Author Climbing in the Queyras, Summer 2013

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Infinite Geometries:
Mathematical Notes on Werner's Commentary on Ptolemy's First Book and the Projection of the 1507 World Map by Martin Waldseemuller
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A representation is made with a purpose or a goal in mind, governed by criteria of adequacy pertaining to that goal, which guide its means, medium and selectivity. Hence there is even in those cases no general valid inference from what the representation is like to what the represented is like overall.
--Bas Van Fraassen, Scientific Representation
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The most naive view of representation might perhaps be put something like this: "A represents B if and only if A appreciably resembles B." Vestiges of this view, with assorted refinements, persist in most writing on representation. Yet more error could hardly be compressed into so short a formula.
--Nelson Goodman, Languages of Art: An Approach to the Theory of Symbols

Among the many technical and theoretical problems that Waldseemüller faced in the construction of his 1507 representation of the world, one of the least trivial mathematically and geometrically was the problem of projection. Dealing with a greatly enlarged earth, compared with the Ptolemaic models at his disposal, Waldseemüller modified Ptolemy’s second conic projection in a way that unfortunately distorted the shape of the new continents because they were forced to the far western portion of the map and hence greatly elongated.

During Waldseemüller’s time, new ideas were rapidly developing out of the theoretical discussions in Book I of Ptolemy’s Geographiae. Many commentators and cartographers realized that there was no reason to adhere to Ptolemy’s restriction of a correct representation of distances on three parallels, a restriction that was introduced in order to construct circular meridians. They found that by altering this arbitrary restriction on the form of the meridians and by applying Ptolemy’s methodology to any number of equidistant parallels, one could obtain a map correct on all parallels, with the meridians easily constructible as curves or polygons, connecting points of equal longitude.

This type of generalization was used on Ptolemy’s second conic projection by Waldseemüller to extend his world map, although not smoothly, as can be seen from the abruptness of the change in the meridians at the equator. A more continuous extension of the second conic projection was made in a less ad hoc way by Bernardus Sylvanus in a world map contained in his 1511 Claudii Ptholemaei Alexandrini liber geographiae cum tabulis universali fugura et cum additione locorum quae a recentioribus reperta sunt diligenti cura emendatus et impressus. Sylvanus’s generalization of Ptolemy’s mapping represented an extension of the area of the globe to between –40 and +80 degrees in latitude and between 70 degrees west and 290 degrees east in latitude using undistorted parallels.

In 1514, Johannes Werner produced his translation and commentary of Book I of Ptolemy’s Geographiae. Werner added to his translation a theoretical discussion of two generalizations of Ptolemy’s second conic projection in a section of his book entitled Libellus de quator terrarum orbis in plano figurationibus ab codem Ianne Verneo nouissime compertis et enarratis. In Werner’s Propositio IV (see figure below) he modified Ptolemy’s methodology by requiring that lengths be preserved on all parallels, represented by concentric arcs, and on all radii. He further modified the projection in a way that made the North Pole the center of what in modern language would be called a system of polar coordinates. In Propositio V, he also required that a quadrant of the equator have the same length as the radius between a pole and the equator.The modifications of Sylvanus and of Werner were the first solutions to the problem of representing the surface of a sphere within a finite area. Waldseemüller’s projection can be graphically approximated using the transformation equations that also can be used to represent an infinite series of projections that include Sylvanus’s, Werner’s and the later Bonne projection.


The value for the central parallel and an additive parameter can be changed in the equations for the Bonne Projection in such a way that an approximation to Waldseemüller’s projections results. The Sylvanus, Werner and Bonne projection in polar coordinates all contain an arbitrary parameter f > 0 such that r = + f. The image of the North Pole accordingly lies on the central meridian at a distance f below the center of the parallels. In the Bonne projection f is assigned in a way that the radii touch the meridian curves always on a given parallel. Sylvanus unknowingly uses a similar value to Bonne, f = 10, and if we assign f = 0 we arrive at Werner’s projection. These of modifications result in the possibility of an infinte series of projections of the Waldseemuller type. This can be visualized by just a few examples from my models of Werner's projection below.




Waldseemüller’s map can be approximated in this same way using values of f between 7-8.5. The actual projection of the 1507 map differs from that represented in the above equations in that it has bends in the meridians at the equator, and the meridians are shown as segmented circular arcs rather than as continually changing curves. This difference is however trivial in the overall look of the projection and the distortions that is produces in the continents of the New World. Using these models the modern coast of South America has been projected in the figure below alongside the same region from the Waldseemüller map.



It can be observed that on the Waldseemüller map that the western coast of South America is portrayed by a series of linear features and is labeled “terra ultra incognita”. The straight lines that appear as the outlones of the west coast of South America have been interpreted as Waldseemüller’s way of picturing regions for which he had no specific geographic information to make a more accurate representation. These same features, however, also appear on the modern coast when it is projected on the model projection that I am using to represent the geometry of the 1507 World Map. Waldseemüller’s representation of the continent and the re-projected outline of modern South America are strikingly similar visually.