Archives for posts with tag: Chicago

great-circle

When I was younger I used to get very confused about how, if you were travelling to San Francisco from Ireland that you need to travel over Greenland and the cold wastes of Northern Canada to get there. Hold on, isn’t San Francisco to the south of Ireland? So why the hell do planes need to fly north to get there? It didn’t make much sense to me.

What I didn’t fully appreciate at the time was that spherical geometry is very different to planar geometry, and the fastest way to get from one location on the planet to another is a great circle – a ring around the centre of the earth connecting both points. Great circles do not care about arbitrary definitions such as North and West, only the shortest distance between two points, and if that line crosses over the North Pole, so be it.

Anyway, a few years ago I came across a mapping program on the Web called the Online Map Creator. The program produces maps of many different shapes and sizes in multiple projections. The one that captured my imagination however was Azimuthal Equidistant Projection. If you imagine drawing ever increasing circles around a chosen location on the planet you will get the idea. Consider, for instance, where you are right now. The 10 km circle represents all locations 10 km away, the 1000 km circle represents all places 1000 km away, and so on until you can’t go any further, i.e. the other side of the planet, about 20,000 km away from you. Each point on each circle represents objects that you would come across if you were able to point a telescope at a particular compass angle and see everything on the surface of the globe in that direction. It’s the route an airplane would take, if it didn’t need to worry about atmospheric currents and headwinds etc. Areas tend to get more distorted the further away you go. The extreme is other side of the world from you. No matter which direction you go, you will end up at that point eventually, so every point on the edge of the circle is actually the exact same location on the far side of the planet.

Here are a few maps I made using the map generator.

1) London, England.

London Azi

Notice that if you start out due west from London, you will end up, not in Canada, but flying across Cuba and Mexico. To get to Japan, you need to travel across the Arctic Ocean and northern Siberia. Also note how huge Antarctica and Australia are compared to everywhere else, and if you look closely you will see an enormous narrow island taking up nearly 70 degrees from North to East – that land is New Zealand, on almost exactly the opposite side of the world to the UK.

2) Chicago Illinois

Chicago Azi

This map shows that if you wish to travel from Chicago to Thailand, you need to cross over the North Pole, even though Thailand is close to the equator. It also indicates a considerably northerly path for Japan and China. To travel to Mozambique in southern Africa, you need to set out due East. Australia and Antarctica are enormous, again because they are furthermost from Chicago.

3) Sydney, Australia.

Sydney Azi

Look at how West Africa is distorted! West Africa is now gigantic compared to the rest of that continent, again owing to the fact that it is nearly on the other side of the world. The Iberian peninsula is similarly disfigured. To reach Chile, you need to travel South East, and traveling to parts of eastern Brazil requires a southern journey over the Antarctic ice cap.

4) Beijing, China

Beijing Azi

This is an interesting map. Most of the globe is recognisable and relatively well proportioned (OK Africa is a bit oversized, but we will ignore this). But look at South America! If you look closely, there is a ring of yellow encircling this map. Clearly the furthest point away from Beijing is in Argentina and as a result the mapping severely distorts the continent, The black lines are a bug that I can’t quite explain. In addition Hawaii looks a lot bigger than it should look, given it’s distance from China. I have a feeling that more gremlins are at work here.

Field Museum of Chicago

My friends and I went on a trip to the Field Museum in Chicago this weekend. It’s one of America’s greatest natural history and cultural museums, and like many similar places of learning around the world, you would need a week to see all the exhibits.

The museum bears a resemblance to the Natural History Museum in London. Instead of a diplodocus, “Sue” the Tyrannosaurus Rex is there to greet you, alongside two massive elephants under the watchful eye of a pair of great totem poles. We spent an hour with the birds and animals of the World, listening to the sounds made by these creatures – the song of the Loon was extraordinary: how ancient explorers to the continent must have been petrified when they heard this bird for the first time.

We then took a trip through the geological section. PC showed us a geode that her dad donated to the museum and we also saw a fine collection of meteorites. The museum has a very fine “history of life” exhibit where the public is invited to walk through a number of galleries ranging from Pre-Cambrian times right up to the post-Ice Age (Holocene) epoch, interrupted now and again by a Great Extinction. The Cambrian Period room is particularly good. They have a huge video display showing us what the animals of this time might have looked like and how they might have behaved, and in glass cases are the Burgess Shale fossils of bizarre creatures such as Wiwaxia, Hallucigenia and the Pikaia. I could have stayed hours in that room alone, but even greater delights were on display in other rooms – a full size Apatosaurus skeleton, the small “Tully Monster” fossil: an unknown creature from the Carboniferous Period, as well as impressive mammoth and megatherium skeletons. One of my favourites were the intact fossils from the Santana formation in Brazil – flash-fossilised fish that still show their scales and soft body parts. The last exhibit on the way out of this section is a display that tells you how many species have been made extinct since the museum opened that day.

On Sunday, I drove up to Milwaukee, and spent around an hour there, getting utterly lost mainly. It’s a pretty city – quite old in places with some fine lake-side views. There’s a lot of road construction taking place in the city so it took me a while to find my way out. I spent the next few hours in Gurnee Mills Mall, an enormous outlet store near the Wisconsin border, buying toys for a fraction of the price you would get them in Ireland.

In O’Hare, while waiting to check in for my return flight to Dublin, an old priest started to hand out lollipops to some kids in the queue behind me. I found this very unsettling, and I think their parents did too. A random act of kindness? Maybe. However given everything that has come to light in Ireland over the last 15 years, another inference could too easily be drawn. I don’t know. Maybe I’m getting cynical..

I got about two hours sleep in the plane – the usual – but I have a good book recommendation from a fellow passenger – The Kite Runner. He compares it to To Kill a Mockingbird, so I must read it as soon as I have finished “The Heart of Darkness” – another enthralling book.

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