A couple of weeks ago, CBC Newfoundland talked to Judith Adler, a sociology professor at Memorial University. She said her students were smart, but had sure missed the boat when it came to geography.

At the beginning of the year, she hands them a blank map and does a little quiz. She is shocked by the results. "The Atlantic Ocean is labelled as the Mediterranean Sea; Africa is circled and labelled as Europe..."

Here in Hamilton, McMaster geography prof Walter Peace tries to be diplomatic. "We don’t want to focus on the negative," he says, "but I’ve had similar experiences. The knowledge is limited, no doubt about that."

And why? "Geography is not perceived as being important in high school," he says.

And now, to make matters worse, the map is becoming an endangered species. Now you head to Google and it tells you to go 300 kilometres, take a right for seven kilometres and your destination will be on the left.

Get the big picture

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Walter Peace has loved geography since high school. Few can make that claim. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

Yes, you’ve arrived. But you don’t really know how you got there.

The better way, says Professor Peace, is to pull out a map. "Maps enable you to visualize things better. Maps give you context."

Peace got hooked on geography in Grade 13 – thank you, Mr. Fulton – at Hamilton Collegiate Institute, which became Sanford Avenue School. (Still beautiful and about to be erased from all maps by the school board’s wrecking crew.)

Peace loves maps so much that he’s going to talk about them this Saturday, Feb. 2, part of the free lecture series hosted each year by the Hamilton Association for the Advancement of Literature, Science and Art – an organization that’s been making this city smarter since 1857.

The illustrated talk is at 8 p.m. in Room 1A1, Ewart Angus wing, McMaster University Medical Centre.

Here Be Dragons

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This is Canada, 1550, south at the top. Can you spot the cranes under attack? (Map by Pierre Desceliers)

Peace is calling his show Here Be Dragons: Mapping Our World. "Here be dragons" is the term used some 500 years ago to describe areas not explored, and probably to be feared.

On maps, those dragons, or fantastical creatures of other kinds filled the seas and the lost lands. On Saturday night, you will see the 1570 Ortelius map of Iceland, where the waters boil with evil beasts.

You will see the map Desceliers did for King Henry II of France in 1550 that showed a faraway place called Canada. Where detail was a little lacking, the cartographer imagined what might be there – a horde of pygmies attacking a flock of cranes.

"I could look at these for hours on end," Peace says. "You think about what they knew then, and what they didn’t know."

The professor will show you that maps can lie.

He doubled Down Under

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Here's Iceland, circa 1570. Not a good place for swimming. (Map by Abraham Ortelius)

A wonderful example is the map of the British Empire put together by New Brunswick school teacher George Parkin in 1893. His goal was to make Canada the centre of the universe, holding the Atlantic and the Pacific together.

But to get Canada in a properly prominent place, he ended up having to put Australia on the map twice.

Peace’s greatest passion is for the maps of the city where he was raised. He loves the depiction of Hamilton done by Edwin Whitefield in 1854.

You might look at it and say it’s a painting. But Peace points out that Whitefield walked all over young Hamilton, noting the buildings and streets with a cartographer’s eye.

"It’s a 3-D appearance, not just flat," he says. "It’s almost a textured map." Anyone could see in a glance how this city was laid out – and what a pretty place it was.

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The world revolves around Canada on this 1893 map. How many places do you see where the kangaroo roams? (Map by George Parkin)

Sure, Google is pretty neat. But Walter Peace hopes that every now and then, you’ll sit back and wander this world through the big, colourful pages of a good atlas.

Paul.Wilson@cbc.ca@PaulWilsonCBC

Read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here.