Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Map is the Tale (WW103)

Our third episode airs this Monday evening on AFM and features an interview with Phillip Stooke who sat down with producer and co-host Alyssa Gilbert. Stooke is one of several members of the Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration who is distinguished by having a namesake in orbit around the sun, asteroid 172996 Stooke. Stooke, a professor in the geography department at Western is known largely for his cartography. In particular, he enjoys combining his map making with a historical perspective, hence his 2007 map of lunar exploration and an upcoming map of Mars exploration, tentatively titled "From Spirit to Curiosity" with an anticipated release date of 2015. I'm very hopeful we can make his title a reality this summer with a successful landing of MSL!

It may surprise you to learn that Phil was the first professor at Western whom I met when I first showed up in December of 2010. When my supervisor was delayed by a meeting, I decided to go over to a lunch-time gathering to discuss images from other planets. I brought a couple of photos taken by Cassini of Iapetus with me that fooled a number of the other students there. They really do look a lot like a frosted Mars. But very little gets by Phil and he correctly identified the moon with his first guess.

Later, he was the subject of a very interesting PSERF where he discussed ancient mapmaking on the Earth. Many of the so-called T-and-O maps showed landmasses that didn't actually exist. The reason for this? An ancient greek belief that the moon was a mirror that reflected the geography of the Earth. Hence my title and quote for this week in which I emphasize the storytelling role of mapmaking. If ever you need proof, just walk down the street and think about what those names on the street signs represent.

As always, Phil tells a fascinating story and his interview is no different. I'll leave you with that and my  recollection above to whet your appetite. As always, my introduction can be found beneath the cut.

The way one describes a story, to oneself or the world, is by telling the story. It is a balancing act and it is a dream. The more accurate the map, the more it resembles the territory. [...] The tale is the map that is the territory. You’re listening to Western Worlds!

Hello and welcome back for another conversation here on Western Worlds, an AFM*Original show heard right here on My name is Dr. John and I’m coming to you this week as every week from the Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration at Western University located Just 2063 km from the Kennedy Space Centre in beautiful London, Ontario, Canada.

Tonight’s opening quote comes courtesy of the British Science Fiction author Neil Gaiman and echoes the dictum of Alfred Korzybski that “the Map is not the Territory.” It is an important truth to understand that reality may be different from the schematic you hold in your hands. But at the same time, we need to recognize that the broad strokes of the story of distant lands and our relationship to them are right there on the page. That is especially true of places so distant that we know them mainly through our surrogates of telescopes and spacecraft.

For instance, even the history of science is written in the sky for all to see. The constellations come from the Greeks, the earliest astronomers. The familiar names of the Planets are written in Latin, the language of the conquering Romans. And what of the brighter stars such as Altair, Rigel or Vega? Their Arabic names preserve the history of the middle ages when scientific knowledge was maintained and developed in north Africa and the middle east. Closer to home, Valles Marineras on Mars, literally “Mariner Valley” will ensure that the first extensive observer of that Planet, Mariner-9 is not soon forgotten.

So our maps of other worlds also record little pieces of ourselves, and the culture and times in which we live. It’s a complex relationship.  For evidence of that, you need look no further than the anthropomorphic title of tonight’s music “Theme from Bitter Moon” by Vangellis. But there is also a deeper level. The maps we make of the planets unite multiple observations to give us a deeper understanding of the processes that shaped the worlds we study. Thus we begin to piece together the story of the world itself, the creation of the territory, its present state and its future, all through our mapmaking.

Tonight’s guest, a cartographer par excellence, has spent his professional career telling that story. Philip Stooke is an associate professor in the department of geography at Western University. He sat down recently with our own Alyssa Gilbert to talk about his experiences in planetary mapping from the astronauts of the Apollo Era to today’s golden age of robotic exploration in our solar system.

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