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The SECU Daily Planet's geography lesson, at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences

Opens Friday at the museum's new Nature Research Center

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Imagine you are an asteroid. And as an asteroid, you have a spectacular and startling view of the Earth, which, depending on your orbit, could show the enormity of Africa and the relative puniness of the United States.

Now you, the human, stroll past the new outdoor globe called the SECU Daily Planet at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences. You may ask, Are Africa and South America really that big? Is North America really that small?

Yes, they are.

The prominence of the Southern Hemisphere on the Daily Planet has prompted calls to the museum questioning the accuracy of the globe's scale. However, it's not the scale that is incorrect, but our conditioning. Maps and globes shape our perspectives of the planet, and in turn our sense of place on it.

The projections of the continents were taken from satellite imagery and painstakingly calculated for accuracy. "This is the largest and most accurate globe we've done," said Todd Ulrich, president of Worldfx, the Cincinnati-based company that designed the projections. "This globe is realistic and without the distortion maps can produce."

We in the northern latitudes can be forgiven for our north-centric bias: When viewing a desktop globe, we look down on it and see only the part of the world north of the equator. The Daily Planet literally upends our perspective: We are forced to gaze upward and acknowledge the other half.

During the mid-20th century, globes were a centerpiece of living rooms, offices and dens (who doesn't love a globe lamp?). Wars changed political boundaries; when your loved one was shipped off to a foreign country, you wanted to look at a globe and put yourself there. In the Internet age, however, we can use Google Street View to read license plates or consult MapQuest for directions, but we are seeing only a fraction of the world.

The Daily Planet project began 10 years ago. Over time, the vision for it evolved from a light-filled rotunda to what Roy Campbell, the museum's director of exhibits and emerging media, calls "a commons, a Grand Central Station of ideas."

A team of architects, engineers and museum officials decided to express that vision not only on the inside of the museum but on the outside—embodied on a projection of the Earth. Painting or sandblasting would have been too abstract, Campbell said, so the team decided to hire Worldfx to emblazon a sphere with a to-scale, accurate representation of the Earth.

"The scale is unusual," said Jill Lucas, communications director at the N.C. Department of Administration. From her window she looks directly at the Daily Planet. "I see people gather [in front of the administration building] and take pictures. It's such a source of fascination."

The architectural panels of the Daily Planet are not tilted, but stand at 90 degrees. The horizontal and vertical lines form a standard grid similar to longitude and latitude on the surface of the sphere. Tilting the continents on the globe in that context would have be incongruent. "We may have alarmed fewer people had we tipped it and people could see more of the Northern Hemisphere," Campbell said. "But we would have been in two worlds."

Those two worlds—a grid foisted onto a sphere—forms the basis of the Mercator projection, an ancient way of mapmaking that was useful for navigation. As schoolkids, many of us were weaned on Mercator, even though it inaccurately depicts the size of continents and even drops Antarctica. Greenland, for example, appears as large as Africa, even though it is only one-fourteenth its size. Maps with the Peters projection, which is more faithful to the true sizes, are now used.

Njathi Kabui, a local chef from Kenya, said the Western concept of Africa—helpless and in need of saving—is derived in part from how the continent has been depicted on maps.

"In Africa there is a deep understanding of the political ramifications of making a country very small or very big," he said.

Because of the centuries-long colonialism on the continent, in some African countries, school curricula, including geography, are still dominated by Western attitudes, Kabui said.

Lizzie Murrell recently stood at the corner of Salisbury and Jones streets searching for her country. "It seems like a shame," said Murrell, who is from Australia, which is missing from the globe. "But I get that they had certain restrictions and why they placed it the way the did. I think it's really beautiful; people should stop worrying about the orientation."

The Far East, Southwestern Eurasia and the South Pacific had to be sacrificed to attach the sphere to the building. The alternative, a standalone globe, would have been even more expensive because tunnels would have been necessary to enter it.

North America is fully visible from the street, but you can see it best from the skybridge joining the museum's wings. "If you wanted to see more of North America, you'd have to flip it and that wouldn't be accurate," said Murrell, who is in the U.S. for an orthotics residency. "I'm impressed they didn't put North America on the corner. It's humbling."

Michelle Cornejo grew up in Ecuador and the U.S. Most people, she said, don't know where Ecuador is. (It's in South America, although outside of the U.S., kids are taught there is only one continent, "America.") "They think it's in Africa. There's a lack of education when it comes to geography."

However, the Daily Planet has no political boundaries, just water and land, which is refreshing. "We're so used to political maps, but this is the shape of the world that's exposed at this moment," Cornejo said. "There's no sense in getting territorial over something that's always changing."

This article appeared in print with the headline "On Earth Day, a new world view."

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