There was once a kingdom which was renowned for the excellence of its mapmakers. Such was the accuracy, detail and beauty of their maps that each time you looked at one you would discover something new.
One day the Guild of Cartographers came to the king and presented their proposal for the ultimate map of the kingdom – a map that would show not only rivers and towns, political boundaries and forests, but heights above sea level, languages spoken, geological composition of the earth, animal and plant species, prevailing winds, predominant religions, rainfall levels, trades and industries, average temperatures, the migrations of birds…
The king, appreciative of their skill and knowledge, and mindful of how the map would secure the prestige of the kingdom, gave them a huge chest of gold to fund the project.
Some centuries later (for the project took longer than expected, as the inevitable changes in the kingdom had to be redrawn into the map), the descendants of the Cartographers’ Guild came to the then king, a distant descendant of the first one, with their finished map.
“Right,” said the king, “unroll it on the banqueting table and let’s have a look.”
“Sorry sire,” said the mapmakers, “in order to accommodate all the detail we’ve had to make it a very large-scale map, and it’s too big to unroll on the table.”
“Fine,” said the king, “you courtiers move the table out of the way and we’ll unroll it on the throne room floor.”
“I am afraid, sire,” said the head of the Cartographer’s Guild, “to show all of the parish boundaries, family ties, varieties of fruit grown, and mineral deposits – not to mention the one-way streets and the historic monuments – we’ve had to make it on too large a scale for the throne room to accommodate it.”
“Right,” said the king, beginning to get a little tetchy, “we’ll clear the soldiers from the parade ground outside and they can unroll it.”
“Sire, we had to make it on a very big scale to accurately capture all the detail – I’m afraid there will not be sufficient room on the parade ground.”
“Well what scale is it man?” roared the king. “One in a thousand, one in five hundred, what?”
“Errm… In order to accommodate all the detail, we had to make it… one to one scale, sire.”
… and to this day, if you visit the desert where the kingdom used to be, you can still see tattered scraps of the ultimate map blowing in the desolate breeze.
Inspired by a fragment by the incomparable Jorge Luis Borges, On Exactitude In Science – you may well prefer the original.