Shaping the Arab World

Arts-Science encounters‘ are much talked about but much less often put into practice (for their supposedly little economic benefit – not least in times of tight science budgets). Science and art are not such opposing worlds as we often see them today, as they were much less divided world in the past. As I wrote in my PhD thesis, “Cartography has always been connecting the worlds of art and science. McLuhan & Powers (1992) underline the importance of cartography by claiming that without the map ‘the world of modern science and technologies would hardly exist’ (McLuhan & Powers 1992, quoted from Thrower 1999: 1). One may not fully agree with this notion, but the importance of cartographic contributions to our understanding of the physical and social environments is hardly questionable.
More widely, science and art remain closely intertwined. From the view of science, this link is often to be found in the field of scientific visualisation. The exhibition Places & Spaces: Mapping Science for example “is meant to inspire cross-disciplinary discussion on how to best track and communicate human activity and scientific progress on a global scale” (see And where both worlds actively start to meet, the outcome can be a valuable contribution to a new perspective on research, as well as research can gain inspiring ideas for its own work. As stated in the Guardian, “the results [of such collaborations] can be seismic“.
Less seismic in a literal sense but not less inspiring have been some of the collaborations that originated from the Worldmapper project. Amongst these collaborations that I was involved in were the Story Map: What I Heard About the World by Sheffield-based performing artists Third Angel and the short film Sheffield – A City in Context by (again) Sheffield-based creative agency Human where we as academic geographers learned a lot about the approach artists take to see and explain our world.
A very different example of science and art encounters are the sculptures by Bay Area-based artist Jennifer Brazelton who came across my gridded population cartograms that I created as part of my PhD research and published online in the World Population Atlas. Here is an example of her work showing a sculpture based on the shape and structure of the gridded population cartogram of Syria, a country that made the most recent but also so far most lasting headlines in the events of the still so-called Arab Spring:

Sculpture and Gridded Population Cartogram of Syria
(click here for a full-size picture of the sculptureor here for the population map)

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A Revolutionary World

The people of the Arab world became a quite influential political voice in recent months, and the outcome of the Arab and the Middle East unrest remains unclear. But the events have put a region back on our mental map of the world that many had only in mind as either a holiday destination or a region to avoid. This picture has clearly changed, and many previously unknown places have become of people’s geographical knowledge. Why some places are more prominently named than others often has a direct link to the human geography of the countries where these recent events unfolded: The countries of the Arab world are characterised by diverse population patterns that draw a very different picture than the normal land areas suggest. Each of the countries human shapes can be seen in the World Population Atlas, which also provides a view of the global population patterns.
A coherent picture of the population patterns in the Arab region is given in the following new gridded population cartogram that I created from the countries of the Arab League member states, in which so far most of the democracy movements unfolded.
The Arab League has 22 member states with an estimated total population of 360 million who live in an area of 13,953,041 square kilometres (data from Wikipedia). The population density of 24.33/sqkm is less meaningful as a single figure. The population map shows that largest population densities concentrate along the coastal areas, while large areas are sparsely populated desert regions. The major population centres in the different countries were often the hotspots of the unfolding protests.
This is the human shape of the Arab world:

Population Cartogram of the Arab World
(click for larger map)

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