[Pinoy Mind Map] Is the Philippines a small country?
We all know that the USA is a big country. In fact, it is the fourth largest country in the world (next only to Russia, Canada, and China in land area). You can probably picture a map of the USA in your head. Do you have it?
Now, picture a map of the Philippines and mentally place it on top of the USA map. How much smaller is it? In your mind, how many Philippine archipelagos can fit inside the USA? We don't need an exact number, but give it your best guess.
Ready for the answer? The map below – made with Legos(R)! – shows how big the Philippines is compared to the USA, Spain, and UK – 3 countries that loom large in our collective imagination. Are you surprised by the comparison?
If you thought that the Philippines would be smaller, you're not alone – I did, too. And there is a valid reason for our common misconception: the Philippines does look much smaller in the world map that we are most familiar with – the ubiquitous Mercator map, used in classrooms, books, as well as Google Maps.
But maps lie. In fact, they have to. The Earth is round; a map is flat. Imagine flattening a whole orange peel – it cannot be done (without tearing!). The trick is to project the spherical surface to a flat one. Different kinds of projections would distort different features – and certain trade-offs have to be made.
The Mercator projection was designed to be useful for navigation. Seafarers adopted it when it was first presented in the 16th century. Today, 5 centuries later, Google Maps continues to use it to show street-level views accurately. The Mercator map preserves angles on the Earth's surface, but as a trade-off, it heavily distorts the sizes and shapes of countries. Regions that are closer to the poles appear much larger than they actually are – in particular, notice the exaggerated size of Greenland and the undersized representation of the African continent.
One can also devise a map that does not distort the sizes and shapes of countries very much. Arguably, this would be the best (i.e., most politically correct) way to represent a world map. One such projection is the Gall-Peters projection, on which the graphic above is based. Below is a world map that accurately shows the relative sizes of countries – notice the true size of Africa, compared to the USA and China!
I can't help but wonder how much the representation in the Mercator world map affects how one gauges the importance of one's own country – and that of other countries and regions – in the world stage. In particular, does the comparison above change your perspective on the Philippines vis-a-vis its former colonizers?
I also can't help but wonder how much of an accident it is that a map invented in Europe happens to exaggerate the size of that continent. Is it time to replace the world maps used in schools – and elsewhere – with something like Gall-Peters'? And for us who grew up with the Mercator map, can we mentally fight against the biases we've inherited once we learn about them?
'Pinoy Mind Map' is a collaboration between scientist Reina Reyes and artist Kelly Ramos. They embrace their geekiness and artsiness, respectively, and combine them to produce data art pieces inspired by the Filipino experience. They can be reached at the blog's Facebook page: facebook.com/pinoymindmap.
Previous Pinoy Mind Map articles: