Imagine looking at the Earth from space. What is at the top of the planet? If you said the North Pole, you probably wouldn’t be alone. Strictly speaking, you wouldn’t be right either.
The uncomfortable truth is that despite almost everybody imagining that the world is this way up, there is no good, scientific reason to think of north as being the roof of the world.
The story of how it came to be considered to be that way is heady mix of history, astrophysics and psychology. And it leads to an important conclusion: it turns out that the way we have decided to map the world has very real consequences for how we feel about it.
Understanding where you are in the world is a basic survival skill, which is why we, like most species come hard-wired with specialised brain areas to create cognitive maps of our surroundings. Where humans are unique, though, with the possible exception of honeybees, is that we try to communicate this understanding of the world with others. We have a long history of doing this by drawing maps – the earliest versions yet discovered were scrawled on cave walls 14,000 years ago. Human cultures have been drawing them on stone tablets, papyrus, paper and now computer screens ever since.