In 1828, German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss discovered that any two-dimensional representation of a sphere must be somehow distorted. His theory carried massive implications for map projections. According to his discovery, all non-spherical maps of the Earth’s surface are necessarily wrong. Let me repeat that – every map, existing or theoretical, is somehow incorrect, allowing for misconceptions about the relative size of nations, the correct way to navigate international waters, and the coordinates of any place on Earth.
Why, then, do we make maps?
To make a map requires massive mathematical and artistic know-how as well as meticulous attention to detail. Nearly two hundred years after Gauss’ discovery, why do we use so much time and skill to create what will ultimately be a distorted image? Why do we continue in this laborious, yet futile endeavor?
The answer, I believe, lies in our thirst for control.
Humans simply do not adjust well to things that we cannot understand. Wars have been fought over religious differences and misunderstandings.
The Catholic church imprisoned Galileo Galilei for suggesting that the earth turned around the sun. Some people still deny that the moon landing ever happened. Time and time again, instead of acknowledging the limits to our understanding and power, we break the enigmatic down into the comprehensible in order to preserve the image of ourselves as all-powerful.
What are the colors of the rainbow? The colors we can see. Why do we think time is linear? Because we perceive it that way. Why do we make flat maps? Because our tiny human brains understand geography better in a two-dimensional plane.
Personally, I think this sucks. I think humans have twisted and simplified our surroundings for our own peace of mind for long enough. I think we should stop sacrificing reality for facility. I think it’s time for an ego check.
When we refuse to define the things around us in terms we already know, we open up the possibility for new knowledge. When we stop restricting our world views by entire dimensions, the world opens up to us. When we let down the façade of omnipotence and accept the fact that we are fallible, ignorant, and weak, we can actually move forward in our understanding of ourselves, each other, and the spectacularly nonhuman universe surrounding us.
So ditch the flat map and add dimensions to daily life. Think spherical. Think neverending. Think everything and nothing; think everything inside nothing. Think big. Think bigger. Think infinite.
Then think of small. Smaller. A speck on the horizon. You.
It is frightening to be out of control. But, my god, how sublime it is.