Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Why Swiss maps are full of hidden secrets
Cartography is serious business in Switzerland — but once in a while, the occasional map gag slips through.
- The Swiss are not known for their sense of humor, but perhaps we've not been looking hard enough.
- Over the decades, Swiss cartographers have sprinkled plenty of "Easter eggs" across otherwise serious maps.
- The oldest one, a naked lady, has been removed — but the marmot, the haunted monk, and others are still there.
Swiss humor. Now there's two words you don't often see together. In fact, Google Trends lists zero occurrences of the phrase between 2004 and now. Even "German humor" produces a graph (albeit a rather flat one). But not only is there some evidence that Swiss comedy does exist, it might just be that being well-hidden is kind of its thing. Find it and laugh. Or don't, and the joke's on you!
That evidence, as it turns out, is cartographic. The Swiss Federal Office of National Topography, Swisstopo for short, is a decidedly serious institution. Many serious things — time and money, for starters — depend on the accuracy of its maps. In the case of its mountain maps, actual lives hang in the balance. Yet in decades past, the austere institute's maps have served as the canvas for a series of in-jokes among its more fun-loving cartographers.
These mapmakers played a game of wits against their superiors, the ones whose duties included checking the maps before publication. Over the years, the cartographers managed to slip in — on maps that were supposed to contain only dry topographic facts — drawings of an airplane, a fish, a marmot, a mountaineer, a face, a spider, even of a naked lady. Once discovered, these humorous additions were removed without pardon. At least, that's how it used to be.
Either way, it doesn't matter. Swisstopo is defeated by its own thoroughness. Its map page allows you not just to zoom in and out of the most recent maps but also to browse historical maps and thus revisit these "Easter eggs" that prove, however obliquely, the existence of a sense of humor among the mountains of Switzerland.
The plane that disappeared — twice
The craft's first appearance on the 1994 map (circled, left), and its absence on the most recent map (2018).Credit: Swisstopo
In 1994, an anonymous cartographer at Swisstopo included an airplane in this map of Kloten, the international airport of Zürich. While it may seem only natural for airplanes to show up at airports, that is normally not the case on topographic maps.
The error remained undetected until a revision of the map in 2000, when the offending craft was erased. However, the plane reappeared on the 2007 map at exactly the same spot – the tarmac before Gate A – only to vanish again in 2013.
The Naked Lady of Künten
The abstract figure appeared in 1954 (circled, left), but she was clearly inspired by the area's actual topography (2018, right).Credit: Swisstopo
Possibly the oldest topographical Easter egg, and the current record holder for the longest-lasting one, is the Naked Lady of Künten. First appearing on the topographical map of 1954, the reclining figure wasn't discovered until 2012. Admittedly, without head, arms and feet, she is hard to spot. Her odalisque-like forms are suggested by the curvature of a stream and an elongated green patch indicating vegetation.
The world — or at least that bit between Eggenrain and Sunnenberg — was put to right again in the 2013 edition of the local map. But it's still easy to see how that particular distribution of topographic features could have inspired a lonely 1950s cartographer to pencil in something that wasn't there.
A Swiss fish in a French lake
In 1980, a giant fish appeared at the southern end of a French lake (left). By 1986, it had been caught (right, the 2018 map).Credit: Swisstopo
It was never discovered who reshaped the aforementioned landscape feature into a female form. But the younger generation of Easter-eggers is known by name.
In 1980, Werner Leuenberger even went international. He drew a fish at the southern end of the Lac de Remoray, a small lake just across the Franco-Swiss border. The fish felt right at home among the lines marking out the area as swampy. However, it was caught five years later, and has been left off the map since 1986.
Attack of the giant Eiger spider
This giant spider (left, 1981 map) survived for half a dozen years near the top of the Eiger (spider-free, 2018 map).Credit: Swisstopo
In 1981, Othmar Wyss inserted a spider near the top of the Eiger, one of Switzerland's most iconic Alpine summits, at a location actually known by mountaineers as quite dangerous.
The giant spider survived for six years in the freezing cold. The snowfield that made up the spider's body — and made the northern approach of the Eiger so hard — has apparently also disappeared in the intervening years.
Haunted monk trapped in a map
The 1979 map (left), a year before the addition of the eerie face (right).Credit: Swisstopo
A rock formation on a slope of the Harder Kulm, a mountain near Interlaken, looks like a face. This is the Hardermandli, or "little Harder man." Legend has it that he was a lecherous monk, condemned to look down on the place where he chased a girl to her death.
Cartographer Friedrich Siegfried extended the curse to cartography, for since 1980 and until this day, the Hardermandli also lives on the map.
Beats waiting for the Italians
Another case of a map gag surviving to this day. Left, the unadorned mountain flank on a 1996 map; right, the mountaineer as he can be seen climbing toward Switzerland now. Credit: Swisstopo
For the 1997 map update, Mr. Siegfried etched the likeness of a mountaineer on the Italian side of a mountain slope near Val Müstair. Reportedly, he got tired of waiting on the data for the area, which his Italian counterparts were slow to provide, so he found a creative way to plug the gap. Topography, like nature, also abhors a vacuum, apparently.
Swisstopo seems to have taken to heart the cartographer's slight against his Italian colleagues, because the mountaineer still appears on the contemporary map, in 1:100,000 scale at least.
The marmot of the Aletsch glacier
What the area of the Aletsch glacier looked like until 2010 (left), and how it's changed since (right, 2018 map). Both maps 1:25,000.Credit: Swisstopo
Swisstopo's most famous map gag — or at least the most recent one to be revealed, in 2014 — is the marmot, which has been hiding in a rock near the Aletsch glacier since it was put there by cartographer Paul Ehrlich in 2011, shortly before his retirement. The marmot is still there, and perhaps it and its fellow map oddities may be allowed to survive.
On its website, Swisstopo says that "these hidden drawings do not affect the accuracy and level of detail of our maps, nor on the safety and security of their users. They merely add a note of mystery to our nation's maps."
Are there any other gags hidden in the official maps of Switzerland? Swisstopo itself claims it has no knowledge of any other cartographic oddities. But knowing and not telling, that's exactly the kind of thing they would find funny, isn't it?
Strange Maps #1085
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Bizarre maps of Austria - Big Think ›
- Did Michelangelo Hide Secret Messages in the Sistine Chapel's ... ›
- Google, a hidden history of secret games - Big Think ›
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.
The distances between the stars are so vast that they can make your brain melt. Take for example the Voyager 1 probe, which has been traveling at 35,000 miles per hour for more than 40 years and was the first human object to cross into interstellar space. That sounds wonderful except, at its current speed, it will still take another 40,000 years to cross the typical distance between stars.
Worse still, if you are thinking about interstellar travel, nature provides a hard limit on acceleration and speed. As Einstein showed, it's impossible to accelerate any massive object beyond the speed of light. Since the galaxy is more than 100,000 light-years across, if you are traveling at less than light speed, then most interstellar distances would take more than a human lifetime to cross. If the known laws of physics hold, then it seems a galaxy-spanning human civilization is impossible.
Unless of course you can build a warp drive.
Ah, the warp drive, that darling of science fiction plot devices. So, what about a warp drive? Is that even a really a thing?
Let's start with the "warping" part of a warp drive. Without doubt, Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity ("GR") represents space and time as a 4-dimensional "fabric" that can be stretched and bent and folded. Gravity waves, representing ripples in the fabric of spacetime, have now been directly observed. So, yes spacetime can be warped. The warping part of a warp drive usually means distorting the shape of spacetime so that two distant locations can be brought close together — and you somehow "jump" between them.
This was a basic idea in science fiction long before Star Trek popularized the name "warp drive." But until 1994, it had remained science fiction, meaning there was no science behind it. That year, Miguel Alcubierre wrote down a solution to the basic equations of GR that represented a region that compressed spacetime ahead of it and expanded spacetime behind to create a kind of traveling warp bubble. This was really good news for warp drive fans.
The problems with a warp drive
There were some problems though. Most important was that this "Alcubierre drive" required lots of "exotic matter" or "negative energy" to work. Unfortunately, there's no such thing. These are things theorists dreamed up to stick into the GR equations in order to do cool things like make stable open wormholes or functioning warp drives.
It's also noteworthy that researchers have raised other concerns about an Alcubierre drive — like how it would violate quantum mechanics or how when you arrived at your destination it would destroy everything in front of the ship in an apocalyptic flash of radiation.
Warp drives: A new hope
Credit: Primada / 420366373 via Adobe Stock
Recently, however, there seemed to be good news on the warp drive front with the publication this April of a new paper by Alexey Bobrick and Gianni Martre entitled "Introducing Physical Warp Drives." The good thing about the Bobrick and Martre paper was it was extremely clear about the meaning of a warp drive.
Understanding the equations of GR means understanding what's on either side of the equals sign. On one side, there is the shape of spacetime, and on the other, there is the configuration of matter-energy. The traditional route with these equations is to start with a configuration of matter-energy and see what shape of spacetime it produces. But you can also go the other way around and assume the shape of spacetime you want (like a warp bubble) and determine what kind of configuration of matter-energy you will need (even if that matter-energy is the dream stuff of negative energy).
Warp drives are simpler and much less mysterious objects than the broader literature has suggested.
What Bobrick and Martre did was step back and look at the problem more generally. They showed how all warp drives were composed of three regions: an interior spacetime called the passenger space; a shell of material, with either positive or negative energy, called the warping region; and an outside that, far enough away, looks like normal unwarped spacetime. In this way they could see exactly what was and was not possible for any kind of warp drive. (Watch this lovely explainer by Sabine Hossenfelder for more details). They even showed that you could use good old normal matter to create a warp drive that, while it moved slower than light speed, produced a passenger area where time flowed at a different rate than in the outside spacetime. So even though it was a sub-light speed device, it was still an actual warp drive that could use normal matter.
That was the good news.
The bad news was this clear vision also showed them a real problem with the "drive" part of the Alcubierre drive. First of all, it still needed negative energy to work, so that bummer remains. But worse, Bobrick and Martre reaffirmed a basic understanding of relativity and saw that there was no way to accelerate an Alcubierre drive past light speed. Sure, you could just assume that you started with something moving faster than light, and the Alcubierre drive with its negative energy shell would make sense. But crossing the speed of light barrier was still prohibited.
So, in the end, the Star Trek version of the warp drive is still not a thing. I know this may bum you out if you were hoping to build that version of the Enterprise sometime soon (as I was). But don't be too despondent. The Bobrick and Martre paper really did make headway. As the authors put it in the end:
"One of the main conclusions of our study is that warp drives are simpler and much less mysterious objects than the broader literature has suggested"
That really is progress.
The Black Death wasn't the only plague in the 1300s.
- In a unique study, researchers have determined how many people in medieval England had bunions
- A fashion trend towards pointed toe shoes made the affliction common.
- Even monks got in on the trend, much to their discomfort later in life.
Late Medieval England had its share of problems. The Wars of Roses raged, the Black Death killed off large parts of the population, and passing ruffians could say "Ni" at will to old ladies.
To make matters worse, a first of its kind study published in the International Journal of Paleopathology has demonstrated that much of the population suffered from another plague — a plague of bunions likely caused by a ridiculous medieval fashion trend.
If the shoe fits, it won't cause bunions
The outlines of a leather shoe from the King's Ditch, Cambridge. It is easy to see how these shoes might be constricting. Copyright Cambridge Archaeological Unit.
The bunion, known to medicine as "hallux valgus," is a deformity of the joint connecting the big toe to the rest of the foot. It is painful and can cause other issues including poor balance. The condition is associated with having worn constrictive shoes for a long period of time as well as genetic factors. Today, it is often caused by wearing high heeled shoes.
The medieval English didn't care for high heeled shoes as much as modern fashionistas, but there was a major fashion trend toward shoes with long, pointed toes called "poulaines" or "crakows" for their supposed place of origin, Krakow, Poland.
This trend, already silly-looking to a modern observer, got out of hand in a hurry. According to some records, the points on nobleman's shoes could be so long as to require tying them to the leg with string so the wearer could walk. At one point, King Edward IV had to ban commoners from wearing points longer than two inches. A couple years later, he saw fit to ban the shoes altogether.
But, just knowing that people back in the day made poor fashion choices doesn't prove they suffered for it. That is where digging up old skeletons to look at their feet comes in.
Beauty is pain: the price of high medieval fashion
To learn how bad the bunion epidemic was, the researchers looked to four burial sites in and around Cambridge. One was a rural cemetery where poor peasants were buried. Another was the All Saints by the Castle parish, which had a mixed collection of people that tended toward poverty. The Hospital of St. John's burial ground contained both the poor charges of a charity hospital and wealthy benefactors. Lastly, they considered the cemetery of a local Augustinian friary, home to monks and well-to-do philanthropists.
The team considered 177 adult skeletons that were at least a quarter complete and still had enough of their feet to make studying them possible. The remains were classified by age and sex by observation and DNA testing. Each was examined for evidence of bunions and signs of complications from the condition, such as falling.
Those buried in the monastery's graveyard were the most affected. Nearly half, 43 percent, of the remains found there had bunions. This includes five of the eleven members of the clergy they found. Twenty-three percent of those laid to rest at the Hospital of St. John had bunions, though only 10 percent of those at the All Saints by the Castle parish graveyard did.
The rural cemetery had a much lower rate of instances, only three percent, suggesting that these peasants were able to avoid at least one plague.
Overall, eighteen percent of the individuals examined had bunions, with men more likely to have them than women. Those at cemeteries known for exclusivity were more likely to have them as well, though it is clear that the condition also affected members of other classes. This makes sense, as it is known that these shoes had mass appeal.
The authors note that the rural cemetery having fewer cases is partly because that cemetery "went out of use prior to the wide adoption of pointed shoes, and it is likely that those residing in the parish predominately wore soft leather shoes, or possibly went barefoot."
Those skeletons with evidence of bunions were more likely to have fractures indicative of a fall. This was more common on those estimated or recorded as having lived past age 45.
In our much more enlightened times, 23 percent of the population currently endures having bunions, most of them women, and one of the leading culprits behind this is the high heeled shoe.
Some things never change.