Every day, under our noses, obsolete scientific ideas run rampant. I’m not talking about the maddening sabotage of science constantly perpetuated by ideological conservatives — that, although a daily frustration, is not unnoticed. This is a transgression that we all unknowingly commit.
Although everyone with a first-grade education knows that the Earth is a sphere — the general belief in a flat Earth died out, of course, in the Middle Ages — we still use the term “worldwide” to describe things on a global scale. The Earth’s dimensions can be measured in volume, for one, and area; the word “wide,” however, describes a proportion — width — that we have known for centuries that our planet doesn’t have. Moreover, our use of the words “sunrise” and “sunset” stems from a long-outdated pre-Copernican model of the cosmos, one which places the Earth at the center of the sun’s revolutions. Of course, the sun doesn’t rise or set: rather, it is our position relative to it which defines how it appears to move on the horizon. We’ve known this since fancy horse-war times, and yet we continue to reiterate an archaic version of the human world-view in our anachronistic everyday language. Since most modern words are intuitive (automobile, for example, is pretty self-evident), lending the English language a false appearance of clarity, deeply-engrained use of obsolete terms can only result in a misunderstanding of the world.
The visionary American architect Buckminster Fuller (who, among other utopian achievements, invented the geodesic dome) argued that the unthinking use of these kinds of terms detracts from and misleads intuition — if the words we use to describe concepts are counterintuitive, then our understanding of the reality of these concepts is weakened. Hell-bent on the debunking of phrases like “wordwide,” “sunset,” and “sunrise,” Fuller proposed more truthful, albeit strange, analogues: “worldaround,” “sunsight,” and “sunclipse,” respectively. Sure, it sounds silly, but language is a porous and ever-changing thing that can easily adapt to a culture’s changing needs; “blog” wasn’t even a word, let alone a concept, until a few years ago.
Fuller’s involvement in shattering long-held conceptions didn’t stop with “sunclipse,” however. Frustrated with the inaccuracy of world maps — how they sacrifice the relative size of countries in the process of representing a sphere (as we established earlier, the Earth is not flat) on a two-dimensional plane — he set out to create a world map which wouldn’t prolong cultural bias. Traditional maps, still in use, attempt to fit the world’s curved surface onto a flat sheet, thus distorting its true layout. Areas far from the equator, for example, are generally distorted or exaggerated in size; on many maps, Greenland is presented as being roughly as large as Africa, when in fact Africa’s area is approximately 13 times that of Greenland. That doesn’t do much for Africa’s status in our cultural consciousness.
Further, almost all maps place North at the top and South at the bottom, implicitly privileging the Northern countries as being somehow superior. These psychological implications are subtle, of course, but we must remember that the division between North and South is pretty arbitrary on a sphere floating through space. There’s no up, no down, in the long haul.
I know that I’m always harping on this. However, we have the misfortune of living in the most severely polarized era of planet Earth. Fuller, in his essential text, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, wrote that “despite our recently developed communications intimacy and popular awareness of total Earth we…are as yet politically organized entirely in the terms of exclusive and utterly obsolete sovereign separateness.” He wrote that in 1969; our country has only become more an more of an ideological island in the years since.
Incidentally, that first Appollo 8 image of the Earth from space was titled “Earthrise,” which goes to show that scientific neologisms can be beautiful and worthy of adoption.
Bucky Fuller called us residents of “Spaceship Earth,” fervently espoused this planet’s synergetics, and designed his world map accordingly. The Dymaxion map (short for Dynamic Maximum Tension, a hybridized word applied to many Fuller structures) projects the global sphere onto the surface of a polyhedron, which is then unfolded in many different permutations and flattened to form a two-dimensional map. Sounds counterintuitive, but the Dymaxion map retains more of the planet’s relative proportional integrity than any other global map. There is no right way to look at one of these maps, and no North or South to speak of. If you peel the triangular faces of the shape apart in one way, it reveals a view of an almost contiguous giant land mass including all of Earth’s continents, as opposed to the groups of continents divided by oceans that we are accustomed to. If you configure the map differently, however, you can come to a view of the world dominated by connected oceans.
There is no correct way to view a Dymaxion map simply because there is no correct way to view our planet. All of the rules we impose on our world-view — those barriers of incorrect language, the geometric divisions of border whose relevance we so often ignore — are as arbitrary as a flat-Earth map. The first step towards rectifying these gross global fallacies is to recognize the effect that they have on our understanding. With that kind of lucidity in tow, human beings are pretty much unstoppable; we made up the rules, and we are perfectly capable of changing them. Why not change the way we speak, or the way we represent our planet to ourselves?