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California, an island? Meet cartography's most persistent mistake
The Glen McLaughlin Collection brings together more than 700 historical examples of 'California as an island'.
- California was born a fiction: named after a made-up island the name of which could be translated as 'caliphate'.
- For centuries, California was a cartographic fiction as well: it was shown as an island until as late as 1865.
- Over 40 years, Glen McLaughlin dug up more than 700 maps of California as an island – the world's biggest collection on cartography's most persistent mistake.
A nameless peninsula
Detail of an early woodcut world map by Francisco Lopez de Gomara (Zaragoza, 1553). The oldest map in the McLaughlin Collection, it shows California nameless for now, but with its correct, peninsular shape.
In 1971, Glen McLaughlin came across a strange map in a London map shop. Americæ Nova Descriptio, produced by Anne Seile (1) in 1663, showed California as a big, carrot-shaped island, floating off the coast of North America.
McLaughlin, a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley, bought the map and hung it on a wall at home. It turned into a popular talking point with visitors, and California-as-an-island became McLaughlin's decades-long obsession.
Over the next 40 years, he collected more than 700 maps, charts and other cartographic objects on the topic, building up a visual library of what is one of history's most persistent cartographic fallacies.
Detail of 'Granata Nova et California', a map by Corneille Wytfliet, published in Leuven in 1597. It's the oldest map in the collection to label the west coast of North America as 'California'. Again the region is shown, correctly, as a peninsula.
Perhaps that persistence and McLaughlin's obsession spring from the same source. Even though California geographically isn't an island, it does tend to feel like a place separate from the 'mainland'.
Indeed, in more ways than one, California is a one-off. Some metrics are obvious. It's so vast and varied that it could easily be a country on its own, let alone an island. California is the largest state by population (40 million) and GDP ($3 trillion, 15% of the U.S. total). It's home to both the highest and lowest points in the contiguous United States: Mt Whitney (14,505 ft; 4,421 m) and Badwater Basin in Death Valley (-282 ft, -86 m).
But the Golden State is special in a more intangible way as well. It's where America's westward expansion met its ultimate physical barrier: Manifest Destiny, say hi to Pacific Ocean. Both the 1849 Gold Rush and the birth of Hollywood, half a century later, merely confirmed the image of California in the popular mind as the final destination of the American Dream – there to flourish or wilt.
Detail of the second title page of 'Descriptio Indiæ Occidentalis' by Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas, published in Amsterdam in 1622. This is the earliest map to show California as an island.
It's fitting that a state so synonymous with storytelling should have started out as an invention itself. California is the only state that was named after a fictional place. Bound up with its name was the misconception that California was an island – and so it would remain on many maps, until as late as 1865.
In 1533, a mutineer from Hernan Cortez' expedition into Mexico landed on a peninsula so elongated that he mistook it for an island. He named it after a fictional island in Las Sergas de Esplandian ('The Deeds of Esplandian'), a romantic novel then popular in Spain. It says that:
"[O]n the right hand of the Indies there is an island called California very close to the side of the Terrestrial Paradise; and it is peopled by black women, without any man among them, for they live in the manner of the Amazons."
The women were gorgeous, brave and strong, and their weapons were all made of gold – the only metal available on the island.
Silver coin struck by Laurens van Teylingden to commemorate the capture of the Spanish silver fleet by Dutch admiral Piet Heyn, in 1628 off Matanzas Bay in Cuba. It's the only known representation of California Island on a medal.
Though the name 'California' can be traced to a specific novel, its etymology remains disputed. In the novel, the island is ruled by Queen Calafia. Her job title suggests a derivation from the Arabic 'caliph' ('ruler') – 'California' would thus mean something like 'Caliphate'.
Another theory pinpoints the name's origin to 'Califerne', a place mentioned in verse CCIX of the medieval Song of Roland (and also deriving from 'caliph'), while a third one posits a derivation from 'Kar-i-Farn', Persian for 'Mountain of Paradise'. One more: 'calit fornay', Old Spanish meaning 'hot furnace'.
As early as 1539, an expedition by Francisco de Ulloa demonstrated that the area (near the southern tip of present-day Baja California, Mexico) was a peninsula after all. But fiction proved stronger than fact. Even though the earliest maps do show California attached to the mainland, the name for the place stuck.
Spanish vs. English
Detail of 'Americque Septentrionale' by Nicolas Sanson (Utrecht, ca. 1682). Classic representation of California as an island, with some extra fantasy islands added to the narrows separating it from the mainland.
But the idea of the island of California proved pretty tenacious too. After an 80-year period of continental attachment, California started to appear on maps as an island, from 1622 onward and far into the 18th century.
California's insular revival is generally ascribed to Antonio de la Ascension, a Spanish clergyman who had sailed along North America's West Coast in the early 1600s and yet, contrary to the evidence, claimed California was an island.
Perhaps this was to invalidate the English claim on the continent. In 1579, Sir Francis Drake had landed at a place he called 'Nova Albion' (today known to be Point Reyes, California), and claimed the region for England. If Drake's landing could be situated on an island, De la Ascension seems to have thought, Spain's claim to the mainland itself would remain undisputed.
Introduction to the chapter on America in Robert Morden's 'Geography Rectified' (London, 1700). Fighting a losing battle on the naming of the New World ("commonly, but improperly, termed America"), but cool with the name California, and with its insularity.
That it would take more than a century to set the record straight again speaks to California's by now semi-legendary status. Other famous cartographic legends on the map of the Americas include Norumbega, El Dorado and Siete Ciudades.
Father Eusebio Kino's expedition (1698-1701) proved – again – that California was connected to the North American mainland. The title of his report left no doubt: 'A passage by land to California'. Still, not everyone was prepared to give up the ghost of California Island.
However, by 1747, king Ferdinand VI of Spain had had enough. Tiring of the persistent falsehood infesting his maps, he simply decreed that "California is not an island". Only after this was reconfirmed by the expeditions of Juan Bautista de Anza (1774-1776) was the fiction definitively laid to rest.
A lunar view
'Facies terrae americana in luna conspecta' ('The American face of the Earth, from a lunar perspective'): map by John Seller, part of his 'Atlas Coelestis' (London, ca. 1700). The island of California is the smaller mistake on this map – there's also a giant southern continent almost touching the southern tip of South America.
But it's hard to kill a ghost, and cartographic spectres are particularly persistent. Even as the rest of the world caught up with the facts on the ground, a Japanese map in 1865 showed California – by then thoroughly explored, well described and increasingly populated – as an island nevertheless, the last such occurrence in cartographic history.
Glen McLaughlin's collection is testament to the mesmerising power of map mistakes, over other cartographers and over collectors like himself. In 2011, and by then in his 80s, he had had enough, though: he parted with his collection, which was acquired in its entirety by Stanford University. It's now online in its entirety, featuring these maps and many others.
Mapmaking by committee
Title page illustration for Heinrich Scherer's 'Geographia Artificialis' (Munich, 1703), showing six symbolic figures (clockwise from the top: Topography, Astronomy, Mathematics, Drawing, Geometry and History) collaborating to produce a globe – which despite their best efforts shows California as an island.
'A Map of all the EARTH and how after the Flood it Was Divided among the Sons of Noah'. (Joseph Moxon, London, 1711). California is on the extreme right of the map, almost falling off (a fate that often befalls New Zealand these days). North America is green, and labelled 'Japhet'. California is yellow, but it's unclear whether this indicates it belongs to another son of Noah's (or which one).
A giant carrot
'La Californie ou Nouvelle Caroline': map by Nicolas de Fer (Paris, 1720) showing California in the shape and colour of a giant carrot, floating off the coast of North America, and proposing an alternate name for the island: 'New Carolina'. The text relates to the missionary work of the Jesuits in the area.
Catholics and heathens
Detail of a 1725 map by Christoph Weigel, showing California as a large island, with a sketchy territory to its north, labelled 'Terra Essonis'. Helpful legend in the top left corner: 'Gold Catholisch; Erdfarb Heydnisch' (yellow-coloured countries: catholic; earthen-coloured countries: heathen). California counts as catholic, as does Florida.
A polar perspective
Hemispherical map centred on the North Pole, created by Isaak Tirion in Amsterdam in 1735, showing the northern tip of the island of California (circled).
East is east and west is west
Detail of a map by Richard William Seale, created in London in 1745. While the East Coast is shaping up with names and borders still recognisable today, the West Coast is still dominated by that huge, floating island – rendered in great detail for added believability.
California as a Pacific island
'De Groote Zuyd-Zee en 't Eylandt California', created by R. and J. Ottens and printed in Amsterdam in 1745. The map shows California as a Pacific island, larger than Japan and much more defined than Australia or New Zealand, traced only in partial outlines and labelled Hollandia Nova and Zeelandia Nova.
Detail of 'L'Amérique Septentrionale', created by Jacques Chiquet in 1721 and published in Amsterdam around 1749. It shows a huge and well-defined island of California, its southern tip touching the Tropic of Cancer, facing New Mexico and New Spain across the narrow Vermillion Sea.
Drawing a blank
Detail of a map published in 1772 by Augsburg cartographer Tobias Lotter, based on earlier work by Guillaume de l'Isle. Rather than choosing between a peninsular or an insular version California, it hedges its bets by blanking out the northern part of the narrow 'Californian Sea'.
Detail of 'Novae Orbis sive Americe Septentrionalis', a map by Matthaeus Seutter (Augsburg, ca. 1790). It shows a particularly stretchy version of the Californian island, with numerous coastal place names (capes, islands) and both Drake's Nova Albion and San Diego on the island itself.
Unmade in Japan
The last representation of California as an island (in red): detail of a map published in 1865 by Shuzo Sato in Japan.
Strange Maps #980
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(1) Continuing her husband Henry's mapmaking business after his death in 1662, Anne Seile is one of the first female mapmakers we know of.
So much for rest in peace.
- Australian scientists found that bodies kept moving for 17 months after being pronounced dead.
- Researchers used photography capture technology in 30-minute intervals every day to capture the movement.
- This study could help better identify time of death.
We're learning more new things about death everyday. Much has been said and theorized about the great divide between life and the Great Beyond. While everyone and every culture has their own philosophies and unique ideas on the subject, we're beginning to learn a lot of new scientific facts about the deceased corporeal form.
An Australian scientist has found that human bodies move for more than a year after being pronounced dead. These findings could have implications for fields as diverse as pathology to criminology.
Dead bodies keep moving
Researcher Alyson Wilson studied and photographed the movements of corpses over a 17 month timeframe. She recently told Agence France Presse about the shocking details of her discovery.
Reportedly, she and her team focused a camera for 17 months at the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER), taking images of a corpse every 30 minutes during the day. For the entire 17 month duration, the corpse continually moved.
"What we found was that the arms were significantly moving, so that arms that started off down beside the body ended up out to the side of the body," Wilson said.
The researchers mostly expected some kind of movement during the very early stages of decomposition, but Wilson further explained that their continual movement completely surprised the team:
"We think the movements relate to the process of decomposition, as the body mummifies and the ligaments dry out."
During one of the studies, arms that had been next to the body eventually ended up akimbo on their side.
The team's subject was one of the bodies stored at the "body farm," which sits on the outskirts of Sydney. (Wilson took a flight every month to check in on the cadaver.)Her findings were recently published in the journal, Forensic Science International: Synergy.
Implications of the study
The researchers believe that understanding these after death movements and decomposition rate could help better estimate the time of death. Police for example could benefit from this as they'd be able to give a timeframe to missing persons and link that up with an unidentified corpse. According to the team:
"Understanding decomposition rates for a human donor in the Australian environment is important for police, forensic anthropologists, and pathologists for the estimation of PMI to assist with the identification of unknown victims, as well as the investigation of criminal activity."
While scientists haven't found any evidence of necromancy. . . the discovery remains a curious new understanding about what happens with the body after we die.
Metal-like materials have been discovered in a very strange place.
- Bristle worms are odd-looking, spiky, segmented worms with super-strong jaws.
- Researchers have discovered that the jaws contain metal.
- It appears that biological processes could one day be used to manufacture metals.
The bristle worm, also known as polychaetes, has been around for an estimated 500 million years. Scientists believe that the super-resilient species has survived five mass extinctions, and there are some 10,000 species of them.
Be glad if you haven't encountered a bristle worm. Getting stung by one is an extremely itchy affair, as people who own saltwater aquariums can tell you after they've accidentally touched a bristle worm that hitchhiked into a tank aboard a live rock.
Bristle worms are typically one to six inches long when found in a tank, but capable of growing up to 24 inches long. All polychaetes have a segmented body, with each segment possessing a pair of legs, or parapodia, with tiny bristles. ("Polychaeate" is Greek for "much hair.") The parapodia and its bristles can shoot outward to snag prey, which is then transferred to a bristle worm's eversible mouth.
The jaws of one bristle worm — Platynereis dumerilii — are super-tough, virtually unbreakable. It turns out, according to a new study from researchers at the Technical University of Vienna, this strength is due to metal atoms.
Metals, not minerals
Fireworm, a type of bristle wormCredit: prilfish / Flickr
This is pretty unusual. The study's senior author Christian Hellmich explains: "The materials that vertebrates are made of are well researched. Bones, for example, are very hierarchically structured: There are organic and mineral parts, tiny structures are combined to form larger structures, which in turn form even larger structures."
The bristle worm jaw, by contrast, replaces the minerals from which other creatures' bones are built with atoms of magnesium and zinc arranged in a super-strong structure. It's this structure that is key. "On its own," he says, "the fact that there are metal atoms in the bristle worm jaw does not explain its excellent material properties."
Just deformable enough
Credit: by-studio / Adobe Stock
What makes conventional metal so strong is not just its atoms but the interactions between the atoms and the ways in which they slide against each other. The sliding allows for a small amount of elastoplastic deformation when pressure is applied, endowing metals with just enough malleability not to break, crack, or shatter.
Co-author Florian Raible of Max Perutz Labs surmises, "The construction principle that has made bristle worm jaws so successful apparently originated about 500 million years ago."
Raible explains, "The metal ions are incorporated directly into the protein chains and then ensure that different protein chains are held together." This leads to the creation of three-dimensional shapes the bristle worm can pack together into a structure that's just malleable enough to withstand a significant amount of force.
"It is precisely this combination," says the study's lead author Luis Zelaya-Lainez, "of high strength and deformability that is normally characteristic of metals.
So the bristle worm jaw is both metal-like and yet not. As Zelaya-Lainez puts it, "Here we are dealing with a completely different material, but interestingly, the metal atoms still provide strength and deformability there, just like in a piece of metal."
Observing the creation of a metal-like material from biological processes is a bit of a surprise and may suggest new approaches to materials development. "Biology could serve as inspiration here," says Hellmich, "for completely new kinds of materials. Perhaps it is even possible to produce high-performance materials in a biological way — much more efficiently and environmentally friendly than we manage today."
Dealing with rudeness can nudge you toward cognitive errors.
- Anchoring is a common bias that makes people fixate on one piece of data.
- A study showed that those who experienced rudeness were more likely to anchor themselves to bad data.
- In some simulations with medical students, this effect led to higher mortality rates.
Cognitive biases are funny little things. Everyone has them, nobody likes to admit it, and they can range from minor to severe depending on the situation. Biases can be influenced by factors as subtle as our mood or various personality traits.
A new study soon to be published in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests that experiencing rudeness can be added to the list. More disturbingly, the study's findings suggest that it is a strong enough effect to impact how medical professionals diagnose patients.
Life hack: don't be rude to your doctor
The team of researchers behind the project tested to see if participants could be influenced by the common anchoring bias, defined by the researchers as "the tendency to rely too heavily or fixate on one piece of information when making judgments and decisions." Most people have experienced it. One of its more common forms involves being given a particular value, say in negotiations on price, which then becomes the center of reasoning even when reason would suggest that number should be ignored.
It can also pop up in medicine. As co-author Dr. Trevor Foulk explains, "If you go into the doctor and say 'I think I'm having a heart attack,' that can become an anchor and the doctor may get fixated on that diagnosis, even if you're just having indigestion. If doctors don't move off anchors enough, they'll start treating the wrong thing."
Lots of things can make somebody more or less likely to anchor themselves to an idea. The authors of the study, who have several papers on the effects of rudeness, decided to see if that could also cause people to stumble into cognitive errors. Past research suggested that exposure to rudeness can limit people's perspective — perhaps anchoring them.
In the first version of the study, medical students were given a hypothetical patient to treat and access to information on their condition alongside an (incorrect) suggestion on what the condition was. This served as the anchor. In some versions of the tests, the students overheard two doctors arguing rudely before diagnosing the patient. Later variations switched the diagnosis test for business negotiations or workplace tasks while maintaining the exposure to rudeness.
Across all iterations of the test, those exposed to rudeness were more likely to anchor themselves to the initial, incorrect suggestion despite the availability of evidence against it. This was less significant for study participants who scored higher on a test of how wide of a perspective they tended to have. The disposition of these participants, who answered in the affirmative to questions like, "Before criticizing somebody, I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in his/her place," was able to effectively negate the narrowing effects of rudeness.
What this means for you and your healthcare
The effects of anchoring when a medical diagnosis is on the line can be substantial. Dr. Foulk explains that, in some simulations, exposure to rudeness can raise the mortality rate as doctors fixate on the wrong problems.
The authors of the study suggest that managers take a keener interest in ensuring civility in workplaces and giving employees the tools they need to avoid judgment errors after dealing with rudeness. These steps could help prevent anchoring.
Also, you might consider being nicer to people.