A Moment for Maps in Princeton

11 December 2012

Maps are having a moment. Geography is in the air. Apple is fighting it out with Google Maps; since the election the Blue States are still battling the Red, and who knew there was a floodplain map of Manhattan before Sandy? Foreign correspondent Robert D. Kaplan distills the world’s geopolitical perplexities into maps in his latest book, which he calls The Revenge of Geography. 

Maybe we are feeling somewhat lost, and it’s not the revenge, but the reassurance, of geography we seek. A map, after all, is synonymous with a plan, a design, a guide. Maps are comfortably old-fashioned facts. They seem so quaint, yet so indubitable. But the occupational secret of the cartographers’ guild is that every map is a statement about a place, not the place itself. It may be an experimental hypothesis, a personal essay, or outright propaganda, but a map is always a proposition about reality, not its “truth.”

The exhibition “First X, Then Y, Now Z: Landmark Thematic Maps,” at Princeton University, is a beautiful collection of maps of a sort that once were considered strictly utilitarian. The antiquarian style–these maps were handcrafted, lettered and inked by artisans–corresponds with their antiquarian scientific content, which is racist and imperialist but mostly just plain wrong.  Perhaps that anachronism is the source of the curious tension between beauty and utility that makes old maps so attractive to thieves and other collectors. These maps are often beautiful as objects, questionable as science, reprehensible as ideology–and irresistible in a museum.

None of the hundred maps on display through February 10 in the Main Exhibition Gallery at the Firestone Library, was created as a work of art, or even with a strong aesthetic intent. These were the tools and instruments of a wide range of inquisitive people engaged in some serious pursuit other than art: census-takers, botanists, meteorologists, geologists. In the argot of cartography, they are thematic maps. What does that mean?

“A thematic map is simply a map of something somewhere,”  writes curator John Delaney, somewhat unhelpfully,  in the sumptuous and indispensable catalog. Maybe we could get a little more detail  if we asked the alternative question: “What would a non-thematic map look like?” The practical answer, as embodied in this collection, is that a non-thematic map is a political map, a map of states and their boundaries.  Thus, a thematic map displays data that might have a scientific or sociological purpose, but not a political end.

Arthur H. Robinson (1915-2004), the influential cartographer-philosopher to whom the catalog  is dedicated, wrote an important book about the art of mapmaking in 1952. It was called The Look of Maps, and surprisingly, it has no illustrations. Robinson had his reasons.  “The scientific special purpose map, ” as he described the thematic map, “rarely should be examined out of context, so to speak, for its raison d’etre determines or limits, to a considerable degree, its visual character.” He thought you should really only look at a geological map in a geology book, for example, because Its reason for being is geology.

“First X, Then Y, Now Z,”  is nevertheless a happy occasion to look at a collection of thematic maps, because all these old maps now share a context: history. Whatever special purpose they served for their makers, they are now historical. The unwieldy title hints at the early history of thematic mapping — the topical layering (the “z” coordinate) onto geographic space (“x,y” ordered pairs). The Firestone Library possesses early, if not always the earliest, thematic maps in various disciplines, such as meteorology, geology, hydrography, natural history, medicine, and sociology/economics.

If that range of subjects sounds like a college catalog, rest assured: the exhibit doesn’t feel at all like school. On the rainy autumn afternoon I visited the dimly lit unlovely library, it was like sitting in a dusty attic paging through random yellowed volumes of The Book of Knowledge. The sewer system of early modern Paris. The great snowstorm of 1842. The upper reaches of the Amazon. Human languages and races around the world. I took the time to enjoy my browsing, and you too will want several hours. Reading maps is more work than looking at pictures. The visual impact of many maps is immediate, but some cartographical wonders will reveal themselves only after close and repeated reading.

One map that will catch your eye is the biggest: a copy of Williams Smith’s 1815 geological chart of most of the British Isles. The original is 9 feet tall and 6 feet wide: the facsimile in Princeton at half that size but still dominates the room.  Simon Winchester calls this “The Map that Changed the World” in his book of that name; its seminal importance to the science of geology is that it’s the first map of what lies beneath the earth. But look at it, displayed as an artifact . Pink in the middle, stippled with blue and resting on green base. Smith made this map by hand, and you cannot doubt that an aesthetic impulse moved that hand.

Beautifully printed, if not hand-colored, are the pages of the 1874 Statistical Atlas of the United States. This groundbreaking collection of maps and charts presented the data gathered by census takers in 1870. Economist and statistician Francis Amasa Walker superintended that census, creating visualizations that might inspire today’s data designers. This was the first census to enumerate the freed slaves, and includes A Map Showing the Proportion of the Colored to the Aggregate Population. It is what experts call a choropleth map–the counties with more black residents are shaded a deeper blue. It looks like an ugly black-and-blue bruise on the body of the American nation.

The scars of race are still visible in a 1937 Greyhound Lines giveaway, “A Good-Natured Map of the United States, Setting Forth the Services of the Greyhound Lines.” The catalog notes that “the “good nature” of the map condones social and racial stereotypes that proliferate in the map’s pictorials–Native American Indians snake dancing, African-Americans picking cotton–all captioned with “down home” lingo.”  Like every transportation map, it demonstrates not only how to get from here to there, but with cheerful hues, whimsical landmarks and local color, it signals American Unity and the casual racism of the era.

Unity in the midst of diversity was already the theme of “Europa poly glotta,” a 1741 language map of the world, dreamt up by theologian and philologist Gottfried Hensel. In the book for which these four maps provided illustratration, Hensel was trying to show how all languages derive from a common origin in Hebrew. The textual “legend” almost overwhelms these maps. The margins are crammed with the first lines of the “Our father,’ translated into local languages in a bewildering soup of local alphabets. The ideal of an “Adamic language” has been discredited. Language is more complex than that. Hensel’s arcane crowded maps chart a delightful attempt to see the world whole and simple–and the complex mess he made as he failed.

There is something clear and pure about water. Hydrography, which represents the depth and and flow of rivers, lakes and oceans, endows maps with a natural beauty. The “Hydrographical Map of Great Britain” (1849, August Petermann) in this show complements Smith’s better-known geological map; Petermann weaves a delicate web of pastel waterways that you could imagine floating above the bedrock of solid colors on Smith’s. Printed in bold color in Paris in 1845, this is among the rarest cartographic delicacies in Princeton. You have not seen this map on the Internet.  Its coloring is essentially simple: water is blue, land is brown and cities are orange dots.

The loveliest map in the show is titled simply “Chart 10”, belying its importance as the  first synoptic US weather map. Watching the Weather Channel, we take “synoptic” meteorology for granted. It’s a look at the weather of a large area at one moment in time. “Chart 10” is a standard weather map for the evening of February 3, 1842: hanging over the Eastern seaboard, blue blobs of clear sky, yellow clouds and green snow. It resembles a mobile of Joan Miró.. A more aesthetic title would be “Winter:”  a pastel abstraction of that season’s cold winds and colors.

“First X, Then Y, Now Z” closes with a handful of maps under the clever heading “Fanta ‘Z’.” Some chart literary places, like Faulkner’s freehand drawings of Yoknapatawpha county,  or Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Others represent Utopia and other paradises, such as the Country of Love or the Land of Marriage.

Although they may seem out of place in an exhibit of early  hematic maps; the catalog notes “they use fictional geography and/or shapes to illustrate or symbolize themes.” But while the “fictions” of the early thematic maps were not inspired by the mapmakers’ imaginative fancies, they nevertheless tell stories about strange people and faraway places.

The distinction between fact and fiction may work in literature, but not in geography. The most elementary geographical facts are fictions: the North Pole, the equator, any political border. Like photography, cartography inspires a naive belief in the reality of what’s depicted. We trust “photographic evidence” and accept the importance of a place that’s been “put on the map.”  Looking back at the past, “First X, Then Y, Now Z”  can enlighten us about the rhetoric and the power of modern cartography.



“Where the Skills Are:” But You Can’t See Them

23 September 2011

Richard Florida offered an interesting take on the importance of  “social skills” in Where the Skills Are – Magazine – The Atlantic.

The map that illustrates the article is merely that: an illustration. We have –and I mean, I have–the technological skills to create maps that can be used as tools. Whatever you call this particular hodgepodge, it fails as a map, as a chart, and frankly even as an illustration. It presents no visual information, no way to tease out any information, and yet, does offer shadows of an impossible early-morning sun.

Too Many Laws

10 June 2011

Philanthropist George Soros has not communicated his opinion of state laws that restrict telephone use by automobile drivers. But his latest essay, “My Philanthropy” (New York Review of Books, June 23, 2011, Vol. LVIII No. 11), offers a hint of how this fascinating wealthy man would prefer to see scientific research driving public policy.

As I see it, mankind’s ability to understand and control the forces of nature greatly exceeds our ability to govern ourselves. Our economy has become global; our governance has not. Our future and, in some respects, our survival depend on our ability to develop the appropriate global governance. This applies to a variety of fields: global warming and nuclear proliferation are the most obvious, but the threats of terrorism and infectious diseases also qualify; so do global financial markets.

Global governance could improve our response to infections disease, and to public health more broadly, no doubt. But mere national governance, in the United States, would go a long way toward, say, making our highways safer by prohibiting cell-phone use by drivers. As it stands now, according to recent research sponsored by Public Health Law Research,

Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia have at least one form of restriction on the use of MCDs [mobile communications devices] in effect. The laws vary in the types of communication activities and categories of driver regulated, as well as enforcement mechanisms and punishments. No state completely bans use of MCDs by all drivers.

(A map accompanies this paper. I have tried to map cell-phone driving laws by state, and it is neither simple nor clear, because the laws are a mess. Feel free to create a better map: the data that Ibrahim, Anderson, Burris and Wagenaaer collected are freely available there and here.)

Ibrahim, Anderson, Burris and Wagenaaer conclude that

State distracted-driving policy is diverging from evidence on the risks of MCD use by drivers.

despite the availability of data. This is where I turn to Soros, whose essay is as much about “why I love humanity” as it is “why I give away money.” Soros, like many of us, once learned that ” free speech and critical thinking would lead to better laws and a better understanding of reality than any dogma.” But…

If thinking has a manipulative function as well as a cognitive one, then it may not be necessary to gain a better understanding of reality in order to obtain the laws one wants. There is a shortcut: “spinning” arguments and manipulating public opinion to get the desired results. Today our political discourse is primarily concerned with getting elected and staying in power. [The] hidden assumption that freedom of speech and thought will produce a better understanding of reality is valid only for the study of natural phenomena. Extending it to human affairs is part of what I have called the “Enlightenment fallacy.”

Soros, notorious for his distaste for George W. Bush, FOX News, and Karl “We create our own reality” Rove, explicitly calls out the Republicans for their manipulation of the public, but recognizes that it’s a bigger problem. He concludes that the message he is trying to communicate is “a profound rethinking of the workings of our political system.” He could invest  some millions in the dautning task of changing the public attitude toward public health and public policy.

ResearchBlogging.orgIbrahim, J., Anderson, E., Burris, S., & Wagenaar, A. (2011). State Laws Restricting Driver Use of Mobile Communications Devices American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 40 (6), 659-665 DOI: 10.1016/j.amepre.2011.02.024

Seeing Is (or Would Be) Believing

22 March 2011

Patty Cohen writes on the “digital humanities” in The New York Times today (22 March, 2001), and misses an opportunity to show us what information technology can do for the liberal arts. She highlights a few unrepresentative projects, and ignores the big question: What can the non-scientific researchers in literature, philosophy, history and the rest of the humanities concoct when given access to great stores of data, and how do they react? Cohen tells us a little and shows us less.

Humanists have always had data; what makes digital data different is the play and the display: you can see the data better and have some fun with it, too.

The title, for which Cohen may not be responsible, is “Giving Literature Virtual Life.” But her story is lifeless.

At the University of Virginia, history undergraduates have produced a digital visualization of the college’s first library collection, allowing them to consider what the selection of books says about how knowledge was classified in the early 18th century.

A library visualization? What does that mean? I would need to see such a thing. Even online, the story offers no link. So here it is, for all to see. Two things make make this a visual representation of the 1828 U. Va. library catalog: maps that neatly mark where the books came from and charts that reveal what they were about. The VisualEyes technology that supports this project allows humanists to create visualizations; ten such projects are demonstrated at that link.

Cohen spends a lot of time at Bryn Mawr College, gushing about teaching Shakespeare with

Their assignment was to create characters on the Web site theatron.org and use them to block scenes from the gory revenge tragedy “Titus Andronicus,” to see how setting can heighten the drama.

“Until you get Shakespeare on its feet, you’re doing it an injustice,” [student] Ms. Cook said. “The plays are in 3-D, not 2-D.”

Cook lacks a basic understanding of what three-dimensional means, believing perhaps it was invented by James Cameron for Avatar. Shakespeare’s plays were created indeed as performances. Until you see them performed, or better yet, get on your feet and perform them, you are doing the Bard an injustice indeed.

Cohen writes thats scholars are only beginning to explore “the contours of this emerging field of digital humanities.” I approve of the metaphor, but reporters too have much more to learn.

Bicycles Are Good for You

13 August 2010

My bicycle

The bicycle is the apotheosis of technology. It may be the perfect machine. Relatively cheap, simple in repairs and upkeep, a two-wheeler doesn’t pollute, is easy to ride, and is good for your health.

Or so you may assume. What I’ve learned working in public health law research is that there will be those who disagree with even the most commonsensical arguments about public health. Look at the Wikipedia article about about bicycle helmets. I have tried without success to cite a Public Health Law Research “evidence brief” there; it seems to some people that a helmet might put a rider at greater risk.

Public health law research is necessary, even if “so much research is proving the obvious, but once you get the numbers, you can hopefully get policy changes.” (I cite an anonymous toiler in the mills of PHLR.)

But now it can be told: your bicycle is good for your health, despite its dangers.

Johan de Hartog, J., Boogaard, H., Nijland, H., & Hoek, G. (2010). Do the Health Benefits of Cycling Outweigh the Risks? Environmental Health Perspectives, 118 (8), 1109-1116 DOI: 10.1289/ehp.0901747

Why Build a Bridge when the River is Shallow?

13 May 2009

180px-NetworkTopology-MeshGwen Shaffer, a doctoral candidate, adjunct professor and researcher in communications at Temple University, recently recieved a National Science Foundation grant to complete her dissertation on the potential for high-speed, hyperlocal, robust ad hoc “mesh networks” to bridge the so-called “digital divide.” 

Shaffer says that when someone opens up a network to the neighbors, “it creates a sense of community” that corporate internet access simply cannot provide. The technology is simple; Shaffer has seen how it works in Berlin and Barcelona, as well as bucolic Denmark. This is technology that bears watching.  

Why Research Matters

3 April 2009
Responding recently to the news of increased funding for the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation, A. J. Stewart Smith, the dean for research at Princeton, said “This is a miracle, I think.” That’s an unexpected claim coming from a particle physicist, but the real miracle of research funding is what happens after the government spends its money.

Investments in scientific research return financial dividends that would make a hedge fund envious. The “multiplier” for Federal dollars spent on NIH funding is better than it for most spending. Families USA, the national organization for health care consumers, measured the benefits of NIH research awards to all 50 states in 2007. “In Your Own Backyard,” their study, calculated that the NIH awarded almost $23 billion in research grants and contracts. That funding created more than 350,000 new jobs nationwide, generated more than $18 billion in wages from those new jobs, and spurred more than $50 billion in business activity.

The year 2009-2010 will be the most exciting in decades for university research. It’s no leap of faith to believe that energy, health care and education are the keys to raising the United States from its economic mess, and President Obama has promised that spending in those fields will increase. Universities such as Temple will benefit from the improved funding for education; less well understood perhaps is how important research is in American higher education.

Research at schools such as Temple University has many goals, and tries to reach those goals in many different ways. Some researchers are trying to cure diseases, some are trying to create more efficient technology. Many researchers are just trying to understand the mysteries of modern life. The immense transformative power of research and innovation can improve the lives of Americans. Infrastructure to improve America’s competitiveness and technology to solve our nation’s most pressing problems — providing clean energy, lowering healthcare costs, and improving public safety.

Scientific research has yielded innovations that have improved the landscape of American life — technologies like the Internet, digital photography, bar codes, Global Positioning System technology, laser surgery, and chemotherapy. At one time, educational competition with the Soviets fostered the creativity that put a man on the moon. Today, we face a new set of challenges, including energy security, HIV/AIDS, and climate change.

Research at Temple has resulted in products that benefit all of us in small ways–a cheaper healthier roach trap, for instance–as well as large. The world’s first institute dedicated to providing the pharmaceutical industry with environmentally sound processes just opened here–withe the help of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the National Science Foundation.

Yet, the United States is losing its scientific dominance. Among industrialized nations, our country’s scores on international science and math tests rank in the bottom third and bottom fifth, respectively. Over the last three decades, federal funding for the physical, mathematical, and engineering sciences has declined at a time when other countries are substantially increasing their own research budgets. Scientific research must play an important role in advancing science and technology in the classroom and in the lab.

Investing in scientific research serves a dual purpose: it is an immediate stimulus to the economy and an investment in US leadership in science, engineering, technology and education. Investments in medical research in particular can address urgent health-care needs.

Spending on science, engineering and technology is only a part of the stimulus package. But it is important to recall that basic science research in the US is largely funded by grants to individual investigators or national laboratories from federal agencies such as the NIH and NSF. Federal money invested in research grants, scientific infrastructure or national laboratories can be spent immediately to support research programmes already approved, salaries for laboratory scientists, purchases of supplies and equipment (most from small US businesses) and institutional expenses of the colleges, universities and medical schools where researchers work. Much scientific research is “shovel-ready;” that universities facilities are in place and only need cash to run.

President Obama has often said that in the future, international prosperity will depend on the United States becoming an “innovation economy.” The administration’s economic recovery package includes added spending for areas favored by innovation policy advocates, including higher research and development spending and funds for high-technology fields like electronic health records. But it also represents a welcome return of science in the political discourse. The attitude towards science is changing in government.

When he announced his choice of Nobel-prize-winning physicist Steven Chu to head the energy department, Obama said that promoting science is not just about providing resources (though he has promised to double the budget for basic science research over the next decade), but also about promoting free inquiry and listening to what scientists have to say, “especially when it is inconvenient.” That’s a clear reference to Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” about global warming. A government that puts its faith in science also reminds what we expect from research: the miracles that result when we practice science with faith in the future.