Thursday, June 28, 2007

Global Harming

Bespectacled wit and showbiz Renaissance man Steve Allen is mostly remembered as a television pioneer, and alas, mostly forgotten as the author of dozens of sophisticated nonfiction books on a wide range of subjects. A fascinating 1989 effort featured an intentionally-inelegant title, Dumbth! Therein the Tonight Show originator condemned the decay of American intellectual standards and set forth, as its subtitle stated, 81 Ways to Make Americans Smarter.

One particularly useful idea Allen championed therein was his recommendation to hang wall maps at home, a suggestion which resonated with me because I'd been doing it since childhood. And for the very same reason that Allen counseled: so they can be readily viewable whenever the news or conversation touches on a particular area. The staggering ignorance of even basic geography displayed by too many Americans has been much documented and lamented, and is reason enough to call for putting maps in people's faces.

But there's another, more subtle benefit gained by anyone who studies maps of all sorts: it fosters a more accurate visualization of one's place in the world and even the cosmos. Visitors to my home (whimsically referred to on my KIRO broadcasts as The Batcave) often inquire why New England is nearly at a right angle to the floor on the nine-foot-wide national wall map I've cobbled together out of regional roadmaps. The answer is that so north points straight above my home base of Seattle, which puts Maine nearly on its side. Such contortion is why, Allen's advice notwithstanding, my walls have never featured a world map.

Two-dimensional representations of our planet can never adequately convey what every map should be: a visually accurate rendering of the area depicted. What's at issue here is "projection", the process by which cartographers transform a spherical surface into a flat one. Some 30 projection methods have been developed, but each involves serious representational compromises whenever continental-sized areas are portrayed.

Most widely used in the mass media is the Mercator projection, that one you've seen where Greenland appears as large as Africa, whose area actually is nearly fourteen times greater than that of the Arctic island. The "interrupted sinusoidal" projection is even more annoying, with the continents and oceans cleaving into spear-shaped sections as they arch toward the poles. What's known as a conic projection—one centered on the north pole anchors the familiar United Nations logo—produces a fairly realistic picture of one hemisphere but warps the other into an utterly distorted, disparate display of itself. No, the only way Earth's sphericity can be accurately represented is on another sphere, which is why Allen's suggestion should also extend to any home lacking one of those three-dimensional miniature world maps we call globes.

Granted, many modern globes provide some serious distortion of their own. "Relief" globes, to more clearly indicate mountainous areas, wildly exaggerate our planet's topographical variance. If the Sierra Nevada range was actually anywhere nearly as high as the 44 scale miles it lords over the oceans on my nine-inch-diameter relief Replogle, the Shuttle Columbia would have slammed into a California mountainside before it could have disintegrated over Texas. No, even with its Himalayas and Death Valley, the actual Earth's surface is still far smoother than any billiard ball.

But beholding the remarkable roundness of our planet turns out to be easier than visualizing its place relative to the sun and the stars. Two factors—a globe's ability to spin and the non-parallelism of its axis with the Earth's—conspire to reduce even the most expensive globes to a misleading representation of reality. Unless, that is, your model Earth is oriented, like mine, in the one particular way which mirrors how the real thing is situated in outer space.

If you own a fancy globe, it probably is suspended within a mechanism known as a gyromatic axis, allowing full motion and easing axial orientation considerably. But if you've got an inexpensive one like mine, it likely came fastened to a mount. That's the stand inclining its equator 23.5 degrees from the horizontal, the angle at which the planet is tilted from the ecliptic, the plane in which we orbit the sun.

Now you may be reluctant to do so, but you'll have to remove and discard that mount for this project, something which may seem like unnecessary harm to your globe. Anyway, its new cradle—a small cereal bowl or circular ashtray works fine—will allow motion in every direction to conveniently examine any portion of the world. While such free-movement includes simple axial spinning like the mount facilitates and which the actual Earth does relentlessly, you'll quickly realize why you don't want your globe to spin one bit.

Further "harm" to your globe is required: insert a push-pin into the surface point where your city is located, just as you would affix a you-are-here marker on a wall map. Or if you want to be artsy—and what afficionado of my creative KIRO broadcasts wouldn't?—you can instead glue on a tiny human figure. Don't go any bigger than an HO-gauge model railroad figurine, or instead just imagine that push-pin nub to be yourself standing in your town, but a 3-D indicator marking your location is vital for this visual effect to work well.

Now roll the globe in its cradle until the marker points straight up. Getting it precisely directed toward the sky's zenith is tougher than you might think, so try momentarily suspending the globe by its marker slightly above the cradle, as if it were a plumb bob. Next, determine the precise direction of true north inside the room containing your globe. Anyone out of doors on a clear night in the Northern Hemisphere can easily do so by sighting Polaris, better known as the North Star because of its position directly above the pole. But indoors it's more difficult to ascertain, so maybe use a compass, remembering the slight compensation needed to account for the difference between true north and the magnetic pole to which the needle points. Now draw an arrow pointing toward true north somewhere near your globe, and inscribe it permanently. (Bumps into and mere consultations of your globe will often knock it out of whack and require quick realignments.)

The final step is to rotate your globe in its cradle, keeping your marker pointing straight up, until the globe's north pole points true north, ensuring the longitudinal meridian on which your city sits is parallel with the arrow. Your marker is parallel with your own vertical body, because when standing, gravity forces your body to follow an extended radius of the earth. (Basic three-dimensional Euclidian geometry proves that if two pair of corresponding radii of axially-parallel spheres are parallel, all such pairs are parallel.) Since the Earth's and your globe's axes are also parallel, you now have a globe that is aligned in the same direction and at the identical tilt as the very planet it mimics.

All of this might seem like one of those interesting but tedious little science demonstrations that the late Don Herbert would stage as Mr. Wizard on NBC in the early days of Saturday morning TV. But while few of us ever went to the trouble of replicating at home any of his dramatic chemistry or physics experiments, this is one that's really worth doing.

And not merely because it's fun, though I do admit to getting a kick out of glancing down in the directions of Iraq, North Korea or Venezuela when discussing those crisis locales. "Down" because, just as every spot on the planet is south of someone standing at the North Pole, so is every point around the world "down" to some degree from where I stand—but even more interesting, through the Earth as well. Both are hard-to-visualize facts which become obvious while gazing at any so-oriented globe.

And don't be distracted by the fact that the real Earth is spinning about its axis once every 24 hours. That constant rotation is irrelevant here; the earth doesn't move a bit in relation to your surroundings, so your oriented globe shouldn't either.

The more I glance at my rigidly-positioned Earth model, the more I'm reminded that some things, tangible or not, are fixedly arranged. My oriented globe helps me more accurately imagine the world, and probably also makes me less likely to grasp onto slippery ideas and instead cling to more rigid things, such as uncomfortable facts and rigorously-reasoned principles.

I'm sorry I never thought of this while I could have still told Steve Allen about it (off-air, of course); he was smart enough to instantly appreciate the subtle value of this original idea. I only came face-to-face with Allen once, in 1986 at a Culver City stop on the long-running tour of his eponymous big-band orchestra. But my talk-radio career has been highlighted by two lengthy telephonic exchanges with him a decade later on The Pontiac Insomniac with Bryan Styble in suburban Detroit. And of course I was humbled when he asked—on the air—if he could sometime return for a third appearance.

I regret that I hadn't set it up for the Albuquerque-based Open All Night with Bryan Styble before Allen's sad and unexpected demise in late October 2000. (By then, the best I could ever do was later booking his vivacious and equally-erudite widow Jayne Meadows, for perhaps the liveliest recollection of the days of classic Hollywood and early TV ever heard by a New Mexico radio audience.) But the night his death was announced, I quickly assembled a two-hour tribute to the amazing man whose wit and wisdom had so frequently graced Styble-family television screens during the 60s. And during that broadcast, I revived for my audience "dumbth", the word he had coined to denote our society's dismaying decline toward stupidity.

Steverino was right, of course: positively inane ideas do seem to gain footing more easily nowadays than they did even a generation ago. The preposterous allegation that NASA's entire moon-landing program was a hoax is but one recent, well-publicized example. I can't prove it, but I'm convinced that such nonsense would less readily attain currency in our popular culture if everyone had a clearer understanding that certain things are as rigid as the geographical orientation showcased by my personal planetarium exhibit.

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