Upside Down

When Apollo 17 (the last manned lunar mission) took the first complete color picture of illuminated Earth in 1972, the orientation of that picture challenged the prevalent notions about what’s considered as ‘up’. The north direction is so commonly perceived as ‘up’ that we often don’t realize that the attribution of ‘up’ to north is completely arbitrary.

Here’s the original Blue Marble picture (see below): due to the position of the spacecraft, the South Pole came out to be at the top, and Africa appears to be upside down. This picture had to be inverted to comply with the traditional view of the Earth.

In space, up and down are arbitrary — which makes one wonder why the world map always shows north at the top. Why should the North have monopoly over ‘up’? Well, it turns out that this convention started with the first century Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy. Putting north at the top of the map probably made sense, because at that time the most popular places belonged to the Northern hemisphere and keeping them towards the top would have made the study of these places physically more convenient. Also, the fact that most of the landmass of the world lies in the Northern hemisphere makes this orientation more desirable

Ptolemy wouldn’t have realized back then that there are psychological and behavioral consequences of this tradition that presumably started off as a matter of convenience. We associate north with good and south with bad. We say “things went south” to express failure. An experiment demonstrated that the participants preferred to live in the north side of the city even when the map was turned upside down. [link] In Hinduism, the South is ruled (or guarded) by the Yama, the lord of death — while the guardian of the North direction is Kubera, the lord of wealth.


World maps with non-standard orientation are available (check out the Wikipedia page) These maps can be used as educational tools and also to illustrate the Northern hemisphere bias. My favorite among these is the Dymaxion map. This method projects the spherical world map onto the surface of a polyhedron. Check out the illustration below. These maps do not have a “right way up”, it has less distortion of the actual areas and when unfolded, they show all continents as “one island earth”. These maps can be unfolded in many ways to see different aspects of our planet. Pretty cool, eh?


On a lighter note, check out this comic that proposes a north pole that has tacos, so when someone wants delicious tacos they know where to go: north!

The comic is taken from here.


5 responses to “Upside Down

  1. Pingback: World Map Maps – Worldwide Vacation Destinations

  2. IIRC, there’s some physics/astronomy problem to the effect of: if you land on an alien planet, which way is north? I don’t remember the details though.

    • Good one, Ramanand! Here’s what I think:

      (1) If the planet belongs to our solar system –

      Face towards the Sun when it’s rising on the horizon. Your left side is the North direction (because you’ll facing towards the East.)

      (2) If the planet is outside of our Solar system –

      The North side of the Earth rotates counter-clockwise along its axis when seen from faraway in space. (And the South side rotates clockwise.) If we use this definition — i.e. the North direction is defined as the side of the planet that rotates counter-clockwise — then we can try to observe this alien planet from a distance, and determine which side is north.

      This logic doesn’t apply once you land on the planet. So we use the definition of North as the direction on your left-hand side when facing the sun during sunrise.

      Note that this north can be different than our North (on Earth). Also, this on-the-ground logic can give us a different answer than the off-the-ground logic.

      Makes sense?

  3. If there was a reason at the time, it was not arbitrary.

    I enjoyed your post.

    Science is not personal, but our conclusions may be. 🙂

    • Glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for dropping a line!

      I guess the assignment of ‘up’ to north was arbitrary in a sense that it was based on our (subjective) preference, as opposed to an objective reference/frame. I honestly don’t know what that objective reference could be – but something like the magnetic field, or the direction of the solar radiation, may be?

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