Today, however, when someone talks of maps, we are driven to think of representations of geographical regions, whether on paper or a digital device. So, one may think of maps of countries, cities, or of various themes. But check out a good encyclopedia, and a whole world of meanings and applications opens up.
Maps are a fundamental concept to an astonishingly wide range of human interests, from of course representing the terrain to studying how the human mind works (the human mind has a similar map of the body, and that is how it gets to know that the pain is coming from the arm). Actually, a map is a fundamental concept, applicable almost anywhere. Any kind of representation can be considered a map; and it need not be visual always. For instance, people working to understand the brain often simulate its working on the computer, by developing what are known as neural networks. Sure there are no neurons in a computer, but the concept successfully simulates them; hence, it "maps" the human brain (or to be perfectly honest, attempts to map).
But for the rest of or discussion, we'll focus on maps in their customary sense - the good old colorful images we find in guides, atlases, applications, and everything else, helping us figure out the world around us.
The curious have always wondered: When was the first time people started to make maps?
While the exact dates and time periods are debated, even our wildest estimates keep getting corrected and pushed back. For instance, it has been commonly believed that the earliest map was the Imago Mundi (world map), believed to have been created in Babylon some 3,000 years ago. However, an article in The Telegraph talked of another surprise discovery: a stone-engraved map in the caves of northern Spain, believed to have been created 14,000 years ago! But looking at it, one would hardly call it a map: just a few lines scribbled here and there on a rather uninteresting rock.
What can it mean, after all? Apparently, its creator wanted to represent the world immediately outside the cave, including water sources, spots where animals could be found, and the like - or so the article reasoned.
Interesting . . . but like we said earlier, since the very definition of a map is hazy, there can't be a unanimous agreement on this.
Feeling bogged down by heavyweight terms like Contours, Relief, Projection, True north, and others? Don't worry; just stay with us and we'll make it as easy as the alphabet. Next time, you may forgot how to operate a toaster, but you would always be able to read maps.
(In case you are already much comfortable with the terminology, you may want to skip this section and zoom ahead.)
There is no end to learning cartography and maps. Therefore, it will not be possible to cover everything here, and perhaps not even practical. For most of the users, the terms used by the professionals in the field are of little us. Therefore, we will restrict our discussion to the terminology that is in the common use and will help us get to speed quickly.
- Contour lines : Simply put, these are lines that connect places of same height on a map.
- Elevation : This is the vertical distance of a point, measured from sea-level. Naturally, a hill station would have a higher elevation than a beach.
- Scale : The factor by which an actual area had to be reduced in order for it to be represented on the map. Scaling factors of a few millions are quite common. That is, if you took the map of USA and stretched it a few million times, the borders would overlap perfectly (and you'd have a lot of trouble studying that map!).
- Relief : True to its name, a physical representation of the elevation and/or geography on a map, which looks really pleasing to the eye.
- Projection : The process of representing the earth's surface on a sheet of paper (or any flat surface). Since the earth is spherical, the resulting map look a bit odd if you seeing something like this for the first time.
- Topography : It is a collective term for the various types of features found on a surface. These would include the natural features, as well as the man-made ones.
- Magnetic declination : Because of the molten metals at its core, the Earth's magnetic north and south poles do not perfectly align with the geographical north and south. In fact, at some places, their directions are so markedly different that you'll be surprised. Magnetic declination is a measure of this angle, or tilt, that exists between the two north poles (geographic and magnetic).
Among the first cartographers were the likes of Aristotle, Copernicus, Magellan, Polo and Ptolemy.
Although cartography is defined as the study of maps and the subsequent process of creating them, it is not as easy as it appears at first glance. In order to create a good map, it has to go through the following stages:
- Map Editing : In this phase, the various elements of the map are defined and set. These would be particular to the type of map being produced; thus, while in one map the editing process could be concerned about roads, rails, and physical boundaries, in another there might be abstract elements to be defined and enumerated (remember that after all, a map is just a representation, and it could represent abstract entities as well).
- Map Projections : As already defined above, projections are the representation of actual terrain on the viewing media. The simplest example is that of a physical map on a flat sheet of paper. The terrain of, let's say, a country can include water bodies, mountains, plains, etc. How do you show this information on paper? These are the concerns of map projections.
- Map Generalization : Not all the features of the object need to be represented on a map, or can be represented. For instance, along with its boundaries, a country may have a large number of buildings as well. If the maps is purely physical, these details are unnecessary for the map. Another example is that in a political map, the physical features are left out. All this falls under map generalization, which weeds out (so to speak) any details that are not of use to the final map.
- Map simplification : Another process that generalization carries out is simplification. Consider the coastline of a country, for example. Fractal geometry tells us that there is an infinite detail in the coastline, and one could as well spend his whole life in chasing the perfect mapping and not arrive at it. What is to be done, then? Simplification. The coastline has to be approximated and plotted on the map, with just enough detail to make it accurate for the defined use. Of course the simplification levels vary from place to place. A coastline map for home use would be lot simpler than the one used for plotting surveying data.
- Map Design : And finally, map design fuses all these processes and brings out a map that is useful and elegant. It can be easily said that map design is the holy grail of cartography. Sure, good research and reduction have their value, but if the design is anything less than excellent, the map will lose its value. Colors, layout, orientation, all this and much more comes under this process.
There are many ways to classify maps, based on their utility, form, or even the technology used. To start with, we will describe the most widespread and natural classification of maps:
- Physical Maps : As the name suggests, these maps are used to represent the various physical features of a surface. For instance, looking at the World Physical Map, you can tell where the water bodies are; where the mountain ranges are located; where the various deserts can be found; and so on. This is achieved by color-coding the entire map, which results in something that is quite pleasant to look at, provided the right combination of colors has been used. You can check out the physical maps of the various countries and have a quick overview of their geography.
- Political Maps : The maps are more concerned with the regions of governance. On a political map, you can see the various boundaries of cities, countries, etc., as accepted by the countries. However, there are more than enough cases where a particular region is disputed and ends up getting claimed by two or more countries. It is a difficult situation for map-makers, and the best recourse to them is to use a dotted line to show a weak boundary.
- Blank Maps : These maps contain only the boundary, and have no other places or features marked. They are great as learning tools, and are used extensively among students. If you keep forgetting the location of world countries or their borders, there is no better way than filling up and cross-checking a blank map. It is also possible for a blank map to have the boundaries marked, so that it can be used for more specific tasks.
- Thematic Maps : This is a special case of a map, and is used to display information related to a particular theme. The data is collected from the various geographical regions, and the map is accordingly plotted. For instance, a thematic map could show the various places in the world where diamonds are found and mined, and further classify these regions by color codes. Indeed, the number of thematic maps possible is infinite, to say the least.
- Location Maps : The location map is used to mark the location of a particular place with respect to the continent, country or the world. This might seem like an exercise in futility, until you actually see a location map in action. Stripped of all the other details that might be termed irrelevant for the moment, the location map provides an unmistakably clear idea of where the particular place actually lies in relation to other well-known regions. Do this exercise even once and you can never miss the location of a place.
- Projection Maps : These maps are used to represent the Earth's surface on plane paper. And herein lies the problem. The Earth is a sphere, while we want to represent this information on a two-dimensional paper. The result is a map that looks skewed and not quite easy on the eye at the first look. However, its usefulness soon overtakes its form, and the map becomes very useful. Globes were made possible in this way only: When that flat sheet is cut and pasted on the globe properly, we get a near-perfect model of the earth. Otherwise, we would have a hard time making sense out of the otherwise perfectly okay map now pasted on a sphere.