How Many Wisconsins Can Fit In a France?
If you look at a map of Africa, the tiny country of Togo appears to be a strange anomaly. The entire country is just a little sliver, wedged between larger neighbors. Some of those neighbors — such as Nigeria — are much, much bigger. Because of its small size, and because Togo never appears in the news, a friend of mine recently asserted that Togo is one of the smallest countries in the world. This declaration certainly sounded reasonable. But in fact, Togo is nearly twice the size of Belgium. Togo is significantly larger than Holland, Switzerland, or Israel. This seems astounding. But this raises other questions: How large is Belgium? How large is Israel? What can we use as meaningful and universal yardstick of comparison?
When we ask about the “size” of a country, we typically want to know the land area — although quite often our real interest is the human population of the country. However, in either case, the answer is a large number. When it comes to population, many of us have a built-in gauge, because we know the approximate population of at least one place in the world, such as our home city or state, or the entire United States (about 320 million), or the entire world (about 7.5 billion). But when it comes to land area, the numbers are meaningless for most of us. We have no basis for comparison, because few of us could name the approximate land area of any state or country in the world. A further complication is that the preferred measure in the U.S. is square miles, but in much of the world square kilometers are used instead.
In order to describe the size of a country in a meaningful way, we usually compare it to some other place that may be more familiar. So we could say that Israel is about the same size as Massachusetts, and that New Zealand is about the same size as Colorado. But now we have used two different yardsticks. So which is bigger — Israel or New Zealand — and by how much? (The answer: New Zealand is 13 times the size of Israel.) What would be an appropriate yardstick that we could use in all cases — something that would give us a good intuitive sense of the size of a country, while also allowing us to make easy comparisons between any two countries?
Suppose we were to pick the most “typical” U.S. state and use that as our yardstick. We simply need to sequence the 50 U.S. states by land area, and then pick the one in the middle — that is, the median value. But 50 is an even number, so there are actually two states in the middle of our ordered list — Wisconsin and Florida, which are nearly identical in size. Wisconsin is #25 on our list of states by land area, and it has a more compact shape than Florida, so let’s choose Wisconsin as our standard yardstick.
Wisconsin has a land area of 54,158 square miles, which is 140,268 square kilometers. Of course, these large numbers are completely meaningless to us. But now, with our new yardstick, we can say that Wisconsin has a land area of exactly 1 Wisconsin. That’s easy to remember! Other U.S states of similar size — with an area of almost exactly 1 Wisconsin each — are Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, and Arkansas. Furthermore, Georgia and Alabama each differ from Wisconsin by a miniscule 6%. (Georgia is 6% larger, and Alabama is 6% smaller.) So if you happen to live in Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Arkansas, Georgia, or Alabama, then for the rest of this discussion, you can substitute your own state in place of Wisconsin, and the results are nearly identical.
In contrast to these typical-size states, California is nearly 3 Wisconsins, and Texas is nearly 5 Wisconsins. Nevada, the seventh largest state, is precisely 2 Wisconsins. The contiguous U.S. has a land area of 55 Wisconsins — a reasonable number, considering that it consists of 48 states. When you add in Alaska (10 Wisconsins) and Hawaii (1/8 of a Wisconsin), then the total land area of the U.S. adds up to 65 Wisconsins.
Everyone knows that Rhode Island is a really tiny state, but just how small is it? Well, it’s about 1/52 of a Wisconsin, or less than 2% of a Wisconsin. Delaware is about 4% of a Wisconsin. Connecticut, Hawaii, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maryland are all tiny states, none larger than about 1/6 of a Wisconsin. But West Virginia, the smallest of the other 41 states, is nearly half the size of Wisconsin — in other words, it’s a fairly normal-sized state.
Because Wisconsin represents the median size of U.S. states, half of all states are larger, and half of all states are smaller. But how does this compare to the countries of the world? As it turns out, about half of all countries are larger than 1 Wisconsin, and about half are smaller than 1 Wisconsin. The median size for countries of the world is just a little bit smaller than 1 Wisconsin. In other words, the most typical size for a country is actually slightly smaller than the most typical size for a U.S. state.
There are approximately 195 countries in the world — although the exact count depends upon whether to include certain countries that are not universally recognized. However, the size of these countries varies considerably, even more than among U.S. states. You may find it surprising that Alaska is 550 times the size of Rhode Island — but the largest country in the world (Russia) is nearly 40 million times the size of the smallest (Vatican City). This huge range in size makes it difficult to pick a unit of measure that is appropriate for comparing all countries. But a “Wisconsin” is an excellent unit for comparing the many countries whose size is somewhere in the middle of the range — and it works rather well for the big countries too.
The world has two countries that each measure almost exactly 1 Wisconsin — Nepal and Tajikistan. Nepal is often described as a small country in the Himalayas, and yet it is larger than over half the countries of the world. In fact, Nepal is larger than nearby Bangladesh, which many of us consider a fairly large country, primarily because of its huge population.
In Europe, the largest countries are Ukraine and France — excluding Russia, most of which is located in Asia. (However, the European part of Russia is seven times the size of France.) France and Ukraine are each about 4 Wisconsins in size, which makes them larger than California, but smaller than Texas. On a map of Europe, Ukraine is the larger of the two, at a bit more than 4 Wisconsins — while the European territory of France is a bit less than 4 Wisconsins. But France, like the U.S., considers some of its overseas territories to be an integral part of the country — in the same way that we think of Alaska and Hawaii. If you include these distant territories, then France is four and a half Wisconsins, larger than Ukraine.
There are nine other countries in Europe that are larger than Wisconsin. Spain is about 3.5 Wisconsins, while Sweden is about 3 Wisconsins, and Germany is about 2.5 Wisconsins. Poland, Norway, Finland, and Italy are each slightly more than 2 Wisconsins. The United Kingdom, Romania, and Belarus are each about 1.5 Wisconsins. As you can see, except for Russia, even the “big” countries in Europe are not very big — although all of the above countries are larger than the median size for countries of the world.
Europe also includes many countries that are smaller than Wisconsin. Greece, Bulgaria, Iceland, Portugal, Hungary, Serbia, Austria, and the Czech Republic are all smaller than Wisconsin, but larger than ½ of a Wisconsin. Another group of even smaller countries is between ½ and ¼ the size of Wisconsin: Ireland, Lithuania, Latvia, Croatia, Bosnia, Slovakia, Denmark, Estonia, and Switzerland. And guess what — we still haven’t gotten to Holland and Belgium, each of which is less than one quarter the size of Wisconsin. And yet Belgium is larger than 12 other European countries.
Of the 195 sovereign nations of the world, 29 are smaller than Rhode Island. This seems too small to be considered a “normal” country — and therefore some people call them “postage stamp countries”. In Europe, the largest of the postage stamp countries is Luxembourg, which is just slightly smaller than Rhode Island, and less than 1/50 the size of Wisconsin. Even smaller countries exist in Europe: Andorra, Malta, Liechtenstein, San Marino, Monaco, and Vatican City.
In Latin America, the largest country by far is Brazil. At 60 Wisconsins, it is actually larger than the contiguous U.S. (the U.S. without Alaska). Argentina is just 1/3 the size of Brazil, but at 20 Wisconsins it is still a very large country — about 5 times the size of France. Mexico, at 14 Wisconsins, is also quite large. Even Ecuador — which on a map looks really tiny next to its neighbors — is nearly two Wisconsins, which makes it larger than the United Kingdom. Ecuador seems small for the same reason as Togo. Because its immediate neighbors are much larger, we assume that the country must be tiny. But “tiny” Ecuador is 9 times the size of Belgium, and 12 times the size of El Salvador, a Latin American country which happens to sit in a neighborhood of very small countries, and therefore appears to be more normal-sized. El Salvador is just 1/7 of a Wisconsin, which makes it similar in size to Massachusetts.
The Middle East also has a wide range of sizes among its countries. Saudi Arabia is 15 Wisconsins, a large country that is slightly bigger than Mexico. Algeria, at 17 Iowas, is even bigger. Israel (not counting the occupied West Bank) is just 1/7 of a Wisconsin — about the same size as El Salvador or Massachusetts. But neighboring Lebanon is just half the size of Israel, at just 1/14 of a Wisconsin. If Palestine were ever to become independent, then it would be even tinier, at just 1/25 of a Wisconsin, or about twice the size of Rhode Island. But tiny Palestine is quite large compared to Bahrain, which is about ½ of 1% of a Wisconsin, just over ¼ the size of Rhode Island. Saudi Arabia is nearly 3000 times as large as its neighbor Bahrain.
In sub-Saharan Africa, the largest country is Congo (Kinshasa), at 16 Wisconsins (about the same size as Algeria). The smallest country is São Tomé and Príncipe, at just 1/150 of a Wisconsin, or 1/3 the size of Rhode Island. Two countries of particular note (because of their large economies) are South Africa (9 Wisconsins) and Nigeria (6.5 Wisconsins) — which means that both are much larger in area than France (4 Wisconsins). Togo is considerably smaller, just 2/5 of a Wisconsin. And yet Togo is larger than Guinea-Bissau, Lesotho, Equatorial Guinea, Burundi, Rwanda, Swaziland, or Gambia. Rwanda, at 1/5 of a Wisconsin, is only half the size of Togo, and yet it has had an outsized impact on the world news.
Have you ever noticed, when looking at a map of Africa, that there is a tiny, tiny country called Lesotho that is completely surrounded by South Africa? But guess what — Lesotho is the same size as Belgium (and bigger than Rwanda), about 1/5 of a Wisconsin.
Asia contains the two largest countries in the world — Russia and China. Russia is by far the world’s largest country — at 117 Wisconsins it is nearly twice the size of the U.S. At 66 Wisconsins, China is almost exactly the same size as the U.S. or Canada, each of which has a land area equaling 65 Wisconsins. Other than these four countries, the world contains only two other giant countries — that is, countries that are larger than 50 Wisconsins. Brazil, at 60 Wisconsins, is smaller than the U.S., but larger than the contiguous USA. Australia, at 55 Wisconsins, is almost exactly the same size as the contiguous U.S. Therefore doing a driving tour of Australia is comparable (in distance) to doing a driving tour of the U.S.
India is much smaller than the six giant countries of the world, and yet at 21 Wisconsins it is still a very large country — the seventh largest in the world. Surprisingly, the next largest country in Asia — almost as large as India — is Kazakhstan. At 19 Wisconsins, it is similar in size to Argentina. Indonesia, at 13 Wisconsins (about the size of Mexico), is also quite large.
Some other well-known Asian countries are much smaller, but similar in size to familiar European countries. Japan, at about 2.5 Wisconsins, is the size of Germany. Vietnam, a bit larger than 2 Wisconsins, is similar in size to Poland. South Korea, at just 2/3 of a Wisconsin, is about the size of Iceland or Portugal. Singapore is very small — just 1/200 of a Wisconsin, or ¼ of Rhode Island — in other words, just slightly smaller than Bahrain.
There are nearly 60 countries in the world that are less than 1/5 the size of Wisconsin — in other words, smaller than Belgium or Lesotho. It’s rather tricky to describe the size of these countries in terms of Wisconsins, so let’s try measuring them in milli-Wisconsins instead. A milli-Wisconsin is 1/1000 of a Wisconsin. Therefore 1/5 of a Wisconsin is the same as 200 milli-Wisconsins. Using this new measure, Belgium is 216 milli-Wisconsins.
Among the 57 countries that are less than 200 milli-Wisconsins, 16 of them are between 100 and 200 milli-Wisconsins, including Haiti, El Salvador, Israel, and Kuwait. Another eight are between 50 and 100 milli-Wisconsins, including Qatar, Jamaica, and Lebanon. Another seven are between 10 and 50 milli-Wisconsins, including Brunei and Luxembourg.
Any country that is less than 10 milli-Wisconsins (less than 1% the size of Wisconsin, and less than half the size of Rhode Island) seems far too small to be a real country. And yet there are 25 such countries in the world. Singapore and Bahrain are each only 5 milli-Wisconsins, equivalent to a square about 17 miles across. You could hike the entire length of either country in a day. Andorra and Barbados are each only 3 milli-Wisconsins. Liechtenstein is only 1 milli-Wisconsin, equivalent to a square just 8 miles across.
You might think that there could not possibly be a country smaller than 1 milli-Wisconsin, but in fact there are five of them: San Marino (½ milli-Wisconsin), Tuvalu (1/5 milli-Wisconsin), Nauru (1/7 milli-Wisconsin), Monaco (1/70 milli-Wisconsin), and Vatican City (1/320 milli-Wisconsin). Monaco occupies less than a square mile — in other words, it is smaller than a square that is one mile across. Vatican City is just 1/6 of a square mile.
Although it may seem a bit humorous or quirky to use a “Wisconsin” as a standard unit of comparison, the idea actually makes a lot of sense. A unit of one Wisconsin represents not only the typical size of a U.S. state, but also a typical size for a country of the world. If we express the size of any two countries in Wisconsins, then we kill two birds with one stone — providing both an intuitive measure and a direct comparison between the two countries. For example, by saying that France is 4 Wisconsins, while neighboring Belgium is only 1/5 of a Wisconsin, we can directly compare these two countries, while also getting a gut feeling for what these sizes mean. As an added benefit, the good people of Wisconsin would certainly appreciate the attention.
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