As a Geographer I get asked, “So like, you know all the state capitols then, right?” Or when someone asks what I do and I reply, “Cartographer”, which is usually followed with a perplexing look on their face. “Wait for it” I say to myself, “So, you take pictures of cars?” Seriously, it happens more than you know.
So here is a quick FYI on the subject of Geography/Cartography in case you happen to run into one on the street.
Geography in a nutshell asks the question ‘why’ not ‘where’. Shocking I know. Geography studies the ‘why’ when it comes to the location of things, cities for instance, “Why is Austin located where it is?” In order to know the why, Geographers have to have some knowledge of biology (plant and animal life), geology (formation of rocks, soils, i.e., Earth Sciences, etc.) They also study climate (weather patterns, natural disasters), economy (usually tied to disaster studies), Hydrology (water resources), and of course the human response to these things and the events that occur as well as the impact we have on the environment. All this data is quantifiable in a map. Once symbolized by a Cartographer a Geographer can study the data and recognize any patterns or such and answer the question, why. Lest I forget, an integral part of the study of Geography is time. Studying the same data over time can help answer the question as well.
As for Cartography, it is the accumulation of data (as mentioned above) that is expressed in spatial context to known geographical elements, in essence, the making of a map. Usually one uses a Geographic Information System (G.I.S) like I do. (www.esri.com) Cartography incorporates science (projections and datums and what-not) as well as art. Without getting nerdy, mathematical equations (projections) help portray a round world onto a flat surface and still maintain ‘shape’, ‘distance’ (between two points) or ‘area’, whichever is most important for the viewer to understand. Think of projections this way. Take a transparent globe and cut it in half. Hold one half in your hand in front of you and in the other hand shine a flashlight at it. The result would be a ‘projection’ on the wall of a three dimensional object (Earth) onto a two dimensional wall. The shape, distance and or area would be distorted. Certain projections help maintain these things depending on what’s most important. Ever notice that Greenland is about as big if not bigger than the U.S.A on a map but on a globe it’s smaller? Different maps have different priorities, shape, distance or area. As for the art side, well it’s just a matter of aesthetics really. It has been proven that a ‘beautiful’ map that is woefully incorrect will be trusted more so than an ugly map that is highly accurate. When it comes to making a map the colors, symbols and patterns all play a part in delivering a ‘believable’ message.
There are different maps for different reasons. Is it a map in a book like the Road Atlas (don’t need endangered species outlined on a road map do you?) or is it a huge wall map for public display? (You can’t have small text as most will be viewing the map from feet away rather than inches.) The intended use of a map along with the message to be delivered directs the cartographer in certain directions. Cartography is a fine balance of science and art. Delivering a ‘message’ that is accurate and beautiful is the sole responsibility of a cartographer.
So there you have it, a very general idea of Geography and Cartography. I stumbled into this field about 10 years ago and have found that I like it. I enjoy what I do and I often tell people that I play with colors and shapes for a living because most of the time, it’s true! HA! I also have to tell my wife, much to her dismay, just because I make maps for a living does not mean I know where I am or where I am going and no I will not stop and ask for directions! But if you want to test your ‘Geographical” knowledge of ‘where’, go here, it’s fun. http://www.lizardpoint.com/fun/geoquiz/index.html