The Power of Maps

Devin is our data science, remote-sensing and geospatial mapping specialist. His fascination with maps is infectuous!

Every time I look at a map, I feel like I have a superpower. Think for a moment about all that’s at your disposal with a “simple” app like Google Earth. The world is literally at your fingertips – with just a flip of your thumb you can virtually travel from one continent to another within a matter of seconds, view the highest peak atop Mount Everest from the point of view of a climber, or even spy on the secrets of Area 51 (though I’ve yet to see a UFO on any map).

Imagine if we could show this technology to generations that came long before us. Picture the elation of explorers endeavouring to cross vast expanses of wilderness if we could hand them our phones and show them exactly what natural challenges lie before them. How strange it would be for them to think that humans have now taken photos of essentially every part of the world’s surface area (photography itself being an extraordinary technology). And we haven’t just taken these photographs for the sheer pleasure of looking at them (a supreme pleasure not to be discounted, indeed), but we’ve taken photos of the Earth that include more data than we even need to view with our human eyes. We can “see” the world now with “machine eyes”, allowing us to answer questions that we previously hadn’t even considered asking. The maps that humans are producing continue to amaze and bewilder even those of us who work hard to make them.

And it’s not just the technological wonder of near real-time satellite imagery and drone footage that forces me into amazed bewilderment (as this is just one “flavour” of maps, so to speak). Sometimes it’s just a world map that shows our planet’s land mass in a way that we’ve never seen it before. Take for instance the map of nematode abundance that the Crowther Lab produced. Before making that map, I would have thought that there were far more individual living organisms on the planet in areas that seem most hospitable to life—namely, the warmer tropical and equatorial regions of the world filled with rain forests teeming with unknown species of plants and animals.

But what we discovered when we looked upon our nematode map was exactly the opposite: there are more nematodes at higher latitude regions than at the equator. Which, considering that nematodes are one of the most abundant forms of life on Earth, totally surprised us. In half a second of looking at what’s essentially an illustration of our planet on a piece of paper my entire worldview changed. Suddenly these colder regions of the world began to teem with life in my mental model, and I realized just how fragile a human paradigm can be. Maps are lenses through which we can see the world from new and curious perspectives, tools by which we can both ask and answer ever more new and curious questions.

The nematodes map of our lab that Devin mentioned: surprisingly, nematodes are more abundant in higher latitudes!

Of course, my mind only changed from seeing a map that I knew to be “true”. In other words, I trusted what I was looking at, and therefore I listened to what it was telling me. This sense of trust for maps is part of what enhances my appreciation for them. Maps aren’t just aesthetically appealing illustrations of our planet (or a piece of it) on a piece of paper or a digital screen, they’re symbolic representations of the space (and perhaps the time) in which we all live.

For me, acknowledging how much (or rather, how little) humans know about the world is what makes me all the more thrilled about both maps and the scientific process in general. We’re constantly improving on what we’ve done before. Or, more metaphorically, we’re standing on the shoulders of giants who came before us while simultaneously trying to leap higher and higher into the unknown. We make progress by delving deeper into our research and our scientific discourse, which also means (for me as a mapper) that we strive to make more and better maps.

It feels quite natural, in a way, as human beings have been making maps for tens of thousands of years—before there was even a “scientific community” at all. The first maps known from human history, interestingly enough, aren’t even of our planet Earth but of the stars. Now we make maps of nematodes, of climatic values from around the world, and – forthrightly – of the effects that humans have had on our planet. Some of the most memorable maps that I’ve seen of late have shown me how much glaciers have retreated, how much deforestation has occurred around the world, and the risks of potential desertification.

But instead of losing hope for the world’s environment when I see these maps, I gain hope. I remember that maps can be powerful. Maps are representations of reality condensed for human mental digestion; they can both break down and transmute human paradigms in a matter of moments. If we want to stop the glaciers from melting, the forests from falling, and the deserts from expanding, then we need to show enough people (especially the people with wealth and influence) maps that communicate the urgency of our situation.

Much like my favourite stories from literature, it sometimes feels like all we need is the right map at the right moment. Bilbo Baggins had a map that indicated the secret door to a dragon’s lair; Harry Potter had the Marauder’s Map to track everyone lurking in the halls of Hogwarts; and countless pirates had maps where “X” marked the spot of their buried treasure. Nowadays, more than ever, we can make and use maps that show both the beauty and the fragility of the ecosystems that support us all – the natural treasures that we’ve inherited by simply being human. So, next time you want to change your psychology forever, consider finding (or making) the right map for the job.