Mercator or rightly so

Many of us remember the large maps of the world that adorned the walls of our classrooms. Some, including myself, have even spent long minutes staring dreamily at them, to the detriment of the lesson in progress.

However, these so common maps, called Mercator maps, which participated in forging our first geographical image of the world, are not insignificant. Because the world it represents does not conform to reality.

Worse, this map reinforces a Western hegemony, protest since the 1980s at least geographers and sociologists. The further away from the equator, the more important the countries it shows seem. The best-known example is that of Greenland, which on paper seems to rival the African continent in size, whereasin realitythe northern island has a smaller area than the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

This distortion promotes a conception of the world, a mental map, which gives pride of place to the countries of the northern hemisphere, where in this case the former colonial powers are located. A cartographic injustice which gave rise, in 2001, to a memorable scene, for lovers of geography, of the series To the White House, in which scientists unsuccessfully try to convince the US President’s team to change the projection used in the maps.

Projection is the heart of the problem. Because any representation claiming to show the planet in two dimensions is obliged to deform its surface to fit it into a rectangle.

The responsibility for this lies with Gerardus Mercator, the Flemish mathematician who was the first, in 1569, to formalize the projection which prevailed until the 20th century. But however decried it may be, the Mercator map was popularized at the start for excellent reasons: it retains the angles and makes it easy to visualize the directions to take in relation to the cardinal points, which makes it particularly suitable for nautical navigation.

Also, despite the dozens of alternatives offered, the projection continues to be used for these qualities by Google Maps [le service de cartographie en ligne du géant américain] in its mobile version. From there to say that the Western hegemony is resisting…

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