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02-21-2000

The Accidental Cartographer: Clarkson Professor Lauded For Innovative Use Of Software To Make Maps

[Samples of Ross Taylor’s maps are available at http://www.clarkson.edu/news/photos/taylormap1.gif, http://www.clarkson.edu/news/photos/taylormap2.gif, and http://www.clarkson.edu/news/photos/taylor map3.gif.]

Potsdam, N.Y. -- Ross Taylor didn’t set out to be a mapmaker.

All the Clarkson University professor of chemical engineering wanted to do was find new and creative ways of working with a popular brand of software.  What he didn’t expect was that he would stumble into the world of cartography and have his work featured on a software company’s Web site.

Taylor mapped the world using Maple V software, and his application made him the most recent winner of a contest sponsored by Waterloo Maple, the creator of the widely used computer algebra system.  For his work, Taylor will receive a Casio digital camera.

“Although, I did the work mostly for fun, I have learned you never know when something you do will turn out to be interesting, or even useful to somebody else,” says Taylor, a Potsdam resident.

Maple V is a computer algebra system that, among other things, can solve mathematical problems using symbols and creates both two-dimensional and three-dimensional graphics.  Taylor says Maple has been in use at Clarkson for nearly a decade, beginning with its use by the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science, and is now taught to most engineering students.

 “I’ve long had an interest in trying to use Maple to do thermodynamics,” says Taylor, who uses the Canadian software extensively in the sophomore thermodynamics class that he teaches.  “I was interested in seeing if a particular branch of mathematics called differential geometry would help me in this task.”

Last year, Taylor was reading a book by Cleveland State University Professor John Oprea and was intrigued by the way he used Maple.  Taylor wrote Oprea, requesting the writer’s Maple programs.  After receiving them, Taylor went to work. One of them involved drawing great circles.

“It’s the shortest distance between two points on the surface of a sphere,” he explains.  “It’s the line a plane would fly, more or less, between two cities. I started wondering, ‘now, it would be nice if, in addition to showing this line, you could show the outlines of the land masses of the Earth,’” continues Taylor.  “So I asked myself, ‘what do I need to know to be able to do that?’”

Taylor needed to know the latitude and longitude coordinates of the outlines of the landmasses, which he was able to access on the Web.  Using Maple, he was able to make a flat rectangular map, which he then converted to a sphere.

“You could rotate this sphere, and look at the Earth from different angles and see what you would see on a normal globe,” he says.  Taylor sent the results to Oprea, who sent back a different map, the Mercator projections invented hundreds of years ago.

Taylor was “totally hooked… I was so interested in this, I spent several weeks learning about map projections and teaching Maple how to draw these map projections,” he says.  “We turned that into a fairly sophisticated package that other people could use.”

A few months ago, Waterloo Maple contacted Taylor, inquiring about some Maple worksheets on chemical engineering he had written.  Taylor told the company about his latest work and where to find it.  The company was so impressed, they asked for and received permission to include it on their Web site.

“Unbeknownst to me, they entered my work into the contest for applications of their program,” says Taylor, “so winning the contest was a big surprise.”

Taylor says his maps can be useful in the areas of teaching and exploration of certain aspects of cartography. “If somebody looks at the Web site, and says to themselves, ‘wow, that's cool’, then I will be more than satisfied,” says Taylor.

[News directors and editors: For more information, contact Michael P. Griffin, director of News & Digital Content Services, at 315-268-6716 or mgriffin@clarkson.edu.]

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