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Mapping change

THE OXFORD-HAMMOND ATLAS OF THE WORLD. Oxford University Press Pounds 37.50. 0 19 869222 6.

Michael Storm on atlases for children and adults

New atlases nowadays arrive with more and more extravagant flourishes. There's no false modesty about this one, which claims to be "the first revolution in map-making for over 300 years".

This claim rests on a new projection (the Optimal Conformal) which minimises scale variations within continental maps. The atlas consists entirely of new maps drawn from satellite images using a digital data base. These innovations are credited to Mitchell Feigenbaum, with fulsome tributes - "a brilliant scientist . . . his genius is ever-present in this atlas". You may find this language surprisingly non-OUP but that's because the atlas is an American import, with 26 US editors to Oxford's two.

Innovations, as always, shade into idiosyncrasies. I found it odd that such an authoritative atlas eschews latitude and longitude in its 115,000-item index. The editors acknowledge "a renewed appreciation of maps as art" and believe they have created maps "of astonishing beauty". Aesthetic judgments are necessarily subjective, but I found the maps unattractive. A hill-shading effect is derived from photographed models but the overall impression is curiously anaemic, even in areas of dramatic relief.

Clarity is not enhanced by a multiplicity of fonts and unusually heavy internal boundaries. The essence of good map design is selection, and while it might be diplomatic to show Cypriot provincial boundaries and ignore the Greek-Turkish divide, it's surely unacceptable to drop Wuxi (pop 798,000) from the map of north east China while finding room for nearby Suzhou (198,000). There are disquieting signs of inadequate graphical proof-reading.

A diagram showing energy productionconsumption balances has gone badly wrong, and I find it hard to believe that per capita freshwater consumption in Madagascar is close to the Canadian level when other sources show African water use typically at around one per cent of North American.

Curiously, this atlas's greatest virtues are old fashioned ones. It provides an exceptionally generous supply of large-scale maps (159 - actually more than The Times Atlas, though the latter's giant pages permit even larger scales). It nobly resists the temptation to add encyclopaedic bits and pieces - the "flags and biblical advisers" listed are fortunately not represented in this edition. It's American origins are not very obtrusive, though the Antarctica map has lost Oates Land and re-named Princess Elizabeth Land as American Highland. It is aimed shrewdly at a vacant niche - a "straight" atlas, midway between products such as the Collins World Atlas (4th edn 1993 Pounds 16.99) and The Times (9th edn Pounds 85). If you want a very substantial up-to-date reference atlas, find Pounds 85 a bit steep, and find the Hammond-Oxford maps aesthetically acceptable, this would be worth considering.

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