‘Where the hell is Bermuda?’

Of course you’ve seen this fantastic XKCD strip.

Upcoming Hurricanes from XKCD
Upcoming Hurricanes from XKCD

Needless to mention that I laughed. In fact, laughed so hard that I almost fell off my chair. ‘Hurricane Where-the-hell-is-Bermuda’ in the strip reminded me of an anecdote mentioned in Bill Bryson‘s book ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’.

“For half a century people had been trying to work out the size of the Earth, mostly by making very exacting measurements. One of the first such attempts was by an English mathematician named Richard Norwood. As a young man Norwood had traveled to Bermuda with a diving bell modeled on Halley’s device, intending to make a fortune scooping pearls from the seabed. The scheme failed because there were no pearls and anyway Norwood’s bell didn’t work, but Norwood was not one to waste an experience. In the early seventeenth century Bermuda was well known among ships’ captains for being hard to locate. The problem was that the ocean was big, Bermuda small, and the navigational tools for dealing with this disparity hopelessly inadequate. There wasn’t even yet an agreed length for a nautical mile. Over the breadth of an ocean the smallest miscalculations would become magnified so that ships often missed Bermuda-sized targets by dismaying margins. Norwood, whose first love was trigonometry and thus angles, decided to bring a little mathematical rigor to navigation and to that end he determined to calculate the length of a degree.”

Bryson recognized that Bermuda is small. So, you see it is not just by mistake that ‘Hurricane Where-the-hell-is-bermuda’ had a hard time finding Bermuda.

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