Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Counterweight Continent

I recently ran across this really interesting posting about Texas trying to harvest nuts from Minnesota to help destroy Texas public schools. The post contains some some really fascinating background on the history of cartography. (I actually mean that. It's really neat stuff. Go read it.)

A chunk of the discussion centers on old maps which show some gigantic landmass at the south pole (frequently much larger than Antartica), and how those maps probably came to be. (That is, if you don't assume they were accurate and made by super-advanced Atlanteans 10,000 years ago. Or aliens, I suppose.) One note in particular caught my attention near the end of the article:
Almost as soon as Classical Greek scholars figured out that the Earth was a sphere, they decided that it must have a land mass in the south large enough to balance out the known lands in the north. In part, this was a scientific opinion based on their lack of knowledge about how gravity and celestial mechanics functioned. At least equally important in coming to that conclusion was the belief that the gods would not allow the world to be asymmetrical.
A continent which counterbalances the masses of the known continents... now there's an idea I've run across before, but I first encountered it with regard to a disc shaped world:
"Since you are a wizard of sorts, you are of course aware that we live on a world shaped, as it were, like a disc? And that there is said to exist toward the far rim, a continent which though small is equal in weight to all the mightly landmasses in this hemi-circle? [...]

Rincewind nodded. Who hadn't heard of the Counterweight Continent?
--from The Color of Magic, by Terry Pratchett
Bugger all. It seems when I learn something new and fascinating, Pratchett has gotten there first and already inserted a joke about it into one of his books.

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