This all started last night, when I was looking at a map of the world like the one on the side, and it struck me that Greenland is slightly bigger than Africa. 'Wow,' I thought, 'I didn't know that.' Out of curiosity, I started to look at pictures of the globe instead of a map and I saw something that floored me: the sizes of these two land masses are nowhere close to each other. In fact, as it turns out, Africa is actually 14 times larger than Greenland! That's right, 14 times!
So why do they look so similar in size? Well, we live on a spherical, three-dimensional planet, and maps only come in two dimensions, so any attempt to represent a sphere as a plane, even with the most advanced of mathematics, is going to produce distortions, which is apparently why cartographers refer to world maps as projections.
Since distortions are inevitable, trying to produce an accurate representation of one variable will produce distortions in another. And the Mercator projection we're all so familiar with (like the picture on top), was invented in 1569 as a navigational map, which is fine if you want to go sailing, but not so good if you're thinking about how many soldiers you are going to need when you decide to attack your neighbors two doors down. With the Mercator projection, the closer you get to the poles, the larger that countries start to look, to the point that Greenland looks larger than a place that's actually 14 times larger than it!
But it's not just a question of mathematical accuracy. Countless lives depend on this! For various psychological reasons, especially cognitive biases, we seem to be wired to believe that bigger is more important, that top matters more than bottom, etc. (I know, total sexual innuendo there), and so when we are thinking of the world's problems, our attention automatically tends to focus on the northern hemisphere first, which, in the Mercator projection looks substantially bigger than it actually is: Boom! Double whammy! And so countries in the southern hemisphere, which are usually the ones in greatest need of help, look smaller than they really are, and are the ones that end up getting neglected.
And apparently there are movements out there whose goal it is to raise awareness and standardize a more socially conscious world map that will help reverse this social injustice. Since the question of absolute accuracy is ruled out mathematically, we get to determine what other criteria it might make sense to use. One suggestion is using the Gall-Peters projection above, to produce a more realistic representation of the size of countries relative to others; others have proposed turning the map upside down to reverse the top-bottom bias; etc.
I'm not an expert on the subject, just having become aware of it last night, so I won't presume to have any particular recommendation, but I do tend to think that this is a conversation worth having. So, if this is news to you, share this insane finding with your friends.
And if you're curious about this topic, check out the Wikipedia entry on map projections or the Cartography and Geographic Information Society.