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 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: