Maps, Territories and Landscapes

I was looking through recent posts on cosmic variance and came across an interesting item featuring a map from another blog (run by Samuel Arbesman) which portrays the Milky Way in the style of  a public transport map:


This is just a bit of fun, of course, but I think maps like this are quite fascinating, not just as practical guides to navigating a transport system but also because they often stand up very well as works of art. It’s also interesting how they evolve with time  because of changes to the network and also changing ideas about stylistic matters.

A familiar example is the London Underground or Tube map. There is a fascinating website depicting the evolutionary history of this famous piece of graphic design. Early versions simply portrayed the railway lines inset into a normal geographical map which made them rather complicated, as the real layout of the lines is far from regular. A geographically accurate depiction of the modern tube network is shown here which makes the point:


A revolution occurred in 1933 when Harry Beck compiled the first “modern” version of the map. His great idea was to simplify the representation of the network around a single unifying feature. To this end he turned the Central Line (in red) into a straight line travelling left to right across the centre of the page, only changing direction at the extremities. All other lines were also distorted to run basically either North-South or East-West and produce a much more regular pattern, abandoning any attempt to represent the “real” geometry of the system but preserving its topology (i.e. its connectivity).  Here is an early version of his beautiful construction:

Note that although this a “modern” map in terms of how it represents the layout, it does look rather dated in terms of other design elements such as the border and typefaces used. We tend not to notice how much we surround the essential things with embellishments that date very quickly.

More modern versions of this map that you can get at tube stations and the like rather spoil the idea by introducing a kink in the central line to accommodate the complexity of the interchange between Bank and Monument stations as well as generally buggering about with the predominantly  rectilinear arrangement of the previous design:

I quite often use this map when I’m giving popular talks about physics. I think it illustrates quite nicely some of the philosophical issues related with theoretical representations of nature. I think of theories as being like maps, i.e. as attempts to make a useful representation of some  aspects of external reality. By useful, I mean the things we can use to make tests. However, there is a persistent tendency for some scientists to confuse the theory and the reality it is supposed to describe, especially a tendency to assert there is a one-to-one relationship between all elements of reality and the corresponding elements in the theoretical picture. This confusion was stated most succintly by the Polish scientist Alfred Korzybski in his memorable aphorism :

The map is not the territory.

I see this problem written particularly large with those physicists who persistently identify the landscape of string-theoretical possibilities with a multiverse of physically existing domains in which all these are realised. Of course, the Universe might be like that but it’s by no means clear to me that it has to be. I think we just don’t know what we’re doing well enough to know as much as we like to think we do.

A theory is also surrounded by a penumbra of non-testable elements, including those concepts that we use to translate the mathematical language of physics into everday words. We shouldn’t forget that many equations of physics have survived for a long time, but their interpretation has changed radically over the years.

The inevitable gap that lies between theory and reality does not mean that physics is a useless waste of time, it just means that its scope is limited. The Tube  map is not complete or accurate in all respects, but it’s excellent for what it was made for. Physics goes down the tubes when it loses sight of its key requirement: to be testable.

In any case, an attempt to make a grand unified theory of the London Underground system would no doubt produce a monstrous thing so unwieldly that it would be useless in practice. I think there’s a lesson there for string theorists too…

Now, anyone for a game of Mornington Crescent?

7 Responses to “Maps, Territories and Landscapes”

  1. I’m guessing the galactic version has to be called NGC 6888.

  2. Just a comment not related to this posting: I’d be interested to subscribe to your blog via an RSS newsfeed, but you don’t seem to have one.

  3. telescoper Says:

    Hi Sam. There is an RSS feed at I have added an RSS button to the sidebar of my main page so you can find it more easily.

  4. Adrian Burd Says:

    Did I hear someone say Mornington Crescent?

    Theydon Bois


  5. […] happens in reality. I think it’s much more sensible to treat the mathematics as a kind of map or sketch that is useful for us to do find our way around nature rather than confusing it with […]

  6. […] Moreover, to the person whose quote I commented on above, I’d agree that the properties of the SU(3) gauge group have indeed accounted for many phenomena associated with the strong interaction, which is why the standard model of particle physics contains 8 gluons and quarks carrying a three-fold colour charge as described by quantum chromodynamics. Leaving aside the fact that QCD is such a terribly difficult theory to work with – in practice it involves  nightmarish lattice calculations on a scale to make even the most diehard enthusiast cringe –  what I would ask is whether this  description in any case sufficient for us to assert that it describes “true nature”?  Many physicists will no doubt disagree with me, but I don’t think so. It’s a map, not the territory. […]

  7. According to new galactic map the Milky Way is square.

    Wasn’t the swastika used as a “wheel of suns”, i.e. cosmic symbol in eastern countries?

    The dodecahedron used as the symbol fifth element, aether or Universe brings the resemblance of structure of dark matter and heteorotic nested condensation of Aether foam

    It would point to cosmological origin of many symbols of sacred geometry. Maybe we are just re-searching the knowledge of ancient civilizations.

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