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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Maps + OIL + Plants

Without detailed geological information about Block 252 in the Gulf and the chemistry of dispersants that have already been thrown into the water, how can we expect to clean up the coastal wetlands?


A dragonfly stuck with oil to marsh grass, Garden Island Bay, near Venice, Louisiana, May 18.

Photo: Associated Press

By James H. Wandersee and Renee M. Clary

EarthScholars™ Research Group

This past spring we had the chance to see the so-called Impossible Black Tulip of map collecting — the huge and detailed, 60-square-foot, 1602 Ricci Map of the World. It was on display at the Library of Congress before being moved to its new permanent home at the University of Minnesota. The James Ford Bell Trust bought the map for $1 million from Bernard J. Shapero, a noted dealer of rare books and maps in London, for the university’s James Ford Bell Library. The Ricci map had formerly been owned by a private Japanese collector.

Never before seen in the US, it is the first Chinese map to show the Americas, and was drawn and highly annotated by an Italian-born Jesuit priest named Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) when he was a missionary in China.

The Wanli Emperor had invited Ricci to become an advisor to the Imperial Court in 1601 because of his accurate scientific predictions of solar eclipses. Thus he was the first Westerner ever to be invited into China’s Forbidden City. Ricci placed China at the center of his map as a Jesuitical attempt to win converts to Roman Catholicism, while also exposing China to Europe and the Americas.

Father Ricci wrote, “This was the most useful work that could be done at that time to dispose China to give credence to the things of our holy Faith…. Their conception of the greatness of their country and of the insignificance of all other lands made them so proud that the whole world seemed to them savage and barbarous compared with themselves.”

Maps can indicate—and sometimes impose—great power. Today, we often assume that the maps we need are comprehensive, accessible to the public, objective, and unbiased. None of those assumptions is true. All maps actually distort reality in specific ways in order to depict some data better than others, according to their commissioned purposes.

Maps have also served as secret tools, intended to be used to gain a knowledge-advantage over one’s competitors. From ancient times onward, rulers have insisted that their countries be placed at a map’s center to convince others how important their kingdoms are.  Only by being aware of the subjective omissions and distortions inherent in maps can we make sense of the information they contain.

Authors of Washington’s Blog wrote May 24, nearly a month ago:  “We can’t understand the big picture behind the 2010 Gulf Oil Spill unless we know the underwater geology of the seabed and the underlying rocks…. We don’t know the geology under the [Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Horizon rig] spill site. BP has never publicly released its cross-sections of the seabed and underlying rock. BP’s Initial Exploration Plan refers to ‘structure contour maps’ and ‘geological cross sections,’ but all the detailed geological information, maps and drawings have been designated ‘proprietary information’ by BP, and have been kept under wraps.”

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Posted by Julie on 06/16 at 03:38 PM
Culture & SocietyEcologySciencePermalink