Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

    Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
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    Water may be far more abundant on the lunar surface than previously thought.

    Lunar surface

    Credit: Helen_f via AdobeStock
    Surprising Science
    • Scientists have long thought that water exists on the lunar surface, but it wasn't until 2018 that ice was first discovered on the moon.
    • A study published Monday used NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy to confirm the presence of molecular water..
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