Maps and Oranges

When I have a choice of what map I want to use, I’ll always pick a globe.

Flat maps all have one major problem: they’re trying to display a round globe.

Here’s an experiment. Cut an unpeeled orange in half, then take out the insides without ripping the peel. Then try to push the peel flat on a surface.

Mercator Projection: 1569

Mercator Projection: 1569

Mapmakers have developed a number of strategies for dealing with the problem. They’re referred to as map projections, and the most commonly used is the Mercator Projection. It’s by far one of the most common map projections you’ll run into.

The Mercator Projection is quite useful and works great for navigation…but at the cost of grossly misrepresenting the size of certain landmasses, especially closer to the poles. The best way to picture this is by stretching out that orange peel. There’s going to be quite a bit of distortion.

Greenland is the biggest offender. Greenland in real life is 1/14th the size of Africa, and 1/3rd the size of Australia, but it is grossly inflated on the Mercator Projection and is actually portrayed as larger than Australia. Africa, meanwhile, is shrunk down until it appears the same size as Greenland on the map. This has actually produced quite a bit of academic and political controversy over the years. The Mercator is drifting out of popularity these days.

Another common map projection is the Goode homolosine projection. This one is the equivalent of cutting the orange peel to make it look flat; in fact, it’s often called the orange peel map. While the Goode homolosine projection does a much better job of representing the continents without distorting them, it does cut Greenland in half and, well… you can see what it looks like.

Given the choice, I’m always going to use a globe. Unfortunately, they’re less than perfectly portable.

The Flying Buttress

Everyone's seen flying buttresses. They're those huge pillars on the sides of European cathedrals. Notre Dame (the one in France completed in 1345, not the one with the football team) is among the most famous.

The Flying Buttress

The Flying Buttress

Though they look like they wouldn't be good for much other than making sure that a wall doesn't fall over (sometimes used that way) and making grade school kids laugh, they're the only reason that buildings of that size were even possible in those days.

Flying buttresses actually help support the weight of the ceiling. Before flying buttresses, the walls had to be immensely thick in order to prevent the ceiling's weight from pushing the walls outward.

Flying buttresses form a natural arch with the roof, thereby taking much of the outward force generated by the roof's weight off the walls. This allows the walls to be built much thinner. And it also allows the inclusion of the immense windows in the walls that cathedrals are so famous for.

The construction of the buttresses was a difficult enough task in itself, of course. It first involved the construction of temporary wooden frames, or centering to be hoisted up between the wall and the column. The centering was what kept the arch of stones in the air while the mortar was drying, serving as the arch in the meantime.

Frequently, early cathedrals with flying buttresses were built with much thicker, closer, and more immense buttresses; the backers funding the construction weren't entirely convinced that they would actually work. Some of the buttresses were actually so huge that they blocked out much of the light coming in.

Even cathedrals with much, much thinner buttresses have lasted until today. And a building that lasts for 800 years does tend to speak for itself pretty well.

The Egg Drop Competition, Reconsidered

The egg drop competition has been a staple of elementary and middle school science classes since long before I was born. You create a container that will allow an egg to survive a drop of several stories, while still being able to put the egg in the container on-site. It’s a good exercise in creative thinking for kids, not to mention the fun factor.

An egg

An egg

You’ve got a few basic strategies: the first—and simplest—is the “giant wad of padding” strategy, which usually works pretty well. The most common version of this is the big box filled with packing peanuts, but I’ve also seen bags made out of pillows and bubble wrap spheres. (Natch: I made all my kids and grandkids think more “outside the box” than this.)

The next most common is the parachute design—usually one of the more reliable ones, assuming your parachute works. Pretty self explanatory…and it’s the design I used myself as a kid. (A little extra padding didn’t hurt, of course.)

There are also a ton of weirder designs out there: flexible chopstick frameworks surrounding a bubble-wrap core, eggs padded in breakfast cereal or popcorn, containers filled with water (although that’s banned in many competitions), the panty hose box (suspend the egg in panty-hose in a box, and the stretchiness of the fabric will keep it from hitting the sides and breaking), and the small padded box covered in springs.

Then, of course, you have my cousin John’s approach. He always was too smart for his own good, so he decided to come up with something a bit more unusual. When he showed up for school that day, it was with a container shaped like a rocket; the thing even had landing struts. It was even weighted so that the container always fell bottom-first. What he didn’t tell anyone, of course, was that the rocket was weighted with an actual radio controlled model rocket engine and had a thin paper coating over it.

When the teacher dropped his off the roof (all us kids standing below), John, who’d been hiding his remote in his pants, pulls it out to activate it. Unfortunately, it didn’t go quite as anticipated and shot off sideways toward the kids. Guess who it hit?

And that’s the story about how I got a broken rib, minor burns, and a face covered in egg. It wouldn’t be the first or the last time that hanging out with my cousin got me injured, either. At least that time I didn’t get in trouble for it.

History’s Arc of Innovation

I always hear people going on and on about how we’re in the greatest age of innovation and technology, with more amazing things being invented now than ever before. I’ll have to beg to differ there, and I can back up my argument, too:

The Library at Alexandria

The Library at Alexandria

  • The oldest folding chairs date back to the 14th century B.C. from Ancient Egypt.
  • The first fishing reel dates all the way to at least 4th century China.
  • Beer predates recorded history, and has even been linked to the rise of civilization.
  • Wine predates recorded history and is possibly almost as old as beer.
  • Reclining armchairs date back to the Napoleonic War.
  • Organized sporting events predate recorded history.
  • The oldest dice ever found are more than 5,000 years old—coincidentally, they were found in the oldest ever backgammon set.
  • Humans bred dogs before recorded history, or even the invention of agriculture.
  • The earliest form of chess originated in the 6th century in India.
  • The Arawak Native Americans invented the barbeque grill long before any Europeans showed up in the Americas.
  • Playing cards were invented in China during the 9th century.
  • The written word is between six and nine thousand years old; the first proto-books popped up not too long after.
  • The housecat was domesticated in Ancient Egypt, though some experts believe that the process started long before that.
  • The oldest known direct ancestors of the guitar are well over 3,000 years old.
  • Baseball caps are more than a century and a half old.
  • People began drinking coffee—in Yemen—in the 1400s.
  • Native Americans, probably the Arawak, invented the hammock in the Caribbean more than a thousand years ago.

So, the next time someone dismisses ancient peoples as primitive: just smile and nod, then kick back in a hammock with a beer and a good book.

The Mark of Civilization

When you think about the Roman Empire, one of the first things that pops into mind is their aqueduct system…unless you’ve been watching too much TV, in which case you’re likely thinking of their gladiators or legions.

Diego Delso, Wikimedia Commons, License CC-BY-SA 3.0

Roman Aqueduct, c. 1st century, Spain

I feel pretty comfortable saying that the reason Rome was so stable for so long was due to their roads, aqueducts, sewer system, and other civil projects. It always grates me a little bit when people talk about the gladiatorial games being used to pacify the population—they certainly did that, but this was secondary to having clean water, plenty of food, and sanitation.

Thanks to the Roman Empire’s extensive civil improvements, Rome itself had a population of more than a MILLION people. That’s just nuts for a city in the ancient world. Athens maybe had 300K, and it was enormous for its time. There are only a few other ancient cities of comparable size at all.

That’s where Rome’s real success lay: not in conquest but in civil planning and construction. I know I’m starting to sound like a broken record in this blog space, going on about how people focused on war as the key part of history bugs me. (Maggie jokes sometimes that she is worried I’ll start buying Grateful Dead shirts and growing a ponytail.) It’s not about hating war, though. It’s about acknowledging that what we build and how we build it is, ultimately, the most important legacy of a society.

Eisenhower’s greatest accomplishment as President? The Interstate Highway System. What do we remember about the Egyptians? The pyramids. If you look at any society from more than a couple decades or so, what part of it lasts? Their construction.

The aqueducts have stood for millennia. I rest my case.


Photo: Diego Delso, Wikimedia Commons, License CC-BY-SA 3.0