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Maps

A map is not the territory,” Alfred Korzybski, a Polish-American scientist, famously wrote. Famous, that is, among the philosophically…By Kevin Berger

A map is not the territory,” Alfred Korzybski, a Polish-American scientist, famously wrote. Famous, that is, among the philosophically inclined, those whose idea of a dazzling evening is debating the nature of reality. Which includes us at Nautilus. The entire sentence, from a suitably titled academic paper, “A Non-Aristotelian System and its Necessity for Rigour in Mathematics and Physics,” delivered by Korzybski at a AAAS meeting in 1931, goes like this: “A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness.”

“Usefulness” may be a utilitarian term but it does the job of capturing what’s remarkable about maps, and what inspires this issue of Nautilus—illuminating the signs and symbols, notably language, that imperfect humans employ to represent reality. Scientific maps testify to our ingenuity, our capacity to picture, in stunning clarity, inner and outer worlds, the neuron and cell, the ocean current and exoplanet. Maps are a testament to human imagination and its spells. We are a creative species, we have to give ourselves that.

Our stories display the maps created by the cartographers of biology and physics, astronomy and paleontology, to name a few of the sciences. And, yes, Professor Korzybski, the maps are correct. But the stories go further. They venture into the minds of the mapmakers, exploring the insights and biases, shaped by culture and personality. That’s the hidden door the articles reveal, swung open by the scientists themselves, who ask bold questions, as they study their research, whether their representations capture all they want to say. Maybe, after all, the map is the territory; imagination is the final reality.

In the beginning of his novel Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino tells us Kublai Khan doesn’t believe everything Marco Polo tells him about his worldly expeditions, but Kublai Khan listens to him with greater attention and curiosity than any of his other explorers. “Only in Marco’s Polo’s accounts was Kublai Khan able to discern, through the walls and towers destined to crumble, the tracery of a pattern so subtle it could escape the termites’ gnawing.”


Lead image: dalmingo / Shutterstock

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