Is the Earth actually flat? No, but here’s what would happen if it was.

We can all agree (at least the vast majority of us) that the Earth is round.  And contrary to popular myth, we have known this for thousands of years, since the time of the ancient Greek geographer Eratosthenes.  If we sail far enough at sea, we will never fall over the edge, but continue traveling until we are back where we started again.

And yet, the myth of the flat earth still persists among a dedicated group of Flat Earthers, who believe that the whole idea of the round earth is a giant conspiracy, and gravity does not even exist.  Thousands of people subscribe to this view, and debate the arguments against them on an active online forum.

So, what if the Earth actually was flat?  The wonderful Vsause YouTube channel examines this possibility in the following clip, which applies scientific analysis to this idea.  One interesting piece of information is that, due to gravity, you would never actually fall off the edge of a flat Earth.  Gravity would keep your feet firmly on the ground even as your footsteps take you over the edge and onto the other side of the edge.  Do people actually believe in a flat Earth?  It seems that at least some do, but some are just kidding around, and it’s hard to actually tell the difference.  According to Poe’s law, parody of extremism and sincere extremism become very hard to distinguish as extremism increases.

Happy traveling during this holiday season, and no matter what you believe about the shape of the Earth, have no fear about falling off the edge!

Following a Hobbit’s Footsteps across Middle Earth


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The third installment of the Hobbit movies, The Battle of the Five Armies, is about to be released, so there’s no better time to check out some maps of Middle Earth.  Three Lord of the Rings movies and three Hobbit movies have taken place there, meaning that this is one of the most familiar fantasy realms for moviegoers in recent years.  But readers of J.R.R. Tolkein’s epic novels have been gleefully jumping into Middle Earth for decades now.  Tolkein is the grandfather of modern fantasy, and the map of the world he created reveals why his stories have managed to captivate the imaginations of so many dedicated fans.  Middle Earth is eerie, mysterious, and magical.  It is just the kind of place that fantasy fans love to step into, if only briefly.

Here is one map of Middle Earth, which was created by Pauline Baynes in 1970.  Not only does it include all the locations from the novels, but illustrations of the nine members of the Fellowship of the Ring at the top, and malevolent forces in pursuit at the bottom.

It is a very well-made map for the setting portrayed, because it captures the unique aura of Middle Earth.  There is a strong sense of danger, but also of valor, in this land which plays host to such epic battles between good and evil.

For Tolkein fans who want to get closer to the action, there are also some very cool interactive maps online.   One of them, which is affiliated with Warner Brothers as part of the promotion for the upcoming film release, can be accessed at the following link:  This link provides not just a large, topographical map which can be explored, but it lets you choose one of the main heroes from LOTR or The Hobbit and follow his journey.  At last, you can follow in the footsteps of a hobbit such as Bilbo or Frodo as they leave the Shire and cross the vast territory of Middle Earth.

At each stop in the hero’s journey, you can zoom in to the location, find out more about what happened there, and even watch film clips relevant to the location.  But there’s even more!  Scattered throughout Middle Earth are several “battlegrounds” which you can join.  Select a character and a race (such as elf or dwarf) and you can fight against computer characters or other players.  I didn’t spend much time playing around with it, but it looks like you can invite friends to build up your own armies to face off against other armies.  Essentially, this is a map which doubles as a videogame.

Now, if you’re looking for an interactive map which doesn’t have all the bells and whistles, but lets you view all the paths of all the heroes and the locations of major events all one screen, then I highly recommend this link:  The LOTR project lets you select which paths you want to view, scan through timelines of events, and even browse through several detailed demographic charts on the inhabitants of Middle Earth.  How some people are able to compile some of this exhaustive data is beyond me, but then again, I suppose my nerdiness knows some bounds.

Happy mapping!

How the Geologic Map of Asteroid Vesta Reveals its Turbulent Past


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This past week, a scientific research team led by David Williams of Arizona State University published a new geologic map of Vesta, one of the largest asteroids in our solar system.  Using the latest high-resolution images taken by the Dawn spacecraft from 2011 to 2012, they were able to create a detailed image of Vesta’s surface, with all its many peaks and valleys.   But the map they produced, which was published in the December issue of the journal Icarus, also tells us much about the asteroid’s long and tumultuous history.  The scientists were able to figure out roughly when certain areas of the asteroid’s surface were last modified, by impacts from other objects, for example.   The map reads partly like a history for how this crater-covered, potato-shaped rock got the way it is.

Geologic Map of Vesta, via Wired Map Lab, created by NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State University (

Vesta is just 326 miles in diameter, but it is still the second most massive asteroid in our solar system.  It has an age of 4.5 million years, and the colored regions in the map above indicate how the asteroid changed during that time.  Brown is the oldest area, followed by the purple and light blue regions, which consist of craters caused by massive impacts over one billion years ago.  In fact, the potato shape of the asteroid resulted from the shock of these impacts.

Younger than these regions are the light purple and dark blue areas, which consist of the inside areas of the impact basins created by the earlier collisions, which have crumbled and shifted over time.  Younger landslides caused changes to the regions marked in green and yellow.  In the middle of the map, you can also find the Marcia crater, which was created during the same timeframe by another impact.  This crater is part of a series of three craters called “Vesta’s Snowman”, since all three are stacked on top of each other.  You can see it more clearly on the photograph of the asteroid below, in the top left.

Image of the Asteroid Vesta (via NASA,

It just goes to show, an asteroid is much more than just a big boring rock in space. That rock has had a long and vibrant history, and there’s a story behind every crater and mountain.  Through satellite imagery, and cartography, we can finally begin to understand this past.

You can read more on this at Wired’s Map Blog (a great resource), and

Happy mapping!

How the World Might Look if the Nazis Won the War


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World War II was the last great geopolitical power struggle, and the Allies’ victory had lasting consequences for the remainder of the century.  In fact, many the political borders around the world today, almost 70 years later, are still the same ones that were negotiated at the end of the war.  We all know what happened after the war; with fascism defeated, and Europe still recovering, there remained two superpowers which almost immediately became locked in a struggle for global supremacy.  But what might have happened if the Axis powers (Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan) had won the war?  How might the map have changed?

Philip K. Dick imagines such a world in his alternative history novel, “The Man in the High Castle”.  In this world, the Axis victors, a German-Italian axis and a Japanese axis, have divided up the remaining territories around the world, either by directly conquering them or creating puppet states (such as Vichy France).  It is a very different, and rather terrifying, world.

The novel begins in 1962, 15 years after the end of World War II in this alternative timeline, and the world that Dick imagines looks like this:

Alternate history world map of Philip K. Dick’s “The Man In The High Castle”, via wikipedia (

In this alternative timeline, the point of divergence comes when Franklin D. Roosevelt, American president-elect, is assassinated in 1933 before taking office.  His successors are unable to lift the US out of the Great Depression, and they also stick to an isolationist policy, refusing to build up their military capabilities or assist their allies.  With America weakened, the Germans conquer the USSR and Europe, and the Japanese conquer Hawaii, Alaska, and the Western U.S. states without much resistance.  The Germans then invade the Eastern United States, and in between the Eastern and Western thirds, they set up a Rocky Mountain Buffer Zone between them and the Japanese.  In this new world, it is the Germans and Japanese, rather than Americans and Russians, who become the two opposing forces of the Cold War.

You might notice another odd thing about the map above: What happened to the Mediterranean sea?  In the novel, the new German Fuhrer, who takes power after Hitler becomes incapacitated, uses technology to drain the sea and convert it into farmland.  I don’t see this project as viable or practical, even if it was technologically possible, but the Nazis would probably have been crazy enough to try it.

Of course, no one can know for sure how things might have turned out if the Nazis had won, but it’s fun to guess.  These kinds of thought experiments make you really think about how events in history are connected.  If you change one link in the chain of events, I imagine that the end result would differ dramatically from the original result. In this case, all it took was an assassination several years before the start of the war to change the entire political structure of the Earth. Would it have really turned out this way without FDR leading the US through the Great Depression and the war?  We can’t say, but as you read alternative history fiction, you have to sometimes just go with it.  The author is trying to introduce a completely different version of the world, and how the world got that way is less important than where things go from there.

Finally, I want to mention that the novel is currently being adapted for a new series to be available for streaming on Amazon Prime next year.  It sounds like a very dismal world to spend time in, but then again, so is Westeros, so I’m excited to see the show.

For more on The Man in the High Castle, see here:

The Quirky Cosmos


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The 17th century was an exciting time for cartography, as explorers criss-crossed the oceans and delved deep into unspoiled continents.  World maps were being updated on an almost annual basis as the empty parts of the Earth were gradually filled in with new discoveries.  But the wider world beyond the Earth still remained largely mysterious and speculative.  Using state-of-the-art telescopes, astronomers could observe most of the planets and theorize about their movements, though they often disagreed on the structure of the universe.  It would be centuries, after all, before anyone (or anything) from Earth could go and get a closer look.

And yet, that did not stop anyone from trying to map the universe.  One such ambitious man was Andreas Cellarius, who lived in Germany and the Netherlands from 1596 to 1665.  His Harmonia Macrocosmica (Cosmic Harmony), created in 1660, was one of the most prominent cosmic atlases of the time, employing gorgeous art with meticulous detail to illustrate the position of the Earth in space.

Following in the tradition of Ptolemy, Cellarius placed the Earth at the center of his cosmos, despite that fact that Copernicus had shown a century earlier that the Earth revolved around the Sun.  The Earth itself is wonderfully drawn.  It shows the extent of European knowledge of the world in the mid-17th century, with a half-finished Australia and purely speculative Antarctica.  The lines representing the Equator and the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn cross the Earth and continue outwards to encircle the surrounding space as well.  Cellarius depicts the planets (minus Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto), plus the Sun, all revolving around the Earth with their corresponding celestial symbols next to them (e.g., a circle with an arrow for Mars).  Finally, the map includes the 12 signs of the Zodiac in the multicolored ring around the Earth.  According to the map, as the Sun completes its circuit around the Earth, it moves through each Zodiac sign, which the astrologers will argue poses significance to the events of our lives.

The cosmos, from Andreas Cellarius’s “Harmonia Macrocosmica”, courtesy of University of Michigan Library (via Discovery Magazine,

One more thing to note: look at the corners of the map.  Populated by floating cherubs at the top, and ancient philosophers and cartographers at the bottom, these illustrations reinforce the point that this cosmic atlas does not exist in a vacuum.  Rather, this atlas is the result of a long-standing cosmographic tradition stretching back to Ptolemy, and the angels show us that the heavens of the map cannot be separated from the concept of heaven itself.

For more cosmic cartography, check out the book “Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time”, by Michael Benson, available now:

My Own November Writing Challenge: Write Something


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My calendar and my cold fingers tell me it’s November, which means it’s also National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo).  This month-long challenge is open to anyone, whether an experienced novelist or someone who has never, but always wanted, to write their own novel.  The NaNoWriMo nonprofit organizes and facilitates the event through their website (, on which you can sign up, track the progress of your novel, interact with other participants, and finally upload your completed novel at the end of the month.  The site boasts that thousands and thousands of people participate every November, many of them entering December as first time novelists.

The NaNoWriMo Crest (via

Let me first say that I think this is a really good way to get people motivated to write.  Having a specific goal to meet by a definite deadline, along with an online community to provide support, is helpful for lots of people who desire to write but struggle to actually put words to paper.  There are even prizes available, such as paperback copies of the participant’s novel.  From there, the novelists can, and many do, go on to publish their novels.

The one requirement for a participant to complete the challenge is to create a novel of 50,000 words.  According to the website, this number was chosen because it is about the length of a short novel (such as the Great Gatsby), and it’s doable for just about anyone.  Translated to a page count, 50,000 words is about 175-200 pages, and I think this is a good goal for a first time writer who is still learning about pacing and plotting over the course of a long story.  In contemporary fiction, and especially with genres such as fantasy, the trend lately is for page counts to go up and up, as if that were a marker of greater significance.  The books in A Song of Ice and Fire, for example, are all upwards of 850 pages.  But some of the best stories I have read in my life have also been on the shorter side, and they often boast the advantages of tighter plotting and an economy of characters.

So I agree with the NaNoWriMo figure of 50,000 words for a novel.  However, I think it would prove challenging for the average person, with work and family responsibilities, to write this many words in a month.  That’s over 1,500 per day, on average, and does not even include time spent on planning and editing.  While some people, when faced with an ambitious goal and a tight deadline, will rally and succeed, I think a significant number of people will become deterred and discouraged.  Worse, they might be turned off from writing completely if they cannot meet the goal of 1,500 words a day.

That’s why I’m proposing a new writing challenge for November: Write something.  Every day.  Even if it’s just a sentence, write something that goes towards a short story or a novel you hope to complete, and don’t feel bad about how little you wrote.  The goal is not about volume, but forming a daily writing habit.  Once writing becomes a habit, it gets easier to put more and more down on the paper as time goes on, but if you’re just starting out and trying to find time in a busy schedule, I think the daily aim of “Write Something” is a good start.

As for me, I am not participating in the normal NaNoWriMo challenge, because I already have a 3/4 finished novel that I would really like to buckle down and complete.  I have 72,000 words written, and I expect that it needs another 10,000 to 15,000 for the story to wrap up.  That’s a goal I think I can manage if I push myself to write every day in November.  You’d be surprised how much you can write when your aim is just to write “something”, because once the creative juices start flowing, the words flow quicker.  Sometimes I have sat down to write just a sentence, and churned out a paragraph, and other times a paragraph became a page.  Write something, anything, as long as it’s fiction, and see where it leads you.

There are no prizes for my Write Something challenge, unfortunately, except for your own self-satisfaction.  Now get writing!

O, Canadian Cartography!


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Today we’ll take a look at maps of Canada.  Some might ask “why?”, but I think the better question is, “why not?”  I think Americans in general don’t pay enough attention to Canada, even though the U.S. and Canada share the longest continuous land border in the world.  As occupants of the same continent, possessing similar economic and political interests, it makes good sense for Americans to learn more about our neighbors to the North.  Canada has a long, rich history, from its colonization by France in the early 17th century, to its acquisition by the British Empire in the wake of the Seven Years’ War in 1763, and finally to self-governance as a constitutional monarchy while retaining Queen Elizabeth II as head of state.

Let’s check out just a few of the fascinating maps of Canada from its early days as a French colony.

Starting off, there is the first map with the name Canada on it.  This was made in 1566 by Italian cartographer Paolo Forlani, before France had set up any permanent settlements in the region.  Even at this early date, however, you can still see some familiar names, such as Florida, Bermuda, Nova Franza (New France), Larcadia (Arcadia), Laborador (Labrador), and of course, Canada Pro, or proper, written in the space underneath a mountain range to the east of “Nova Franza”.  It is remarkable how even in vast expanses of terrain where European colonizers had not yet established settlements, they still managed to fill up the land with placenames.

Paolo Forlani, Il designo del discoperto della Nova Franza by Paolo Forlani (created 1566) (via

Second, there is one dating from 1613, shortly after Quebec City had been founded in 1608.  Produced by the explorer Samuel de Champlain, it features the latest geographical discoveries in the land that would become Canada.  The map serves partly as an advertisement to encourage settlement; it includes pictures of local flora and fauna, depicting the new territory as bursting with natural resources that are waiting to be enjoyed.  Notice how the map includes parts of the coastline of what would become upper New England, but it is difficult to recognize because there have not yet been any settlements.  We are still a few years ahead of Plymouth and the First Thanksgiving.

Samuel de Champlain’s Carte geographique de la Nouvelle Franse faictte par le sieur de Champlain Saint Tongois cappitaine ordinaire pour le Roy en la Marine (created in 1613) (via

Finally, we have a map created by British cartographer John Barrow in 1759.  At this time, Britain and France were still fighting the Seven Years’ War, and Canada was still in French hands, though not for long.  The map shows the extent of Canadian possessions in the east, as well as some of the Northern territories of the thirteen American colonies, which would be shaking off British control a couple of decades in the future.  Barrow probably did not realize that the world he was depicting on the map would not last long, with the French lands turning British, and most of the British lands becoming independent.

John Barrow, Part of North America; containing Canada, the North Parts of New England and New York; with Nova Scotia and Newfound Land (1759) (via

Thanks for joining me on this brief cartography journey through early Canadian history.  For more on these maps, check out these sources: All About Canadian History Blog, The Newfoundland and Labrador Historic Map Archive, and Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps Inc.

Earth Sandwich: The Nerdiest Sandwich in the World


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Place one slice of bread on the ground.  Good!  Now, at the same time, ask someone at the exact opposite side of the planet to place another slide of bread on the ground where they stand.   Congratulations!  You have just created an Earth sandwich.

It may seem silly, but quite a lot of time and attention has been expended by people trying to create their own Earth sandwiches, ever since blogger Ze Frank issued the challenge in 2006.  For the adventurous cartography nerd, it’s just the sort of challenge to accept.

The key for anyone aspiring to fix an Earth sandwich is to determine the location of the antipode for their current location.  The antipode is the direct opposite of a certain coordinate on the earth’s surface.  If you drilled down into the center of the Earth and kept going until you reached the other side, you will have found your antipode.  Unfortunately, it’s much harder than it may seem to even find suitable locations, given the amount of ocean that covers the Earth’s surface.  Many of us who grew up in the US believed as kids that if we dug straight through the Earth we’d wind up in China (and Bugs Bunny cartoons did their part in reinforcing this).  In reality, though, the antipode of any location in the continental US is somewhere in the Indian Ocean.

The following map, courtesy of Mr. Reid’s blog, shows the earth flipped upside down and laid over itself, so you can see where land overlaps in green.  These are the only locations where an Earth sandwich can be successfully assembled.

Overlaid map of the world, showing locations where antipodes exist over land in green (via

A whole lot of the world is, sadly, out of luck when it comes to making their own Earth sandwich.  Residents of North America will have to travel to the Canadian Arctic to lay a slice of bread upon the ice, and have a friend in Antarctica do the same.  Or they can head down to South America, where significant areas of countries such as Chile, Argentina, Brazil, and Peru overlap with Asian countries like China, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

There are a few other interesting antipodes as well.  Look at the Iberian peninsula in Europe and you will see a couple splotches of green.  These match up with the islands of New Zealand way in the South Pacific.  In fact, as Ze Frank reports, the very first Earth sandwich in the world was created at these locations, with one side near Madrid, Spain and the other near Aukland, New Zealand.  Pretty cool!

The mere existence of the Earth sandwich shows the depth of imagination which map nerds share.  Sure, the sandwich can’t be eaten, but to a geography obsessive, it satisfies a different kind of hunger.

For more on the Earth sandwich, check out Ze Frank’s page here:

Fantasy Maps of American Cities


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Compared to fantasy maps, maps of real world cities can be kinda boring.  Streets and highways criss-cross the land, and empty spaces are few and far between.  Points of interest are indicated by dots, and parks are represented by bland green rectangles.  There is not much majesty or wonder in the standard city map, let alone dragons or castles.

Fortunately for us fantasy map nerds, one cartographer on Etsy set out to change that.  His name is Stentor Danielson, and he sells fantasy maps of American cities along with hand-cut paper street maps and custom order maps on his Etsy store page: Mapsburgh.

See familiar cities in a whole new light, as they might look if Tolkein had used them for the setting for an epic fantasy journey.  Now buildings are represented by towers and castles, parks look like enchanted forests filled with trees, and every mountaintop looks dark and foreboding.  The mystery and sense of adventure that has all but disappeared from cartography in the modern era is back to add some spice to otherwise bland city maps.

Have a look at a few of Danielson’s most impressive creations below:



Washington, DC:

For more, check out Danielson’s Etsy page:  He also has maps of Cleveland and Philadelphia.  They sell for between $11 and $26, and for $69 you can order your own custom fantasy map, the perfect gift for any serious cartography nerd.

Happy mapping!

New Maps of the Unseen Ocean Floor


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There is no land left to discover on earth, and all the blank spaces on the map have been filled.  But the oceans still largely remain unexplored.  They are vast, deep, and darker than we can imagine at their deepest depths.  Light only travels so far, and water pressure makes it impossible for humans to descend much further.  This partially explains why it has been so difficult to locate the Malaysian Airlines flight that disappeared over the Indian Ocean earlier this year.

But now, satellites have once again come to the rescue, and researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego have used European and American satellite data to create maps of the entire ocean floor.  As Loren Gush at Popular Science reports, these new maps reveal never-before-seen mountains and valleys under the surface, and help to highlight the faults between tectonic plates.  Here is one image of the North Atlantic:

Marine gravity model of the North Atlantic Ocean. Red dots are earthquakes with magnitude above 5.5, showing the fault lines between the tectonic plates.  (By David Sandwell, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego, via Popular Science,

These oceanographic maps also have a practical purpose beyond purely satisfying mankind’s curiosity.  For example, knowledge of the presence of underwater ridges helps to explain gravity fields, which influence the trajectory of submarine missiles.  One hopes that this also leads, eventually, to a fully mapped ocean floor in high definition, so that the next time a plane crashes in the ocean, it will be located and recovered quicker.

This is also a reminder to the explorer who looks up at the stars, yearning for new undiscovered mysteries, that the ocean on our humble planet Earth still contains an expansive, unseen world.

For more on this, here is the Popular Science Article:

And for more on the results of the research, go here:



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