Reviews: 2009

  1. Two Inexpensive Star Atlases (The Map Room)
  2. Map Addict by Mike Parker (The Map Room)
  3. Paris Underground by Mark Ovenden (The Map Room)
  4. The Fourth Part of the World by Toby Lester (The Map Room)
  5. Bloom County: The Complete Collection, Vol. 1: 1980-1982 by Berkeley Breathed

Two Inexpensive Star Atlases

[The fourth edition of Tirion’s Cambridge Star Atlas came out in 2012.]

Rod Mollise’s recent look at star atlases reminded me that I’ve been meaning to review a couple of star atlases in my possession. They are Wil Tirion’s Cambridge Star Atlas, the third edition of which came out in 2001, and Sky and Telescope’s Pocket Sky Atlas. Both feature beautiful, sharp, black-on-white cartography and neither is particularly expensive — and, in their relative strengths and weaknesses, they complement each other well. While I’m hardly an experienced astronomer, I do enjoy looking through my telescopes as often as I can, and can say a few things about how these two atlases have helped my observations.

I started with Sky and Telescope’s Pocket Sky Atlas by Roger W. Sinnott; because of its small size and coil binding, I’ve found it to be quite useful in the field. It depicts stars down to magnitude 7.6, which according to the introduction covers stars visible in a finderscope; I don’t have a finderscope (I use red-dot finders) so I can’t evaluate that; it also includes double stars, galaxies, globular clusters and nebulae that could reasonably be expected to be visible in a small telescope. This is, in other words, to be an an amateur astronomer’s working star atlas, and it largely succeeds.

pocket-sky-atlasThe Pocket Sky Atlas contains 80 main plates — the sky is divided into 10 gores, with 10 plates per gore. Plates at the celestial equator roughly 40 degrees of declination and 90 minutes of right ascension, at a scale of roughly five degrees to 24 mm. (There are also close-up charts for some obvious areas of interest: the Pleiades, the nebulosities in Orion, the galaxy cluster in Virgo and Coma Berenices, and the Large Magellanic Cloud.) There’s always oodles of overlap, which is handy, but it’s a hard atlas to browse. That’s partly because of the book’s small size and the charts’ large scale, which are assets in every other way. But browsing from plate to plate is problematic, because within each gore the plates proceed from north to south, which forces me to turn past a lot of southern hemisphere charts to get to the next plate east or west.

The Pocket Sky Atlas’s weaknesses are the Cambridge Star Atlas’s strengths. And vice versa: a hardbound atlas that only goes to magnitude 6.5 is of limited use at the scope (Mollise himself doesn’t recommend this class of atlas as a result). But it’s the right magnitude for naked-eye visual observations, and its small-scale charts have really helped me figure out where everything is in relation to everything else. So they’re complimentary in that respect: I can use, for example, the Cambridge to plan my observing evening at home, and take the Pocket with me when I take the telescope out to my observing field.

The Cambridge Star Atlas is divided into three parts: a series of monthly sky maps (the sort you’d see every month in Astronomy or Sky and Telescope, or on a planisphere), the star charts themselves, and a set of all-sky maps in the Mollweide projection showing the distribution of clusters, galaxies and nebulae. The star charts are the meat of the book, and what make it worth getting; facing each chart is a list of points of interest — variable and double stars, clusters, nebulae, galaxies — along with their locations and magnitudes. At a glance, I can tell what’s nearby and, thanks to their magnitude, whether I should try and look for it. (A magnitude-18 planetary nebula, for example, is clearly beyond the possibilities of my five-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain.)

One practical shortcoming of the Cambridge is that so few stars are actually named in the charts. I don’t mean obscure stars that happen to have old Arabic names; we’re talking Bellatrix and Rasalhague, the stars of the Big Dipper, and well-known observers’ targets like Albireo, all of which are only labelled with a Greek letter. In an era of computerized telescopes that ask you to sync your telescope from an alphabetical list of bright stars, such names would be extremely helpful. I hope the fourth edition includes them (this 2001 edition likely predates the widespread use of go-to scopes).

These are by no means the only star atlases out there; other, more experienced observers will have their own preferences. I’ve just scratched the surface, and expect to encounter more of them as I mess around with astronomy some more. But so far I like what I’ve seen.

The Map Room, February 20, 2009

Map Addict by Mike Parker

map-addictIt’s very easy for me to like Map Addict — and not just because its author, travel writer Mike Parker, calls The Map Room “one of the finest map blogs on the Internet” on page 324. Which makes it very awkward for me to say nice things about this book (good thing I paid for my copy myself instead of receiving a review copy).

It’s clear from the outset that Parker is a kindred spirit: he opens by confessing to be so obsessed by maps that he nicked Ordnance Survey maps from the local store. From there, he launches into an ADHD-esque romp through one map-related subject after another — from the origins of the Ordnance Survey to his dismissal of GPS navigation systems, in a chapter called “Pratnav.” There’s a chapter on borders, exclaves and enclaves — the little niggly bits that mess up otherwise clean lines on a map. There’s also a bit on map use and gender, and another on naughty bits on the map. It’s a bit of an unfocused mess, of sorts, but it’s a fun mess, and Parker’s enthusiasm is both obvious and relentless. I don’t think I’ve ever been so entertained reading a book about maps.

Much of what he covers is familiar territory — in fact, I couldn’t help but feel that I was somehow reading the archives of my own blog in narrative form. If I’ve covered a British topic on The Map Room, it’s almost certainly in Map Addict. Familiar personalities make their appearances: John Bartholomew, Phyllis Pearsall, Mary Spence, Harry Beck, William Roy, Alfred Wainwright. It’s quite britannocentric (I can’t say anglocentric: Wales and Scotland are given their due), above and beyond his excessive, even fetishistic fondness for the Ordnance Survey and his dismissal of the Survey’s French counterpart. If you’re indifferent to the U.K., or maps thereof, you may find Map Addict a little disappointing. The rest of us will have tremendous fun.

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The Map Room, October 7, 2009

Paris Underground by Mark Ovenden

paris-undergroundIt’s possible that I know the Paris Métro better than any other subway system in the world. In the summer of 1997, I spent six weeks in Paris as a research assistant for my Ph.D. supervisor. Where I worked was close enough to where I stayed for me to walk to work each morning; even so, I dutifully bought a Carte orange for the month of June (plus a couple of Cartes hebdomadaires for July) and, during my time off, set about exploring Paris’s underground rail network, which in 1997 comprised 15 subway and four RER lines (counting 3bis and 7bis; line 14 and RER line E were still a year or two off).

Because I stayed at the Cité universitaire in the 14th arrondissement, my point of entry to the network was the eponymous station on the RER B line. From there, it was usually a rapid jaunt to one of the massive transfer points along the B line — usually Saint-Michel—Notre-Dame or Châtelet—Les Halles — where I would transfer to the numbered Métro lines. I took the RER wherever possible: their airy, spacious stations were far more easy to take for someone as crowd-averse as me than the older stations of the original network, and the trains were often hot and uncomfortable during the summer.

Somehow I never picked up one of the RATP’s official maps of the network; instead, I made do with my Michelin Plan de Paris, whose Métro map was woefully inadequate but which helpfully pointed out station entrances on its 1:10,000-scale neighbourhood-level maps. Otherwise, I consulted the maps at each station — there were plenty of these, including geographical and diagrammatic network maps (including network maps that would light up your route to the desired station at the push of a button), regional maps that showed the RER network extending deep into the suburbs, and maps of the surrounding neighbourhood — a godsend for a prairie kid used to right-angle street blocks, thoroughly disoriented by Parisian streets and considerable time underground (my Michelin Plan helped there too).

My time spent in Paris, my background as a French historian, and my known affection for all things cartographical (to say nothing of a minor jones for trains) made me all too susceptible to a book like Mark Ovenden’s Paris Underground (which, incidentally, first saw print in the U.K. in 2008 as Paris Métro Style in Map and Station Design; Penguin Books is publishing the North American edition in 2009).

Paris Underground is not a map book per se, although maps of the Paris Métro illustrate the book throughout, and maps are certainly the book’s primary concern. If anything, the book is too ambitious, trying in one fell 176-page swoop to cover the history of the Métro, its construction, and the style and design language used by its maps and its stations. (Let me put it this way: fonts are discussed. Frequently.) For a taste of the non-map content, see this brief video by the author:

But there’s more than enough to satisfy the cartographic nerds as well. There are maps in this book from the late 19th century that predate the construction of the Métro by several decades, and maps of the network at virtually every stage of development. Maps are used as a way to show the history of the Métro network: each new edition showing progressively more and more completed. The text itself is pretty bare bones, and could be clearer at certain points; it can largely be seen as providing the necessary context to understand what the maps are showing.

Paris Underground is also concerned with how the Paris Métro has been mapped. The Paris Métro is easily the densest subterranean transit network on the planet: lines crisscross and overlap. It’s a challenge to present a map that shows each line clearly — even more so when maps weren’t printed in colour. There are lots and lots of examples from every period — three “bis” chapters look at unofficial commercial maps — and, as a result, lots and lots of attempts at mapping the system.

Most interesting is how much, until rather recently, the maps have largely followed geography, rather than adopting a network diagram in the style of Harry Beck’s London Underground map. Chapter 13 covers attempts at a diagrammatic map of the Paris network, including a couple by Harry Beck himself. While the RATP has adopted diagrammatic maps for inside its cars and as pocket maps — to say nothing of RER network maps that would be illegible and unwieldy if they were strictly geographic — a single, unified Beck-type diagram has not emerged, and geographic maps continue to be used, for example in stations.

What emerges from Paris Underground is the extreme diversity of mapping that has been undertaken, even from official sources (even as they were standardizing colours for each line, as well as fonts). Mapping the Paris Métro has been an ongoing experiment for decades, the result of some serious cartographic challenges (a dense system map, the need to produce a system map that is recognizably of Paris) and yielding some awfully interesting maps in the process.

Like the Paris Métro and its maps, Paris Underground is dense and crowded and has far too much crammed into it: it could easily have been twice as long or half as comprehensive — and a lot more concise. But then it wouldn’t be quite as quintessentially Parisian, nor nearly as much fun.


The Map Room, November 24, 2009

The Fourth Part of the World by Toby Lester


We’ve heard a lot about Martin Waldseemüller’s map in recent years. Printed in 1507, it was the first map to give the name “America” to the New World. One thousand copies of the large, 12-section map were produced; only one copy is known to exist today — and that one was only rediscovered in 1901 by Father Joseph Fischer (who would later gain some posthumous notoriety as the prime suspect in the Vinland Map controversy). A century later, the Library of Congress bought the map for $10 million; it has been on display, in an argon-filled case, since 2007.

fourth-part-worldIt was that record-breaking purchase by the Library of Congress that piqued Toby Lester’s interest in the subject; a few years later, the result is his first book, The Fourth Part of the World.

What’s initially surprising about The Fourth Part of the World is how little time it spends on Waldseemüller, his collaborator Matthias Ringmann (who coined the name “America” for the map Waldseemüller drew), and the map, globe gores and book (the Cosmographiæ Introductio) that they produced in 1507. Maybe a fifth of the book deals with the map and its creators. Lester has not produced a popular history of the famous map in isolation; instead, he’s produced an ambitious book that places Waldseemüller’s creation in its cultural context — and has managed to do so in a manner that is highly readable, entertaining and gripping.

“Before long I realized that the map offers a window on something far vaster, stranger, and more interesting than just the story of how America got its name,” Lester writes in the preface.

It provides a novel way of understanding how, over the course of several centuries, Europeans gradually shook off long-held ideas about the world, rapidly expanded their geographical and intellectual horizons, and eventually — in a collective enterprise that culminated in the making of the map — managed to arrive at a new understanding of the world as a whole.

This book tells the story of the Waldseemüller map in two distinct ways: as microhistory that focuses on the little-known and fascinating story of the making of the map itself, in the years leading up to 1507; and as a macrohistory that traces the convergence of ideas, discoveries, and social forces that together made the map possible — a series of overlapping voyages, some geographical and some intellectual, some famous and some forgotten, that made it possible to depict the world as we know it today. (x-xi)

So, after a prologue that recounts how the last surviving known copy of the map was rediscovered, we jump back to an English monastery circa 1255 — more than 250 years before the map’s publication. Lester starts us here, with T-O maps representing the known world, with Asia on top, Europe on the left, Africa on the right, and Jerusalem in the centre. (America was, therefore, the “fourth part of the world,” whence the title.) Europe had a long way to go from such representations of the world before they could arrive at a map like Martin Waldseemüller’s. It would require the reports from several journeys to Asia, the rediscovery of Ptolemy’s Geography, which provided latitude and longitude for a number of locations that could reconstitute a map of the classical world, and an increasing number of voyages, both westward and around Africa, that both revised and expanded the European understanding of the world. Marco Polo, Roger Bacon and Columbus all make their appearances, as does Amerigo Vespucci, whose letters, almost certainly fakes, ignited the European imagination and led Ringmann to propose his name for the New World.

Waldseemüller’s map, we learn, is a hybrid of all of these sources: the known world greatly resembles the maps reconstructed from Ptolemy, to which were added rather conjectural maps of Asia, the Portuguese voyages around Africa, and the discoveries in the New World. It was quickly superceded by newer, more accurate maps (which is precisely why it all but disappeared); interestingly, it was even superceded by Waldseemüller himself: the name “America” disappeared from his later maps. Even so, the map made enough of an impression that, Lester argued, it influenced Copernicus’s cosmological thinking.

What I found truly fascinating is how the European imagination managed to blend what was believed to be true about faraway lands — the myth of Prester John simply refused to disappear, to the confusion of the peoples encountered by Europeans who kept assuming they were he — with what was held to be true because it came from antiquity and with what was directly observed. Of this, Waldseemüller’s map was a prime example. It’s also a vivid look at how Europeans understood the world around them — and it wasn’t the same way we see it today.

For me, the reminder that maps have their context is also extremely useful when dealing with some of the map hoaxes and forgeries out there. Even though the physical map all but disappeared for centuries until that last copy was rediscovered, the map was known to have existed. It was referred to. It was discussed. (If nothing else, there was the Cosmographiæ introductio.) It did not, in other words, exist in a vacuum. Compare that with the Vinland Map or Liu Gang’s purported 1418 map, both of which exist wholly isolated from the rest of the accepted historical record, and you note the significance of that. (Not that that’s what Toby Lester had in mind with this book, but it’s what occurred to me when I read it.)

For its big-picture look at the Waldseemüller map within its cultural, religious and intellectual surroundings, this book is definitely worth reading.

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The Map Room, December 7, 2009

Bloom County: The Complete Collection, Vol. 1: 1980-1982 by Berkeley Breathed

bloom-county-vol1I’m as happy as a clam at high water that the entire run of Bloom County is being published in book form for the first time (the original collections didn’t include every single strip). The first of five volumes is now out — my brother gave it to me for Christmas — with the second volume coming in April, which isn’t soon enough.

Volume one contains strips we haven’t seen since they ran in the newspapers — they didn’t make it into Loose Tails or Bloom County Babylon. Some even had to be reproduced from less-than-pristine or low-resolution copies, but at least they’re there.

The early strips project a lot of exuberant chaos, and feature characters that disappear not too long afterward: Major Bloom, Limekiller, Bobbi Harlow, a local member of the Moral Majority, a local Ted Turner clone. Opus and Bill the Cat make early appearances, and we’ll have to wait until volume two for the Giant Purple Snorklewacker. Also, Chuck and Di show up an awful lot for some reason. As Berke Breathed himself notes in the annotations, the strip hadn’t found its voice yet.

About those annotations. Some of them are by the author; some of them are there to explain the early-eighties gags — thirty years later, the political and cultural figures that served as the butt of Breathed’s jokes are now apparently too obscure. Bloom County was a product of its times; are they really expecting to find a receptive audience for it among people who don’t know, for example, who Alexander Haig was?


December 28, 2009