• The Mercator projection distorts the relative size of continents. Image created with the Geocart map projection software. Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0
Here's what you need to know about the Mercator projection, in one handy video.
By
Signe Dean

12 Aug 2016 - 3:26 PM  UPDATED 12 Aug 2016 - 3:29 PM

The uncomfortable truth all geographers know perfectly well is that every map projection is, to some extent, a lie - because projecting the surface of a round planet onto a flat sheet of paper inevitably leads to a certain level of distortion (while globes are not practical to carry around).

However, most people are not aware of the sheer level of this distortion - it can be so dramatic that it impacts how we view the world.

There’s one that many map connoisseurs consider particularly egregious - and yet you’ve seen this version of the world map on plenty of classroom walls, online graphs, and even Google Maps, if you zoom out far enough.

Known as the Mercator projection, it’s a version of the world that elicits strong feelings amongst those in the know. In a forum thread devoted to criticising the projection choice of Google Maps, one reader calls it “offensive, irresponsible, and embarrassing.”

But how bad is it exactly? How did it come to be, and why are we still using it? These are some of the questions science communicator Tom van Kalken addresses in a recent video from his online series The Science of Everything:

Yes, Australia is actually a huge landmass. This is why Europeans who come to our continent are often surprised by how far we need to drive to get anywhere - it looks nowhere near as huge on the map!

"Obviously as a kid I never really knew that there was a huge size disparity," says Tom, who started his YouTube series as an outlet for all the interesting facts he learns in his day job as a production coordinator for kids’ science show Scope at Network Ten.

Once you know about the transgressions of the Mercator projection, the world doesn’t look the same ever again.

Tom, who likes to run his video ideas past others, got a lot of shocked responses from friends who never realised that Russia really isn’t as huge as it seems, not to even mention Greenland.

“That’s usually how I tell whether my ideas for videos are any good,” he adds.

Online video has emerged as a popular medium for science communication, and Tom believes it can foster a curiosity that sometimes gets lost at school, when science isn’t presented in an exciting way.

"When they teach science, there's just a general overview, I don't think you get to pick out the science that really interests you,” he says. “When you get that opportunity, such as writing scripts for this show, for example, you get to engage with what you find inspiring."

The Science of Everything series is up to its 12th episode at the moment, with a new one coming out every Wednesday. Other episodes have explored everything from the history of pineapple prices, to our strange need to swear, to the curious history of pigeons during the war

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