Nautilus

The Death and Life of the Frontier

Where does the world begin and where does it end? In many creation stories the Earth has well-defined edges. In early Mesopotamian mythology it is a flat disk floating in the ocean and surrounded by a circular sky. The Hopi people of northeastern Arizona envision it as a series of layered worlds, of which humans have emerged into the fourth tier, escaping from the turmoil below through a hollow reed in the Grand Canyon. The ancient Greeks were probably the first to light on the idea of the Earth as science understands it today: as a sphere, and therefore without an end point on its surface.

Through time, science and exploration have changed where frontiers lie and how those frontiers are imagined. Such inquiries have shown them to be tenuous and unstable. Frontiers share the qualities of both a boundary and a threshold: they at once define, delineate, and exclude, but also act as permeable borders through which one may pass into a strange country and be transformed by the experience, or through which the unknown passes into the realm of the familiar.

The Greeks obtained much of their evidence for the theory of a spherical earth from observing the heavens. The Earth, noted Aristotle, casts a circular shadow on the moon during a lunar eclipse, and constellations on the southern horizon rise in the sky as you travel south. But at least one line of reasoning followed from a hard slog on the ground, even if its logical foundations were shakier. Elephants were a prized weapon of war in Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian Empire. In Egypt, his successors went to enormous pains to import them from parts of Africa, far to the south and west. If there were elephants to the east and elephants to the south and west, and the north was icebound, the Greeks reasoned, didn’t that show that the Earth was elephants all the way round?

Mappae mundi offered instruction and wonder to their viewers. They showed possibilities and alternatives beyond distant frontiers.

Seeing the Earth as round rather than as flat, or in some other form, affected the Greeks’ perception of frontiers. At that expansive phase of their history, distant lands might be unknown but they were not necessarily beyond reach. There were no restrictions on how far men might travel, only the limitations that they imposed on their own endeavors—a notion that has persisted in the West for most of the last 500 years. Today, with the Earth mapped, imaged and charted down to the last square foot, the frontier is supposedly in outer space: Mars, the moons of Jupiter, and beyond. But humans’ power to transform themselves and their environment suggests that the most important contemporary frontiers lie in the realm of inner space, in the possibilities for conceptual and moral transformation. It is at these boundaries that our future will be decided.


Europeans redrew the frontiers of their world after the collapse of Greek and Roman civilization. This is not a figure of speech. They produced beautiful world maps, or mappae mundi, to represent a mythic and religious order circumscribed by God rather than by proto-scientific enquiry. The new vision lasted more than 1,000 years and can be seen today in a fine example from about 1300 A.D., kept at Hereford cathedral in England. The world, round but flat, is centered on the holy city of Jerusalem. Europe and the Mediterranean are distorted but just about recognizable to the modern eye. (East is at the top of the map.) In most of the

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from Nautilus

Nautilus5 min read
The Deepest Uncertainty: When a hypothesis is neither true nor false.
Georg Cantor died in 1918 in a sanatorium in Halle, Germany. A pre-eminent mathematician, he had laid the foundation for the theory of infinite numbers in the 1870s. At the time, his ideas received hostile opposition from prominent mathematicians in
Nautilus5 min read
The English Word That Hasn’t Changed in Sound or Meaning in 8,000 Years
One of my favorite words is lox,” says Gregory Guy, a professor of linguistics at New York University. There is hardly a more quintessential New York food than a lox bagel—a century-old popular appetizing store, Russ & Daughters, calls it “The Classi
Nautilus5 min read
Dark Matter Gets a Reprieve in New Analysis
Reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine’s Abstractions blog. The galactic center shines too brightly, like the glow of a metropolis at night where maps show only a town. To mend their cosmic cartography, astrophysicists have spent years debati