NPR/NGS Radio Expeditions
16 Dec 1998
New YorkNew York County
- National Public Radio; New York Bureau
- 40.72833 -73.99417
- :04 - 31:42
Stereo=1; Dual-Channel Mono
NPR/NGS Geographic Century
John Noble Wilford interviewed by Don Smith
...idle banter between Wilford and Smith...
....State your name and who you are and what you do.
John Wilford [JW] 1:55
I¿m John Noble Wilford, I¿m a science correspondent for the New York Times and author of the book ¿The Map Makers¿.
Why do we make maps?
Well maps are one of the basic means by which humans communicate. So basic that we don¿t even know when people started thinking in terms of images of where they are and where things are. It goes back probably even before writing.
Has the fundamental, I guess one of the reasons we make maps is to see where we are.
Yes and where we want to go and where the two sort of meet.
Is that fundamental purpose of seeing where we are...has that changed over the centuries?
Fundamentally it hasn¿t changed a lot. What has changed is what we choose to map, uh what we want to map, what we can map. To explain that, once map makers simply mapped what they¿d seen, their local environment and their idea of what the world was like. Now of course, we can go all over the world. We¿ve been to all of the continents, mapped all of the continents, there are very few blank spaces on the maps today. In addition we can now do things like map the floor of the ocean, map the subsurface, beneath the ice of Antarctica, beneath the mountains. We can also map, we can fly over places and map jungles, we can even map Venus and Mars. It¿s expanded in what you can do and what you want to do, but the concept is still the same, to communicate place.
John, incidentally, when this piece is broadcast...you said something nice in your article for the geographic...how did you say that?
Well...The thing that has changed in mapping in the last 20, 30 years of course, is the technology that enables you to do so many more things than you could do before. And people in the map making business themselves are not even sure of all the implications. They say that they¿re in a revolution. They say that the whole role of maps and map makers is changing and we don¿t know what the outcome will be. It occurred to me talking to people in the field and talking to historians, that in many ways we¿re going through a revolution in map making, the likes of which we haven¿t seen since the renaissance back in the 15th, 16th centuries. And that is, we have new perspectives, we have new ways of creating images of place, where we are and where we want to go. And one of the main things that¿s driving that is the computer. Also what is driving that is called remote sensing which enables you to see more than you could see before. You can see the unseen as a matter of fact. Such as using infrared photography, radar, various other means of exploring the earth and other planets.
Even get some idea of the shape of the earth underground.
I think that the thing that I would like to impress upon people is the notion that until about 30 years ago only about a third of the earth had been mapped. And I say that because in the last 30 years we have mapped the floor of the oceans which of course encompasses almost 2/3 of the area of the earth. That in itself is astonishing. And what does mapping that 2/3 mean. It means that we have new concepts of the forces that drive earth. It¿s the combination of map making and of the physical sciences that is driven this revolution in plate-tectonics, understanding the forces that are causing the continents to drift and the forces that cause earthquakes and volcanoes. So, the map that you hold in your hands is the product of the work of people who are trying to conceive what things are like and in combination with other scientists are trying to understand where we live.
The maps that we hold in our hands...some of these maps we can¿t hold in our hands, they¿re in computers....
Right, I should change that. One of the things that is really changing, no one is going to eliminate the paper map anytime soon. But what you do have now that you didn¿t have 10, 20 years ago is something called the dynamic map. That is, and dynamic maps can be produced by anyone, you don¿t have to be a certified map maker. You can be just someone with some familiarity with cyberspace. You can go into a computer and call up a program and with that call-up a base map of let¿s say your home state, you can zoom in on your home town or some place else, you can zoom in on a trail you want to hike in the Adirondacks let¿s say, and you can produce on the screen that map at any scale you choose. You don¿t have to take the scale that¿s given to you by the publisher. You can create your own scale, you can eliminate things from the map, you can add things to the map right there on the computer. And maybe that¿s as far as it¿ll go. You¿ll just have that map on the computer or you¿ll then have a printout of your map which will not be the same map that you started out with when you called it up on the computer because you¿ve changed the scales. That is dynamic mapping. Even the professionals are going into this a lot. In problem solving and policy making, policy advice, for example at the U.S. Geological survey, the map makers there, the cartographers are doing the exact same thing that I just described. They¿re going into their computers and trying to explore what you can do to prevent or lessen the devastation from floods in the Missouri or Mississippi valleys. They do this in problem-solving on the computer, calling up on the screen a map of certain area of the Mississippi River and deciding well if we built the levy a little higher, what effect would that have over 50 miles on either side. And with a little bit of input you can see what the effect would be, you can see blue running across an area that had been brown let¿s say. And there¿s where the flooding would occur. That¿s how you can help, how map makers with these dynamic maps, can help policy makers decide what to do in terms of flood control. It can help them decide where to put a factory, new streets and new sub-divisions.
Let¿s back up a little bit and talk about the development of cartography historically. Aristophenes, what did he do?
Well, Aristophenes was a 3rd century B.C. Greek who was the librarian at Alexandria, the famous library at Alexandria. He was a man of many talents and he was also a man who once heard that there was a well down at ... Aswan (?) where the sun at the 21st of June every year, the sun shone straight into the bottom of the well, indicating the sun was directly overhead. Anyway, with that kind of knowledge and some simple geometry, measuring the distance from Alexandria down to Aswan and the angle of the sun at Aswan which is straight and in Alexandria the angle of the shadow of the sun was 7 degrees. From all of that, Aristophenes, without really leaving the library in Alexandria, mapped the circumference of the earth for the first time and came very close to it. It was only later that Ptolemy and others revised his, Aristophenes, estimates downwards and that lead to underestimations of the size of the earth. Which, incidentally is one thing that encouraged Columbus to set sail thinking he could reach Asia by going west.
People were always miscalculating scale, weren¿t they.
Oh definitely. You didn¿t know. You knew where you were. You heard stories about where other places were and what they were like. Travelers came back like Marco Polo who came back and exaggerated and mislead or in otherwise created an imaginary world out there and cartographers followed that way of thinking. The earliest maps that we know of are the Babylonian maps in clay tablets. They mainly show the Tigris and Euphrates Valleys which is basically what the Babylonians knew. Around that, which is just a little way in each direction, was an ocean, the ocean sea that encircled the known world. And that was the concept of what the world was like. Even as you knew more about Asia, more about Europe, more about Africa, it was still three continent world, circumscribed by ocean. And it wasn¿t until the 15th century, particularly in Renaissance Florence, people began to get this concept that the earth was bigger and that the oceans did not restrict the earth, the world, instead they were navigable. They were avenues of communication, not restrictive bodies. And it was that kind of thinking that also encouraged people like Columbus. If it hadn¿t been Columbus somebody else, surely in not too much more time, would have had the idea to go west to find Asia and stumble upon North America.
What were all those lines about in the 15th century maps?
What do you mean the lines?...Oh the rhumb lines. That was, and I¿m just thinking out loud right now...the rhumb lines, some of those didn¿t really start until the sea charts.
What was the purpose of them?
Well, one of the first examples of more scientific mapping...in the middle ages in Europe, maps were not considered agents for describing reality. They were more conceptual, they were theological and ecclesiastical in purpose. They did not start to become vehicles for describing reality until about the 13th, 14th centuries which happened to be about the time the compass was introduced in Europe in the early 1200s. Once the compass was introduced, that began to change not only the sea-going navigations people sailing in the Mediterranean, but it also encouraged the production of maps of the Mediterranean. And on those maps, almost from the very beginning, the scribes would draw straight lines from one port to another, across the Mediterranean or across any sea, and these were lines of compass bearing. In other words, if you set your compass at such and such an angle, you would reach the next shore at a certain place. And those became known as rhumb lines and they were even incorporated after the discoveries of the new world. They were incorporated in the maps of the ocean and so you had lines that you could set and follow the compass bearing all across the ocean. And it did look like wrinkles in an old man¿s face but it was very expressive of mapping of the late medieval period and the early age of discovery.
...what are quasars and what role do they play in map making?
Well in many ways, quasars are the ultimate benchmark for map makers. Quasars as far as astronomers can tell are the most distant object in the universe that we can see. They are presumably black holes in the very distant galaxies, but they are so bright that they can be seen from this far away, and from the standpoint of the map maker they appeared not to move at all. They appeared to be fixed objects. That¿s because they¿re so far away that you don¿t detect their motion. But since they¿re very fixed objects you can site on them and use them as a fixed point for any of your mapping of places, the triangulation of places on earth. So from I guess about the 1970s on, they became the one fixed point that is beyond earth, that is independent of the motions of earth, such motions even as continental drift (the length of a fingernail every few years) they¿re this fixed point that you measure from all your other angles, all your other points and coordinates on earth. In other words if, in one way or another when you are having your property surveyed, to some extent you are having...even if you are having your property surveyed, ultimately that survey is tied in with measurements that go back to a fixed point with some quasar. So we all have our property and our lives fixed on a star.
So, objects in space are helping us map on earth, on the other hand we¿re mapping objects in space as well. I guess as we go to Mars, we¿ll already have a map, won¿t we?
Oh yes. When we went to the moon we already had a map. As a matter of fact, map making in the 20th century has reversed the roles. It used the be that discoverers or explorers went to new places and then drew maps of where they¿d been. Now we draw maps and from these maps we¿d know where we¿d want to go. The moon, Mars, all the planets now have been mapped from one degree to another and many of the moons of Jupiter as well. Also, space is increasingly the place where we get our bearings here on earth. Some of the first applications of modern technology, post W.W.II technology, was in a space craft that could be put in orbit and do multi-spectral sensing. That is have cameras that could look at different spectra of light from the surface of the earth, including the invisible infra-red light, and from that determine soil conditions, vegetation variations, water even where some water is polluted and where some isn¿t polluted, all sorts of ways of surveying the conditions of the earth. These satellites called LANSATS really steered map making into this new area of space related map making. And this caused us to change our way of the kinds of maps we produced and what we used maps for, such as crop control, flood control, monitoring pollution, and these became dynamic maps also. And also in space, we now have navigation satellites up there that the defense department does that ring the earth, and at any one time you can take a small instrument, GPS they call it (Global Positioning System) instrument, it¿s no bigger than a cellular phone, and you can tune in on 4 or 5 navigation satellites and from that you can determine exactly where you are on earth -- your latitude, your longitude, your elevation. And from that you can determine your distances and directions where you want to go. That¿s revolutionizing map making also navigation by sea and land. Even delivery people for stores use GPS to plan their routes for making deliveries.
And of course the military uses it too.
Oh that was why it started in the first place, to track troop movements and place missile targets.
We¿re able to map the surface of the earth so accurately...but what about the universe...how do they do that?
Well I guess we should say nothing is impossible. First the earth and then the moon and Mars and eventually you start looking beyond. And that¿s what we¿re doing today. Astronomers of course, are the map makers in regard to the universe. And they themselves use the language sometimes of the map makers. That says something about the map that is so interesting. And one reason we know that the map is a fundamental idea in communications is because it¿s used as a metaphor for all sorts of concepts of place and decision-making, we¿re mapping our plans, we¿re mapping our way to something. And in astronomy they¿re doing the same thing. Using the metaphor of mapping and some of the techniques of mapping. Right now, some astronomers particularly at Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics have effectively mapped big swathes of the universe from their telescope observations to find out the distribution of matter in the universe. And as you might expect, as you begin to see the distribution you begin to see patterns that you had no conception of before. You begin to see that clusters of galaxies join into super clusters of galaxies and great strings of super clusters of galaxies. In the northern hemisphere you can now see what they call the ¿great wall¿ that extends over a billion light years of distance. And you couldn¿t imagine that until you mapped it. Just as you couldn¿t imagine the new world until you began to map it.
As you¿re talking I¿m thinking it¿s really hard to understate the importance of mapping in human development isn¿t it?
It¿s, mapping, as I say is an important means of communications and is an important tool in thinking. You know sometimes as a writer I have this idea I don¿t really know what I think until I¿ve written my thoughts down and then I can organize my thoughts. Well the same thing applies, in a visual sense, in map making. You don¿t quite know where you are, where things are, where you fit in with other places in the world, how your little town fits in or your little country fits in until you¿ve put it on a map and laid the map out on a table or on the screen of your TV or your computer and then begin to say, ah, that¿s where we are. And that¿s the same thing that¿s going on now, in a more sophisticated way of, ah, that¿s where the traffic goes at 5 o¿clock, that¿s where the traffic gets snarled at 5 o¿clock. This kind of dynamic mapping, or that¿s where the Mississippi River, the first flooding is going to occur because the levy is lower there and the terrain is this or that. You can start dealing with problems, you can think thoughts that you couldn¿t think without seeing them laid out on a map.
Wonderful...I think we¿re finished.
...more idle banter...