Why is North Always Up on Maps?

iStock/Princessdlaf
iStock/Princessdlaf

Geophysicists recently updated the World Magnetic Model—navigational data used for everything from cell phones to satellites—and found that magnetic north, a spot once located in Arctic Canada, is moving quickly toward Siberia. But even this discovery doesn't quite explain why maps always feature north at the top.

There’s nothing inherently upward about north. Some early Egyptian maps put south on top, while in medieval Europe, Christian cartographers tended to give that distinction to east, since you had to turn that way to face Jerusalem. Others placed east on top because of the rising Sun (that’s why we orient ourselves). And early American settlers sometimes used maps with west on top, because that was the direction they were often heading.

If anyone deserves the blame for today’s northward bias, it’s Claudius Ptolemy. In the 2nd century, he wrote the influential Geographia, which featured a “global” map with north on top. No one’s positive why he positioned it that way, but it may be that the Library of Alexandria—where he did his research—simply didn’t have much information on the Southern Hemisphere. During the Renaissance, Ptolemy’s work was revived. By then, the phenomenon of magnetic north had been discovered, making his layout even more appealing to mapmakers.

The magnetic north pole, however, was not located until 1831. On an otherwise disastrous expedition to Arctic, British explorer James Clark Ross discovered the pole—the spot where a compass needle on a horizontal axis points straight down—on the west coast of Canada's Boothia peninsula. "I must leave it to others to imagine the elation of mind with which we found ourselves now at length arrived at this great object of our ambition," Ross recalled. "Nothing now remained for us but to return home and be happy for the rest of our days."

This story was originally published in 2014.

Are You Smart Enough to Pass Thomas Edison's Impossible Employment Test?

 Keystone/Getty Images
Keystone/Getty Images

If you thought Elon Musk's favorite question to ask job applicants was tough, you should see the employment test devised by Thomas Edison. When he wasn't busy inventing the light bulb or phonograph, or feuding with Nikola Tesla, Edison was apparently devising a trivia test of nearly impossible proportions.

As Smithsonian reports, the 146-question quiz was designed to weed out the candidates who would be ill-suited to work at his plant, which was a desirable place to get a job in 1921. College degrees didn't impress him much—"Men who have gone to college I find to be amazingly ignorant," he once remarked—so he needed to find a more effective method of determining prospective employees' knowledge.

The test may have been too effective, though. Of the 718 applicants who took the test, only 57 achieved a passing score of 70 percent, and only 32 scored Edison's desired result of 90 percent or higher. This was certainly frustrating to applicants who considered themselves to be pretty well-educated. An unsuccessful applicant named Charles Hansen, who shared all of the questions he remembered with The New York Times in 1921, called the test a "silly examination." Another applicant said it was "not a Tom Edison but a Tom Foolery test" [PDF].

After the test questions became public knowledge, reporters went out and started polling people to see how well they'd do on Edison's test. Albert Einstein reportedly failed (he didn't know the speed of sound offhand), as did Edison's youngest son, who was a student at MIT at the time.

If you want to challenge yourself, check out a few of the questions below, then scroll down to see the answers that appeared in The New York Times. (Note: The answers given were the correct answers in 1921, but some may have changed since then. Some questions and answers have been edited lightly for clarity.)

1. What city in the United States is noted for making laundry machines?

2. In what country other than Australia are kangaroos found?

3. What region do we get prunes from?

4. Name a large inland body of water that has no outlet.

5. What state is the largest? The next?

6. What is the name of a famous violin maker?

7. What ingredients are in the best white paint?

8. What causes the tides?

9. To what is the change of seasons due?

10. Who discovered the South Pole?

11. How fast does light travel per foot per second?

12. Of what kind of wood are axe handles made?

13. What cereal is used all over the world?

14. Name three powerful poisons.

15. Why is a Fahrenheit thermometer called Fahrenheit?

Feeling stumped? Scroll down to see the answers.

1. Chicago

2. New Guinea

3. Prunes are grown in the Santa Clara Valley and elsewhere.

4. The Great Salt Lake, for example

5. Texas, then California (Note: Today it's Alaska, then Texas)

6. Stradivarius

7. Linseed oil, with a small percentage of turpentine and liquid dryer, together with a mixture of white lead and zinc oxide

8. The gravitational pull of the moon exerted powerfully on the ocean because of its fluidity, and weakly on the Earth because of its comparative rigidity.

9. To the inclination of the Earth to the plane of the ecliptic. In the Earth's revolution around the Sun, this causes the Sun's rays to be received at varying inclinations, with consequent variations of temperature.

10. Roald Amundsen, and then Robert Falcon Scott

11. Approximately 186,700 miles a second in a vacuum and slightly less through atmosphere.

12. Ash is generally used in the East and hickory in the West.

13. No cereal is used in all parts of the world. Wheat is used most extensively, with rice and corn next.

14. Cyanide of potassium, strychnine, and arsenic are all acceptable answers.

15. It is named after Gabriel Daniel Fahrenheit, the German physicist who invented it.

For the full list of questions and answers, check out Paleofuture's article about the test on Gizmodo.

[h/t Smithsonian]

11 Totally Redundant Place Names

The Milky Way galaxy
The Milky Way galaxy
iStock.com/Nick_Pandevonium

East of Lancashire, England lies Pendle Hill, known for its historical association with witch trials, scientific discoveries about air pressure, and religious visions that led to the founding of the Quaker movement. It is also known for having a tautological name. A tautological name has two parts that are redundant, or synonymous. Tautological place names usually come about when more than one language goes into the name. The Pendle in Pendle Hill is derived from Pen-hyll, a combination of the Cumbric word for "hill" and the Old English word for "hill." So Pendle Hill is really "Hill Hill Hill." Here are 11 other redundant place names:

1. Lake Tahoe ("Lake Lake")

This scenic body of water on the Nevada/California border gets its name from a loose pronunciation of dá’aw, a word from the Native American language Washo that means "lake."

2. La Brea Tar Pits ("The Tar Tar Pits")

The animal bones displayed at this California attraction were preserved in la brea, Spanish for the tar.

3. Milky Way Galaxy ("Milky Way Milky")

The general astronomical term galaxy comes from the word the ancient Greeks used to describe the band of light they could see in the night sky, galaxias or "milky."

4. Minnehaha Falls ("Waterfall Falls")

The name for this Minnesota waterfall does not, as the legend has it, mean "laughing water." It comes from the Dakota word for waterfall.

5. Sahara Desert ("Deserts Desert")

The name for this giant expanse of North Africa comes from çaḥrā, the Arabic word for deserts.

6. El Camino Way ("The Way Way")

There's a street in Palo Alto, California called El Camino Way, or "The Way Way." If you drive down it in your Chevy El Camino you will be driving your way down The Way Way in The Way.

7. Avenue Road

The city of Toronto can't claim the foreign language excuse for this tautological street name.

8. Street Road

Nor can this name in Pennsylvania be blamed on foreign language issues.

9. Mississippi River ("Big River River")

Our favorite spelling word is derived from an Ojibwe or Algonquin word for "big river."

10. Faroe Islands ("Sheep Islands Islands")

Faroe comes from the Faroese word Føroyar, literally meaning "sheep islands."

11. East Timor ("East East")

Whether you say East Timor or Timor Leste, it still means "East East." Timor comes from the Indonesian/Malay timur, for "east." One could argue that the name isn't really tautological, however, since Timor is the name for the easternmost island in a chain of islands, and East Timor is the eastern half of that island. So it's a repeated word, but referring to more than one thing.

A version of this list first ran in 2013.

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