Why do we say North is up? People commonly refer
to North as being up simply because North is at
the top of most maps. If you think about how
people talk about directions, many people use the
All of this originates
from a view of the world with Europe or the east
coast of North America at the center. This all
begins to make sense when you know that the first
people who tried making paper maps of the whole
globe were Europeans trying to circumnavigate the
Earth. Their problem was that the Earth is like a
sphere, and they wanted to make their maps on a
flat piece of paper.
How would you solve
The way that the mapmakers (or
cartographers) solved this problem was to invent
"projections". They looked at the globe, as if
from outer space looking down on Europe at the
center. There are many different projections.
What do you think would have happened if
the first mapmakers were from Australia or
Antarctica? (hint: try looking at a globe, but
holding it so Australia is at the
In fact, you made a very good
observation. The directions we choose are
North is up only when you are looking at a map .
If the map is on a horizontal surce (like a table)
then by convention we portray the "up direction"
Now if you really want to go outside
and face the north direction, this is what you can
do:go out on a cloudless night and find the
pointer stars of the BIG DIPPER.
pointer stars in the cup point to a star called
Polaris, which is in the constellation called ursa
minor (or little dipper). Now drop a line through
polaris to the horizon...where that line
intersects the horizon is the NORTH direction. If
you have a earth map point the UP in the same
direction...then the map will be properly
You also can buy a compass and the
red arrow of the compass points north.
You've asked an excellent question. In general,
map makers have agreed to put north at the top of
maps. That makes it easier to compare one map to
One reason for doing this is that
people tend to recognize shapes most easily when
they are in the same orientation. To see if this
is true for you, try turning a world map upside
down (put south at the top) and then identify the
continents. This test is quite hard for most
Some people, however, are good at
"mental rotation"--they can imagine a shape like
Africa in their heads and then turn it to a new
orientation. But all of us occassionally need to
turn maps to recognize where we are, for instance,
when driving a car. Then you may see someone turn
the map so that the view out the window matches
the printed streets.
For world maps,
because we often put them on a wall, north really
is up, and south is down, even though on earth
those directions are both horizontal.
Sometimes people print maps in other
orientations so they make more sense. And
sometimes they do it as a kind of joke, like in
Australia, where maps are sometimes printed with
south at the top, since they are living "down
In ancient times, maps were usually
drawn with east at the top, since that way
Jerusalem was toward the top of the
Later, maps were oriented with north
at the top for sailing ships, since that made it
easier to do navigational calculations and use a
Today there are many
electronic map systems that allow maps to be
displayed with north in any direction. Having
north at the top, though, is still often the
easiest way to recognize where you are.
I think north is "up" because when we put a map on
a wall north on the map is in fact "up" relative
to the bottom. Even when we lay a map on the
table we still think of the top and the bottom of
the map. North is always at the top of the map,
so we tend to say north is "up."
have we always put north toward the tops of our
maps? That is a different question, and I haven't
the foggiest clue. All I know is that the map
makers in the Medieval period centuries did it
that way, and we have been doing it the same ever
since! Let me know if you get an answer from
someone who knows.
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