910 Geography



Table of Contents

1. Overview

Geography is the confluence of geophysics and sociology.

In the olden days, an observant traveler could visit far off places, return home, and make useful contributions by describing seashores, lakes, rivers, mountain ranges, flora and fauna, and the peoples of the region. S/he might even note the impact of environmental context on social constructs.

Each of these fields has now become so sophisticated that it takes a team to reach useful conclusions.

  • Start with Astronomy to establish the elements, the solar system, and the Earth/Moon system.

  • Add earth sciences for plate tectonics and thus continents, mountains, and ocean depths. (dutch1998)

  • Add fluid dynamic modeling of the oceans and the atmosphere. (vallis2006)

  • Add biology.

  • Add humans, and the history of how they got where they are today, with the cultures observed today.

At this point we can review what (atlases), how (GIS), and why (travel).

2. Large Scale vs Small Scale

These can be confusing. It would seem that a map of the US is a "larger scale" than a map of my neighborhood, but it is just the reverse. Here's why:

  • Let's assume a map is sized for a human to handled and examine -- e.g., 3ft X 3ft or 1m x 1m.

  • On that map is a scale -- a ruler representing distances.

  • Imagine this experiment: Cut the scale out with scissors, carry it to the real world place shown by the map, and lay the scale on the ground. From a space craft, take a picture of the whole map area.

  • If the scale is really really small in the photo, you have a small scale map. If it is bigger, or even visible to the naked eye on the photo, you have large scale map.

A boat's fully lofted plan is 1:1 scale and thus large scale. A floorplan of an office building is smaller scale than the boat loft, but larger scale than a city map. A city map is larger scale than a world map.

Adding to the confusion, the "map scale" ratio number gets bigger as the scale gets smaller. From bolstad2005, p115:

Error due to 1mm mistake on map
Map scale Error in m Error in ft Comment
1:24,000 24 79 large scale
1:100,000 100 328 ...
1:1,000,000 1,000 3,281 small scale

3. What: Atlases, maps, and charts

Given 3D location on Earth's surface, what is useful to capture and convey in a map? That depends on the map's purpose.

A high quality world atlas (e.g., oxfordatlas) provides an overview of landforms, water systems, climate, flora, and human-generated structures. This is the place to go when, say, you hear that your government is intending to bomb country X. Where is X, what is nearby, and what minerals are found there?

Topological maps (e.g., concentrate on elevation and water systems.

Nautical charts (e.g., provide details about what is important to navigation -- esp how to safely leave and approach landfall.

Specialized maps may show minerals deposits, solid types, powerlines, sewer systems, population density of red-headed left-handers, etc.

4. How: Geographical Information Systems (GIS)

In the olden days, maps were drawn from field notes and triangulated on-site surveys. These days aircraft, spacecraft, GPS, and computers give us an extraordinary understanding of the physical landscape -- from the overall shape of the Earth, to meter-by-meter elevations, to dominant flora, to manmade structures. We then add additional knowledge from databases to make maps. This is all made possible by computer-based GIS.

See bolstad2005 to get into the game. Then obtain software packages to become productive in the field. As with all other fields, I use OSS packages, with Python bindings. See:

5. Why: Travel Tales

Why do we care about distant lands, and why do the folks there behave as they do? See Creation_Myth for my understanding of why we care, and see History for context for why "they" behave so oddly (of course they think the tourist is rather odd too).

In this day of homogenized, MacWorld, globalization, it is refreshing to read accounts of first encounters (or even relatively naive encounters) among cultures. See Marco Polo, Magellan, Lewis & Clark, Joshua Slocum, Richard Burton, Richard Halliburton, and now Rick Steves. People who had the gumption to go see for themselves and then tell the rest of us what they found.

2014-07-20: See Kroonenberg [kroonenberg2013] for an articulate, informed, well-told tale of geology and travel.

6. Culture by Culture

I have tackled several. In each I tried to:

  • Read a tourist guidebook. Travel options, lodging, food customs, which hand to use, a few key phrases, a bit of history, key sights to see.

  • Read an "official" history. Typically covers geology, biology, archaeology, kings-and-wars history, a bit about common life.

  • Read an alternate history. For US think Zinn's "Peoples History of the US". Looking for the cultural/social memes and themes that add insight and balance to the official history.

  • Watch a lot of movies (10-50) of/by/about that culture. Subtitles of course. Watch for background (literally) information -- "So that is how you make a bullock cart. And there is a banquet, using banana leaves for plates." Look for social themes and relationships -- "The wife stays covered except inside the home. Boyfriend/girlfriend can go for a walk together, if attended by an auntie". Listen for music and flow of conversation.

  • Read a few books in translation. Usually award winners, maybe caused a furor in the home country. Books are much deeper than movies, and give context for movies.

  • Time permitting, study the typical language(s). Work up to reading classic texts and (for living languages) reading news websites.

  • Time and funds permitting, visit the land.

Specific cases:

  • Japan (haven't written it up)
  • Korea (haven't written it up)
  • Denmark (haven't written it up; did visit)
  • India
  • Italy

7. References


Paul Bolstad. "GIS Fundamentals: A First Text on Geographical Information Systems", 2nd ed. Eider Press, 2005. ISBN 978-0-9717647-1-2.

It may be called "first text", but is a serious treatise on the relevant physics, math, nomenclature, techniques (several technological generations), and available resources.


Steven Dutch, James Monroe, Joseph Moran. "Earth Science". West/Wadsworth, 1998. ISBN 0-314-20111-4.

Undergrad treatment, from plate tectonics to weather. No one (currently) knows what exactly happens in the core, or can predict surface events (such as earthquakes) from first principles. To even attempt to do so is a post-doc problem.


Solomon Kroonenberg. "Why Hell Stinks of Sulphur". Reaktion Books, 2011. English translation 2013. ISBN: 9781780230450

Start with classical references to hellish places or gates of hell, from European, Middle Eastern, Asian, and American sources. Trace historical thinking on the subject, visit the actual sites, and provide the underlying geological mechanics of the phenomena. And tell the tale charmingly, with detours.


Oxford University. "Oxford Atlas of the World", 13th ed. Oxford University Press, 2006. ISBN 978-0-19-531321-5.

Standard world atlas format, but exceptionally well done.


Geoffrey K. Vallis. "Atmospheric and Oceanic Fluid Dynamics: Fundamentals and Large-Scale Circulation". Cambridge University Press, 2006. ISBN 978-0-521-84969-2.

Physical and mathematical basis for modeling oceanic currents and weather predictions.

Creator: Harry George
Updated/Created: 2017-09-20