Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A Refresher on How to Use World Globes

Most of us have been taught how to use globes at elementary school – but that was long ago, at least for me. For those who might have forgotten how to use globes, here's a refresher.

The Basics

First, you should know the limitations of globes.... these are pretty obvious:
  1. Globes cannot fit your pocket – Unlike maps, globes are bulky and so they cannot be easily taken on a trip. This limitation has now been somewhat overcome with the introduction of Google Earth and similar software for smartphones but good luck to you in a place where there's no data or GPS signal. The initial bulkiness and space constraints of globes lead to the second limitation:
  2. Globes are limited on what features they can include due to size. Even the most detailed globe in the world, the Diplomat, containing over 20,000 place names, might not include your home town – or places you might like to look up; and that brings us to the third limitation of globes (and maps), which is just an extension of the second:
  3. Undiscovered/secret places are not included in globes and maps. You might discover something new in a globe and map, but that would just be new to you, not necessarily to others. Even in our Age of Satellites (and Google Earth), there are still places on the globe that ordinary people are not allowed to see – for "security" purposes (for whose's security that refers to is open to different interpretations).

Reading a globe between the lines

To find a place on an educational globe you need the two kinds of 'lifelines' drawn on it: the Latitude and Longitude lines.

Latitude lines go alongside (parallel to) the equator, which circles the middle of the globe between poles (the poles mark the apparent 'axle' on which the earth turns). The equator itself is a line of latitude.

Lines that go from pole to pole (North to South, or up and down if you like) are lines of longitude. They are also called meridians. Unlike latitude lines, which have the equator as a starting point, there is no natural place to start as 'zero' longitude line. For centuries different countries used different longitude lines, sometimes going through their own places, as zero meridian to establish their own primacy – hence 'prime' meridian. Nowadays globes have the Greenwich Meridian as the prime meridian (France stuck to the Paris Meridian for decades after the International Meridian Conference).

Sometimes lines of latitude and longitude are confused with the area (or angle) bounded by either latitude or longitude lines. These areas are the real latitudes and longitudes. Here's how the concept works:
Latitude and longitude graticle by Peter Mercator (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Image from Wikimedia Commons
The φ (phi) is a piece of real latitude and the λ (lambda) is a piece of real longitude.

Adding to the confusion is the assigning of latitude and longitude numbers (coordinates) to places, because the intersection of two lines is not an area like a real latitude or longitude, or a real place – it is a point. This doesn't bother people though.

To locate a place on a globe, all you have to do is to:
  1. Know its coordinates – These are either given in degrees, minutes and seconds, or degrees only, or numerical. The latitude is given first, followed by the longitude. Miami, for example, is located at 25°47′16″N 80°13′27″W (degrees minutes and seconds north of the equator and west of the prime meridian) or 25.78778°N 80.22417°W.  Christchurch, New Zealand (below the equator) is at 43°31′48″S 172°37′13″E or 43.53°S, 172.620278°E. Some would use negative numbers for locations south of the equator and west of the prime meridian, for example, Miami would be 25.774266° -80.193659° and Christchurch would be -43.53°S, 172.620278. Where do you find coordinates in the first place? For years this information was included in an encyclopedia entry for a place or country. Nowadays you have Wikipedia or sites like
  2. Look up the latitude coordinate – If your place falls between latitude lines you may have to estimate whether to go towards the higher or lower latitude line); and
  3. Look up the longitude coordinate – You may also have to estimate where the coordinate is, if it falls between two longitude lines.
And then look up the place name on the globe. Tough luck if your globe doesn't have it.

Most of the time people don't bother with the numbers. To find a known place on the globe you need coordinates. But to discover places on a globe, people just look at its surface and do their own exploring and then they find the place, remember the shape (or color if there is) and general location of the country (up or down, east or west of a big ocean or continent). In general, people won't have problems locating that country again in the globe, even without coordinates – unless they have trouble remembering things.

For those hankering for nostalgia (late 60s to 70s), how many of you remember the old booklet on How We Use Maps and Globes? Globes and maps were simpler then.

In the Digital Age, discovering places on a globe has been made more interesting with children's globes that talk and give out helpful information about a place:
GeoSafari Talking Globe for children
GeoSafari Talking Globe

Intelliglobe Deluxe Interactive Globe

You may be delighted to know that, nowadays, it is possible for a globe to know too much:

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