Archive for History

Happy Birthday Copernicus

google copernicus canvasGoogle decided to highlight that today is the 540th anniversary of the birth of Nicolaus Copernicus. The honor bestowed by Google has resulted in dozens of articles in the mainstream media, from The Washington Post to BGR India.


Who is he? And why would we care after 540 years?

podpisCopernicus was a big-idea man – arguing that the Earth revolved around the Sun (heliocentric model) when his contemporaries believed otherwise.

A mathematician, physician, and astronomer of Polish descent,  CopernicSystemCopernicus’ heliocentric theory wasn’t published until after his death in 1543 at age 70 from a stroke. And it wasn’t until 60 years later that the much-noted opposition from the Roman Catholic Church became official.

Copernicus was a visionary, a big thinker ahead of his time. And he took a stand, believing what he observed and measured, despite it being contrary to popular belief and doctrine at the time. In an age when big ideas now seem to become accepted within months, it seems ridiculous that such a central truth of the universe waited a hundred years before acceptance, helped along by Galileo Galilei. Perhaps if Copernicus had been able to spread his theory faster, acceptance would have come sooner. However, maybe the culture of thinking has simply evolved to the point where the barriers to innovation are few, and the environment for critical thinking is open.

The birthday is also a reminder of how specialized we have become – what person today can claim to know astronomy, philosophy, medicine, and mathematics while being fluent in five languages? Copernicus developed his ideas based on seeing connections between these fields, and his observations.

A systems-level view, and the connections between components of the whole are fundamental to the science of geography. Copernicus also represents a zeal for the truth, and the gumption to go against common thinking.


Festival of Maps Chicago – Geography Sails in the Windy City

festival-maps-Chicago.JPGWith the popularity of online maps, personal navigation devices (PNDs), and GIS we can easily forget that it all started on paper. We can forget the trials and tribulations of those who made early geographic discoveries, those who labored to produce early maps. In a world of instant information about where we are, many of us forget how we arrived to this place. We curse at the online map for not having a new street, while early mapmakers struggled lifetimes and even risked their lives to find and map new continents. We start to take for granted the aerial views of our world, when only a few decades ago the first remote sensing satellites launched.

Chicago is a city rich in mapping history. The first plat map of a portion of the city was surveyed in 1822, with the city plan mapped in 1830. It is the home of venerable map maker Rand McNally and publisher R.R. Donnelley & Sons. Online mapping provider MapQuest started as a division of R.R. Donnelley & Sons. The Newberry Library and the University of Chicago have long been at the center of map research and preservation. For example, the University of Chicago Press edits and publishes the multi-volume series of books resulting from the History of Cartography Project. Replogle Globes, the leading globe manufacturer, started in a Chicago apartment in 1930. NAVTEQ, the large provider of digital geographic information, has its headquarters in the city.

The Festival of Maps Chicago began in November. Dr. Anna Siegler is the Executive Director of the Festival. She told me that the Festival, five years in planning, is a citywide set of events across more than 30 cultural and scientific institutions. The ambitious project started with a committee of distinguished Chicago philanthropists, map collectors and civic leaders. Using the annual Chicago Humanities Festival as a rough model, Dr. Siegler directed the efforts that led to opening day in November. She found willing organizations among Chicago’s leading museums, libraries, arts organizations and universities. Each participating organizations decided how they would contribute. The result is 31 exhibits in 28 venues with 10 lecture programs. Rand McNally designed and printed the maps used to promote the festival.

“Everyone who heard about our map events would exclaim that they love maps,” said Dr. Siegler. “This enthusiasm seems clandestine, though. We wanted to bring it out of hiding.” One goal is to take that love of maps and feed people with real examples of the rich Chicago map scene. With the decline of geography in schools, the Festival can help renew interest and knowledge in the subject.

The Field Museum exhibited more than 100 maps of all types in its “Maps: Finding Our Place in the World” exhibit. Exhibits elsewhere vary from historical (“European Cartographers and the Ottoman World 1500-1750” at the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago) to the modern (“Mapping the Self” at the Museum of Contemporary Art). There is also a local focus, with several exhibits and lectures about the mapping of Chicago. Even the Brookfield Zoo participated with its “Building and Mapping of an Institution” describing the challenges of mapping a zoo.

The Festival goes beyond old fashioned exhibits. Maps in the Public Square: An Atlas of the Next Chicago Region is a virtual exhibit showing how maps are central to the discussion around Chicago’s future.

While the Festival is now wrapping up, others are following Chicago’s lead. Baltimore just opened its Festival of Maps on March 16.

In this age of declining geographic knowledge, the map festival can play a significant role in helping people appreciate the importance and roles of location in our lives and as a way to help understand history and current happenings. It is encouraging to see the success of the ambitious efforts in Chicago. Hopefully other locales will find the resources to take a similar path.

Eighteenth Century. Two Germans. Measuring the World.

Measuring the WorldIt seems like such a story would be boring. Two Germans we might be vaguely aware of, each taking very different approaches to discovering secrets of the earth. The novel, Measuring the World by German author Daniel Kehlmann. No, I don’t read German. Thankfully, this book is translated into English. And we’re fortunate to have it!

250px-Alexander_von_Humboldt-selfportrait.jpgAlexander von Humboldt is the world-traveling explorer seeking out truths of the earth by climbing the highest mountains, venturing into the deepest jungles, and journeying across the roughest seas. Along the way, with great determination and significant risk to his well-being, he collects, measures, and records every detail.

gauss.jpgCarl Friedrich Gauss is a child prodigy math genius exploring the world using his brain. He rarely ventures far physically yet becomes the greatest mathematician since Newton. Like von Humbolt, he notices every minute detail. Unlike him, however, Gauss has a penchant for women.

The novel takes the reader through a luscious journey showing the contrasts and similarities of these two men. We see the human side of everything they do, their interactions with others. Scientific discovery woven with the real world of just living. The fascinations. The impatience with other people. The gritty determination. The solitude. The joys of discovery. The sorrows of aging. Kehlmann provides a fantastic narrative, laced with humor and emotion. And plenty of interesting geography!