The world isn’t even close to what you think it looks like.

Via Waylon Lewis
on Jul 6, 2010
get elephant's newsletter


Back when I had a longterm girlfriend, before I became a workaholic, she had a strange-looking map on the wall. “The normal map makes third world countries look puny. This is what the world actually looks like,” she explained. I never got used to it. But it did shake, and stir, any notion that I knew what our planet actually looks like.


This is what we think the world looks like (Mercator map):

This is closer to what the world actually looks like (The Peters Projection):


I mean, check this out:

africa map


Bonus, via West Wing:


About Waylon Lewis

Waylon Lewis, founder of elephant magazine, now & host of Walk the Talk Show with Waylon Lewis, is a 1st generation American Buddhist “Dharma Brat." Voted #1 in U.S. on twitter for #green two years running, Changemaker & Eco Ambassador by Treehugger, Green Hero by Discovery’s Planet Green, Best (!) Shameless Self-Promoter at Westword's Web Awards, Prominent Buddhist by Shambhala Sun, & 100 Most Influential People in Health & Fitness 2011 by "Greatist", Waylon is a mediocre climber, lazy yogi, 365-day bicycle commuter & best friend to Redford (his rescue hound). His aim: to bring the good news re: "the mindful life" beyond the choir & to all those who didn't know they gave a care. | His first book, Things I would like to do with You, is now available.


39 Responses to “The world isn’t even close to what you think it looks like.”

  1. Jay Winston says:

    Though, in both cases, it’s flat…

  2. Karen Ball Cabot says:

    Also, if you turn a map upside down (earth is an orb in space there is no up), you can see the prominence of other continents.

  3. NellaLou says:

    That's really interesting. The Mercator projection hung in nearly every schoolroom I can recall. It gave me the impression that the southern hemisphere was mostly water and uninhabited and that the equator cut across Texas somewhere. Thank goodness for National Geographic magazines which helped immensely in correcting those and many other childhood misperceptions. (We didn't have Internet when I was so young.)

  4. Doug says:

    I was fascinated by that West Wing episode for the longest time…thanks for reshaking my ‘world view’ again!

  5. Perhaps its best if those classrooms have more globes than maps…

  6. elephantjournal says:

    Bonus: this is awwwwesome, and in the same vein:

  7. Reader says:

    Perception is interesting… and I miss West Wing!!!!

  8. […] More: here’s a map that’s incredibly PC, if not more accurate. […]

  9. Mike says:

    The Peters Projection is a terrible example of an "equal area projection" which still grossly distorts the SHAPE of landmasses and water bodies. Arno Peters was not a cartographer or geographer, but a very effective marketer. There are numerous superior equal area projections, including the Winkel tripel projection and the Robinson projection, but unfortunately they don't get TV product placement. So… the world may not look like the Mercator map, but it certainly isn't done any favors by the Peters map. Want more accurate spatial representation of planet Earth? Use a globe.

  10. IanP says:

    "The Dymaxion map or Fuller map is a projection of a world map onto the surface of a polyhedron, which can be unfolded and flattened to two dimensions. The projection depicts the earth's continents as "one island," or nearly contiguous land masses. The arrangement heavily interrupts the map in order to preserve shapes and sizes."

  11. Dace says:

    In Europe one uses the second map.

  12. eugenia says:

    I've had the Peters map for years hung on my wall

  13. rianne says:

    Learning how inaccurate 2D map projections are at representing the planet was one of the only lessons from grade 8 geography I still remember. There's an old copy of a Mercator Projection map at my grandmother's cottage and as kids we used to laugh at how funny-looking it was all the time. This is old news.

  14. yogi tobye says:

    British isles are still way too big….Ireland's no more than about 150 miles from east to west….

  15. […] For the serious, and seriously interesting aspect of why the world map is how it is, and why not this way or… […]

  16. Loreal says:

    Ireland is 217 miles east to west if you go in a straight line from shortest bit to the the other shortest bit.

  17. yogi tobye says:

    That's kilometres not miles.

  18. Joyous Living says:

    this made me giggle

  19. Ron Copfer says:

    Actually, neither of them are correct! Buckminster Fuller created the only true scale map of the world: the Dymaxion map:

  20. Mariana Wirth says:

    Great post, Waylon, thanks!!!

  21. neil says:

    For god's sake use a globe already.

  22. Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion Map (1954) of "Spaceship Earth" is the only flat map of the entire surface of the Earth which reveals our planet as one island in one ocean, without any visually obvious distortion of the relative shapes and sizes of the land areas, and without splitting any continents.

    All flat world map representations of the spherical globe contain some amount of distortion either in shape, area, distance or direction measurements. On the Mercator world map, the Robinson Projection, the Peters Projection and most other world maps, Greenland (for example) appears to be 2-3 times the size of Australia …. when Australia is actually more than 3 times the size of Greenland.

    Check out the Buckminster Fuller Institute for details of this highly superior tool.

  23. OlliverM says:

    Not only that. One of the projections has correct continent sizes and the other one correct continent forms, you can't preserve both together.

  24. Robert says:

    I knew that because of the manner in which Hurricanes develop and track.

  25. sarah920 says:

    This was interesting.

  26. Johannes says:

    here is a vid that goes through many different maps, apparently they all have their strong points and flaws depends what you want to use them for. There is also a part on how much we can see (i.e. the small spectrum of light we as human can actually see) and making you aware that there is so much going on we cannot see. very interesting to my opinion.

  27. Maui Greg says:

    Sorry, like so many other posts on EJ this is click bait, and poorly thought out. No flat map projection is an accurate representation of our spherical world. If you want complete accuracy, a globe is the only way. All map projections are accurate for some data while skewing other data. Mercator was primarily used for navigation so is more accurate for bearing and distance data, while area and relative size data is skewed. Map projections are merely tools and as such, each has its own use. This is not some grand scheme to decieve the public and demean the developing nations.

  28. Masis says:

    Whether or not it's intentional, I believe it stands that the prevalence of one map over the other skews the collective consciousness into one frame of perceptions over another, and there is little doubt in my mind that relative size is subconsciously associated with power, and that 'up' is subconsciously associated with superior in the (unconscious) perception of the average human. I feel that the relative bearing of water masses is of less import to the average consciousness than the relative size and orientation of land masses. In choosing maps as tools, shouldn't we choose the tool that fits more closely our needs?
    Consider how we associate qualities with axes as we perceive them relative to our bodies: up/down, front/behind, right/left. Up/Front/Right are all associated with positive qualities/connotations, down/behind/left are associated with negative ones. We understand all things in relation to how we understand the physical space of our bodies.
    This extends beyond the scope of our physical perception of our body, into how we perceive space in general. It's possible that other societies perceive space differently, though I would argue that 'western' society generally perceives this way.

  29. Boj says:

    I still don't get it. Are you saying The Peters Projection is a fair representation of the world map? Except for Africa, all other third-world countries still look small in The Peters Projection. Are there other differences that we are supposed to be noticing?

  30. Elephant says:

    Also no continent is "sliced" in half in favor of murica being at the center of the world.

  31. Boj says:

    Yeah that part is understandable but in the Mercator map, USA is still comparatively quite small. If they did it intentionally, couldn't they have made USA even larger? Greenland looks rather big.

  32. Hopp Topp says:

    Every map projection transforms 3d into 2d and thusly must include distortions of: distance, area, direction, etc. A map projection always compromises on some of these based on the purpose of the map. The Peters projection is essentially useless other than for pop stories like this which surface every decade or so among the geographically under-educated claiming cartographic conspiracy.

  33. Steven says:

    The Peters projection is the right area but its the wrong shape. I agree with another commenter that classrooms should have globes and online we could use a virtual globe.

  34. Granite Sentry says:

    Exactly, the globe is geographically and geometrically accurate, and visually looks much more like the old flat Mercator projection the Liberals are so upset about. It's just political; they think the Mercator was insulting to the Third World and so had to come up with a kinder representation, reality be damned.

  35. Thomas says:

    if they went to the moon and took a picture of earth it might be a little helpful.

  36. soul says:

    I’ve heard the earth is also flat. What if the continents were closer.No one can entirely cross the ocean to measure.You have the Bermuda triangle for example it will cause a prevention of measuring, or are they hiding something? Truth is everything can be a lie of what we are taught and since these rich liars have all the power it’s hard to prove entirely.But there is some evidence that expose some lies.

  37. Fuck You says:

    No flat map is an accurate projection of the globe because we don't live on a globe. It's a flat plane and proven by science. Wake up sheeple.

  38. DC says:

    How can a globe be the most accurate
    When it is so perfectly round ?
    Fact is ,earth only looks round and smooth from what is called “Space perspective”
    The Pythagoren concept or oblate spheriod (slightly squashed)
    Is used for various reasons ,being that earth is squashed at the poles and due to the earth spin a bulging equator . (This is supported by polar diameter measuring less than the equator)
    Earth diameter is 12756km to find radius divide this by 2 = 6370.
    Due to this you may realise the poles are not directly opposite, the north pole is closest to the center of earth were gravity is heavier.
    Again due to our shape oblate spheriod.
    We use this mainly due to it being more mathematically Easier to deal with.
    Globes are only this way for that reason convenience of math and measurement relating to particular subjects or purpose.
    Radius is the distance from earth center to surface 6,371km(3.959mind) While radius normally is a characteristic of perfect spheres
    We do deviate from perfect by a third of a percent. (Close enough to be treated as a sphere)
    Regardless of the model any sphere used has a difference of around 21km or 13 miles due to the polar radius roughly being 0.3% shorter than equator radius.
    We now use the “WGS84 spheriod for GPS system which means we use the actual flattening of the poles as opposed to the
    Equatorial radius & reciprocal of the flattening.
    A shepre has single radius of curvature more complex surfaces Jarraud of curvature that vary over surface.
    So no a globe is not entirely correct.
    But has a purpose just like other maps . Country size is also related to if researched super powers ego religion etc (mines bigger than yours)
    Point is globe represents one view for particular reasons as do other maps .
    But none give the true sharp of earth which is not perfectly round .
    Topographic,land forms water areas are what actual measurements are taken from but not feasible for mathematical analysis.
    All have purpose reasons etc so none are wrong as long as each model is kept in correct context.
    Basically purpose defines reasoning.
    No one option here is right or wrong simply this is a subject that has many variants and depths to it,no one comment can cover it.
    How ever do not confuse our shape description obligate sphere with the earth orbit shape often described ellipse (oval).
    There is also other higher order shape deviations which make earth slightly pear shaped due to lager southern hemisphere surface compared to northern only a km or soon radial girth .
    The biggest effect is still. Polar flattening .
    So summary for many reasons the globe and common flat map are not entirely correct any more than the next

  39. Tricia B. says:

    In the comparison map of the true size of Africa, it erroneously maps the United States without the states of Alaska and Hawaii.