Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Sierra Leone is the world’s roundest country (and Egypt the squarest one)
Mind-boggling as it is, some of the world's roundest countries are also some of the most rectangular ones.
Take look at a map of Turkey and you'll have to agree: it’s a curiously box-shaped country. Why is the wrong question. Like most international borders, Turkey's are the result of geopolitical accident, not of aesthetic or geometric design. A more pertinent query: How rectangular is Turkey? Is it, perhaps, the most rectangular country in the world?
To answer that question, you'd have to find a dataset that minutely describes the borders of all countries on Earth and devise an algorithm that compares each country's shape to an optimum rectangle with the same area.
That's exactly what Australian geo-statistician David Barry did. His conclusion: Turkey is only the 15th most rectangular country in the world. The winner: Egypt.
Inevitably, one esoteric geographical question led to its opposite: What is the roundest country in the world? That one was answered by Gonzalo Ciruelos, an Argentinian mathematician. The top of that ranking is Sierra Leone.
As the winners in both categories indicate, Africa is a country of great diversity in geopolitical morphology. But the most curious country in either ranking is... the Vatican. As it turns out, the Papal State is both the 4th roundest and the 2nd most rectangular country in the world. How is that possible?
First, let's have a closer look at the results. In Mr Barry's definition, 'optimum rectangularity' is the maximum percentage overlap of a country with a rectangle of the same area.
He's the first to admit that his algorithm may be inadequate for some countries with complex shapes ("Italy looks like the biggest country that might be wrong"), scattered geographies (e.g. Norway, because it includes Bouvet Island, a Norwegian dependency located between South Africa and Antarctica, freakishly far from the motherland) or locations on either side of the 180° longitude meridian (New Zealand, United States, Russia).
Also, the Natural Earth database includes small dependencies such as Scarborough Reef (1) as separate entries, which somewhat distorts a per-country ranking. Still, here goes:
Cutting through empty deserts, Egypt’s eastern and southern borders are completely straight—the Bir Tawil Trapezoid (2) is a notable but statistically insignificant exception. Combined with a fairly straight Mediterranean coastline in the north and its only slightly slanted Red Sea shore in the east, Egypt gets a ‘rectangularity’ score of 0.955 (out of 1), and the first place.
The Vatican’s actual borders are a lot more varied than this boxy rendition—perhaps because the database wasn’t built to reflect the delineation of the world’s smallest state in the greatest possible detail. That may explain why the geopolitical headquarters of the Catholic church manages to rank second in this list.
Smallness and concurrent lack of detail may explain the high score of Sint-Maarten, one of the Dutch dependencies in the Caribbean, but not of Lesotho—a much bigger enclave state inside South Africa—nor Yemen. Currently torn by a vicious civil war, the latter country may yet dissolve back into North and South Yemen, as was the case until 1990. Its constituent parts would likely tumble far down the global rectangularity rankings, perhaps the most trivial effect of such a separation.
Still rating higher than 0.9 on the rectangularity scale are Ghana and Ivory Coast in Africa, and in Europe Macedonia and Poland—indeed also one of those preternaturally 'boxy'-looking countries. The tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru, for its part, is another one of those countries that looks rectangular by lack of detail in the database.
Sudan lost its southern third (3) in an independence referendum in 2011. As the emptiest of consolations, it gained in rectangularity. It now ranks 11th in the world. Rating 0.916, Eswatini (since 19 April 2018 the new name for Swaziland) loses out by a small margin from its near neighbor Lesotho. Uruguay is the highest Latin American entry.
Both the U.K. and the U.S. are down towards the bottom of the ranking, by the way. The United Kingdom (rating 0.763) is down in 159th place. Largely due to the eccentricity of Alaska (and Hawaii), the United States (rating 0.735) is only the 169th most rectangular country in the world.
Taking a look at the other ranking, Sierra Leone (rating: 0.934) leads the world in national roundness—despite also being the world’s 14th most rectangular country. It’s a nose-length ahead of Nauru (0.923), which is also the world’s 10th most rectangular country.
Zimbabwe (0.915) might have finished first, if it weren’t for the Hwange region in Matabeleland, jutting out of the country’s circle of Optimal Rotundity. The Southern African country is also the world’s 30th most rectangular country, by the way.
As mentioned earlier, the 4th-roundest country is the Vatican, the world’s 2nd most rectangular country. The 5th-roundest country: Poland… on 9th place in the other ranking.
So what does this teach us? Little of any practical value, except this: the fact that the Vatican scores pretty high on both lists has nothing to do with divine intervention. Contrary to common sense, countries can be both very rotund and very rectangular at the same time.
And funnily enough, it’s also the same countries that are both the least round and rectangular: on 208th and last place, the Maldives are the world's least rectangular country, followed by the Marshall Islands (on 207). That same Pacific archipelago is also the world's least round country, with the Maldives trailing just four places behind.
Strange Maps #926
Got a strange map? Let me know at email@example.com.
(1) A shoal in the South China Sea disputed between China, Taiwan and the Philippines. In April 2012, the Chinese Navy prevented their Philippine counterparts from apprehending a number of Chinese fishing vessels off Scarborough Reef (known in Chinese as Huangyan Dao). Since that incident, de facto control over the Reef has passed from the Philippines to China – straining both relations between the Philippines and China, and between the Philippines and the U.S., which did not act to defend the territorial claim of its ally.
(2) Quite possibly the only officially ungoverned territory on Earth, outside Antarctica. See also #396.
(3) South Sudan—infamous as one of the world's data holes (see #843). But not for the aforementioned researchers: the world's youngest nation is the 63rd roundest and 89th most rectangular country in the world.
How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
Meteorologists propose a stunning new explanation for the mysterious events in the Bermuda Triangle.
One of life's great mysteries, the Bermuda Triangle might have finally found an explanation. This strange region, that lies in the North Atlantic Ocean between Bermuda, Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico, has been the presumed cause of dozens and dozens of mind-boggling disappearances of ships and planes.
A unique exoplanet without clouds or haze was found by astrophysicists from Harvard and Smithsonian.
- Astronomers from Harvard and Smithsonian find a very rare "hot Jupiter" exoplanet without clouds or haze.
- Such planets were formed differently from others and offer unique research opportunities.
- Only one other such exoplanet was found previously.
Munazza Alam – a graduate student at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian.
Credit: Jackie Faherty
Jupiter's Colorful Cloud Bands Studied by Spacecraft<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8a72dfe5b407b584cf867852c36211dc"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/GzUzCesfVuw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Scientists discover burrows of giant predator worms that lived on the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- Scientists in Taiwan find the lair of giant predator worms that inhabited the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- The worm is possibly related to the modern bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois).
- The creatures can reach several meters in length and famously ambush their pray.
A three-dimensional model of the feeding behavior of Bobbit worms and the proposed formation of Pennichnus formosae.
Credit: Scientific Reports
Beware the Bobbit Worm!<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1f9918e77851242c91382369581d3aac"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/_As1pHhyDHY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The idea behind the law was simple: make it more difficult for online sex traffickers to find victims.