Glasgow or Madrid?

On February 9, 2009 · 2 Comments

Think quickly: Which city is further west, Glasgow, Scotland or Madrid, Spain?

If you’re a cynic like me you’d guess Madrid, because you’d figure it was a trick question even if you didn’t know the answer. You’d also be wrong. Glasgow is indeed further west than Madrid.

However, if I’d substituted Edinburgh, Scotland instead of Glasgow, then you’d have been correct. Indeed, Madrid is further west than Edinburgh and some portions of Spain are further west than the entirety of Scotland.

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Longitudinal lines in order, left to right: longitude of the western edge of continental Europe (red); longitude of Madrid (green); and the Prime Meridian (blue)

I love questions that toy with conventional wisdom. Sometimes we’re conditioned to think of direction – in this case "west" – in a nonlinear manner. The British Islands and the Republic of Ireland lay off the western coast of continental Europe. They observe a time zone that starts an hour earlier than their nearby neighbors, Spain, France and the Low Countries. This tricks the mind into thinking it that has to be further west than the rest of Europe. Place it on a map however, and the illusion disappears immediately, much like the Reno/Los Angeles question I featured some time ago.

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Continental Europe extends appreciably westward as it forms the Iberian Peninsula and separates the Mediterranean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean. The latitude of the westernmost point in continental Europe, Cabo do Roca in Portugal, is further west than all of Great Britain and nearly the entirety of the Republic of Ireland to boot. Galway, Limerick and Cork are all to the east. Dublin is even further away.

Intellectually I knew this peculiarity existed but I never thought of it much until recently. I’ve been geo-coding mounds of coordinates on both sides of the Prime Meridian lately for a project I’ve been working slowly in the background for the last couple of months. The software I’m using represents longitude as a negative number west of the Prime Meridian and a positive number to the east, so I’ve been barraged with constant reminders of where the coordinates fall. That led me to dig a tiny bit deeper and resulted in the curious little exercise I decided to feature today.

On February 9, 2009 · 2 Comments

2 Responses to “Glasgow or Madrid?”

  1. Several years ago, when I lived in the SF Bay Area, people were often amazed to hear of a similar longitude discovery that I made: UC Berkeley, which is situated along the east bay, is actually west of Stanford University, on the west side, by about 4 miles. Check it out if you wish. It’s basically the same kind of thing as the Reno/LA example, or the European examples you give above. Incidentally, I’ll have to add Cabo do Roca on my list of places to visit someday. Thanks for the usual excellent post!

    • Exactly! That’s the same effect messing with our perceptions. Draw it on a map and it’s readily apparent.

      View Larger Map

      Most people think of the San Francisco Peninsula as being north-south, and it is right at the tip. But the bay actually descends to the southeast and the peninsula has to curve in to attach to the mainland.

      Great catch, Matthew!

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