Like all planets, Earth isn't flat. But globes are bulky and cumbersome, so we still squeeze our 3-D orb onto 2-D maps. And thanks to a clever architect in Tokyo, we have a new map that could change the world — or at least how we picture it.
Created by Hajime Narukawa, the AuthaGraph World Map was recently announced as the winner of the 2016 Good Design Grand Award, one of the most prestigious design awards in Japan. It preserves the proportions of continents and oceans as they're actually arranged on our round planet, yet it's laid out on a 2-D surface.
Flat maps must distort some properties of the planet's surface — like scale or shape — so they can show others accurately. We've learned to tolerate these distortions over time, although it's easy to forget how dramatic they can be.
The centuries-old Mercator projection map, for example, remains widely used even though it wildly exaggerates the size of areas farther from the equator. The image below is a modern version, known as a Miller cylindrical projection. Notice the apparent size of places closer to the poles, like Greenland, Alaska and Antarctica:
Mercator projections like this are common on classroom walls, despite the distortions. (Photo: Strebe/Wikimedia Commons)
Greenland appears to be enormous, spanning more space than Australia on the map, and at least rivaling Africa in size. It's actually 3.5 times smaller than Australia, though, and 14 times smaller than Africa. Alaska also seems comparable to Australia, yet it covers 4.4 times less area in real life. And Antarctica looks like the biggest continent by far, filling up the bottom of the map, although it really ranks fifth.
Why do we put up with that? Making 2-D maps of a 3-D planet is hard, and despite its foibles, the Mercator projection marked a giant leap for cartography. Introduced in 1569, it rendered Earth's parallels and meridians as straight lines, spaced to give an accurate latitude and longitude ratio at any point on the planet. That made it easier for mariners to plot routes over long distances, so it was huge for ocean navigation.
It has also been modernized a good bit since the original, which looked like this:
This groundbreaking map was created in 1569 by Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Various other designs have emerged over the centuries, all tainted by distortions of some kind. And the Mercator projection has remained popular, largely due to its familiarity and visual simplicity. Yet while it may still not be dethroned anytime soon, it now faces an unusually strong competitor: the AuthaGraph.
The AuthaGraph World Map was recently announced as the overall winner of Japan's prestigious Good Design Award. It's now being sold online for ¥7,480, or about $72. (Image: Hajime Narukawa/Japanese Institute of Design Promotion)
For anyone accustomed to Mercator projection maps, the AuthaGraph's layout looks weird at first. It doesn't align with the cardinal directions, for instance, placing a tilted Africa in one corner and a surprisingly small Antarctica in another.
It's significantly more accurate than traditional 2-D maps, however, thanks to a process that begins with an actual globe. Drawing inspiration from Buckminster Fuller's 1954 Dymaxion map, Narukawa divided our 3-D planet into 96 equal regions, then transferred those dimensions from a sphere to a tetrahedron before finally converting that to a rectangular map. These steps let him preserve the area ratios of land and water as they exist in the real world.
"This original mapping method can transfer a spherical surface to a rectangular surface such as a map of the world while maintaining correctly proportions in areas," according to a description by the Good Design Award committee, which gave the map its highest overall prize, the Grand Award, for 2016. "AuthaGraph faithfully represents all oceans, continents including the neglected Antarctica. These fit within a rectangular frame with no interruptions."
The AuthaGraph is essentially a globe broken down into a 2-D map. (Photo: Hajime Narukawa/JIDP)
The AuthaGraph can also be tessellated, the description adds. That means multiple versions of the map can be laid next to each other with "no visible seams," enabling cool tricks like tracking the orbit of the International Space Station in 2-D.
And since it began as a globe, the AuthaGraph can also be folded back into one. This has led to the perhaps inevitable nickname "origami map."
The AuthaGraph may be revolutionary, but it's still not perfect. "The map needs a further step to increase a number of subdivision for improving its accuracy to be officially called an area-equal map," the Good Design Award committee points out. Nonetheless, it's a big improvement — and a useful reminder that virtually anything can be improved, even if people have been staring at it for 450 years.