Topsy Turvy World

Why is Australia the land “down under?”  Who determined the North Pole is the top of the world instead of the bottom?  Personally, I blame the Greek astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus who arbitrarily placed North at the top of maps about a hundred years after the death of Christ.  Cartographers followed in Ptolemy’s footsteps ever since with the north bias of their maps.

The earth is already upside down, magnetically speaking.  The North Pole attracts the north point of the needle of any magnetic compass.  To do this, the needle’s south pole is attracted to the  earth’s north pole, so in reality, the needle is actually pointing south.  Now, since the north and south poles of a magnet are arbitrary names to distinguish one from another (they could be called “end 1” and “end 2” to accomplish the same effect), we can still blame Ptolemy for this mess.  No one in his right mind calls the north end of a magnet the top.  It just attracts the south pole of another magnet and repels the north end.  Physicists don’t get all territorial about whose on the top or whose on the bottom.

Some folks fight the north bias by investing in a reverse map, also known as an Upside Down Map or South Up Map showing the continent of Antarctica as the top of the world and Australia as the land “up over.”  Now this may not seem to be a very big issue, but how would Americans feel if the reverse mappers revolted in a cartographic coup’d etat of the world’s chart makers and the U.S. became the land “down under?”  Would make a country feel a little less like a superpower don’t you think?

The psychological effect of either living North or South was recently demonstrated by four scientists,  Meier, Moller, Chen, and Riemer-Peltz, when they studied participants’ reactions to the question, “Where would you rather live?”  In first study, participants were handed a map of an imaginary city with a north point at the top of the map.  Most chose properties above the center line, or northern part of the city.  The second study involved an imaginary city with the south point at the top of the map.  Again, participants chose properties in the upper part of the map, demonstrating that people believe it is better or more prestigious to live at or near the top of the map regardless of whether it is north or south.

Imagine how the history of the U.S. Civil war would read if we all used a reverse map. The north becomes the loser, the south a winner.  No wonder those poor Confederates are still angry.  Can you blame them, being stuck in the South and all?  Well now they know who to blame . . . not the Yankees, but Ptolemy!  And if you don’t believe me the earth should be upside down, take a look at the original orientation of the famous “Blue Marble” photo taken from Apollo 17.  Antarctica and Australia are on top!

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