New 2D 'Disc' Map Of World Hailed As Most Accurate Ever Made

One of my favorite things about going to college were the classes that encouraged me to rethink the assumptions I had about the world. But it's far from the only place where you can discover that some of the things you learned and once took for granted were wrong all along.

And it's particularly mind-blowing when we realize how subtly we adopted inaccuracies and assumed that the people who passed them on to us knew what they were talking about.

Moreover, when these inaccuracies are ingrained deep enough into our common understanding, they affect the ways we communicate even after we know what's wrong with them.

And it's that issue that has inspired one team of researchers to create what could be one of the world's most accurate world maps.

In all likelihood, if you had a 2D map of the world growing up, it was based on the work of Gerardus Mercator.

But while it's unfair to say that there's nothing his projections of the world did well, it's also riddled with inaccuracies.

As Princeton astrophysics professor J. Richard Gott — who we'll be discussing a lot more shortly — wrote in Scientific American, the Mercator map is just about flawless in its depiction of local shapes, but is notoriously bad at depicting areas and showing their appropriate scale.

For instance, we can see that Greenland is depicted as roughly the size of South America or Africa. Yet it takes up significantly less space than either of them in the actual world.

To break down the ways in which a map can be inaccurate, Gott teamed up with another physics professor from Drexel University named David Goldberg to invent a score system.

As Gott explained, this score system takes into account local shapes, area sizes, distance, the accuracy of the overall bending shown in the map, lopsidedness, and how the map cuts out its boundaries. The lower the score a map gets, the more accurate it is.

The Mercator map gets a score of 8.296 for the area errors we discussed before, as well as the decision to cut the map at the international date line and the distance errors that creates and some general lopsidedness.

A globe, on the other hand, has a score of 0.0.

But of course, we still have a use for flatter maps so others have made their own attempts to accurately depict the world in the centuries since Mercator's work.

And as a release from Princeton University explained, the one that Gott and Goldberg once considered the most accurate is known as the Winkel Tripel, which has a score of 4.563.

But while we can see that this one is much better at accurately depicting the sizes of land masses, it still has the same boundary cut problem as the Mercator map, which ends up making Hawaii look like it's on the other side of the world from Japan.

So when Gott, Goldberg, and Gott's Princeton colleague Bob Vanderbei put together their map, they knew they had to reinvent how it's done.

In Princeton's release, Gott compares their work to that of Olympic high jumper Dick Fosbury, whose technique of arching his back and jumping over the bar backwards in 1968 has been copied by other athletes ever since.

In Gott's words, "We’re like Mr. Fosbury. We’re doing this to break a record, to make the flat map with the least error possible. So, like him, we’re surprising folks. We’re proposing a radically different kind of map, and we beat Winkel Tripel on each and every one of the six errors."

And while the process of doing this was undoubtedly complicated, the idea behind it was relatively simple: take the spherical earth we have and flatten it.

To do this, the team ended up with a double-sided disc map that bears some resemblance to a vinyl record.

Although Gott admitted that this model doesn't let you see all of the world at once as other flat maps do, it also gives you a better sense of how far places are from each other simply by using equally spread out lines of longitude extended from the north and south poles.

While Gott said that this hasn't completely eliminated distance errors, they've been cut down to at most plus or minus 22.2 percent and stayed relatively uniform compared to the funhouse mirror effect you get when you approach the poles or the boundary cut in previous maps.

As a result, Gott asserts that the map he developed with Goldberg and Vanderbei has an error score of 0.881.

This is accomplished by improving on what the Winkel Tripel map did right and avoiding the errors that it inherited from Mercator.

And while you'd have a harder time hanging this on a wall than previous models, it's still pretty flexible in how it can be distributed. In addition to the tactile use you can get out of it that's similar to a globe, it can also be inserted into magazines and be made from multiple materials.

It's always hard to predict what will catch on and what won't, but we could very well be looking at the future of map design here.

h/t: Scientific American, Princeton University