Cartography, cryptids, Determinism, Discovery, Dragons, Exploration, Flat Earth, Folklore, Great Galactic Ghoul, Maps, Mars, Mathematics, Medieval, NASA, probability, Sailing, Sea Serpents, Sharknado, Ships, Space, Space Monsters, Space Probes, Statistics, Subjective Probability
If you watch too much television like me, you are probably under the impression that (1) warp drives are just around the corner, and (2) a “sharknado” is a real threat (I mean, why else would the Sci-Fi Channel green light Sharknado 2?). Annoying experts assure me that both the likelihood of a tornado depositing man-eating sharks on our city streets is improbably low, and that we won’t be homesteading on Triton any time in the near future. In fact, what does seem to be abundantly clear is that we suck at space travel, somewhat on the order of how bad we were at ocean exploration back when nautical navigation consisted of “hey, I recognize that shoreline” and we were convinced the earth was flat. We are so bad at exploring space, that we have tried, for example, to send 50 space probes to Mars, and roughly 50% have failed either blowing up on the launchpad, disappearing en route, missing orbit, or crashing. NASA will tell you, and they generally have big brains and pocket protectors, so we have ample reason to believe them, that given the complexity of hurling an unmanned object through space and trying to get it to reach its destination between 30-60 million miles away, it’s really not all that surprising that we have a tendency to lose our spacecraft. Flip a coin. Those are the same odds as a space probe reaching Mars. Can you imagine what the failure rate was for sailing across the Atlantic Ocean before the 15th century? Of course you can’t. They never made it back and consequently nobody got to make fun of them in a blog. It was usually suggested that when someone was foolhardy enough to go gallivanting across the Atlantic Ocean towards parts unknown (literally) that they either fell off the edge of the world, or were devoured by monsters, for it was reasonably assumed that Terra Incognita was populated by all the horrors that live in our nightmares, from angry, hairy cryptids to ship swallowing sea serpents. What European cartographers hadn’t explored or conquered was indicated on maps until well into the 18th Century AD with bizarre monstrosities or a subtle textual warning along the lines of “Here there be dragons”. While this phrase probably was never actually used, the monstrous marginalia common to medieval maps seem to represent an element of cartographical disbelief. I mean, when you make your living drawing maps, it would be a real downer if you ran out of stuff to map, or rather every ship that sailed in that direction had the unfortunate habit of sinking. Or maybe they were just doodling while their geography professor bored them to tears. And just as medieval cartographers had their Scylla and Charybdis, since 1997, NASA has their “Great Galactic Ghoul”, first identified by Time Magazine journalist Donald Neff, to account for our disturbingly unimpressive record at sending space probes to the Red Planet.
It’s a popular belief that old maps bore the phrase “here there be dragons” when the mapmakers reached the edge of their knowledge. Although cartographers disagree that there ever was such wording, it is true that this “edge space,” terra incognita, was often decorated with strange animals and mythological beasts. The unknown has always been terrifying to some. And a world, perhaps having an edge that might be approached unawares, must have been a terribly frightening conception. (Although over 2,000 years before Columbus, by the sixth century B.C., sailors and cartographers knew the earth was round, not flat.) Perhaps fanciful drawings were drawn on map edges because the mapmakers, artists in their own rights, just couldn’t stand the negative space. They drew in spouting sea serpents and open mouthed monsters (Kennedy, 2001, p425).
Gods and monsters are tools of subjective probability. The world is a big, scary place and there is an awful lot of uncertainty involved in being human. We try to ignore the infinite possibilities for things to go very wrong each time we leave the house, and often even before getting out of bed. You could be hit by lightning, brained by a meteor, shot in a drive-by, or eaten by lions. These are real possibilities with calculable odds somewhat higher than winning the lottery or retiring on a fully-funded pension. So what is a mathematically challenged mammal to do? Becoming a shut-in has always been my go-to Plan B, but unfortunately this limits your dating options to the virtual (which have a high pixel count, and go away when you turn off the computer, but are sorely lacking in physicality and can one day ruin your political career). Of course, you can try to even the odds by praying to your preferred deity. This may give you an advantage in the realm of subjective probability, that is, your personal perception of the likelihood of something happening to you, rather than the actual odds of it befalling anybody. It works like this: at this moment, my neighbor and I are equally likely to be hit by a jet engine falling off a plane when we step outside. This concerns me. The odds can be calculated, and this might be that day. My neighbor, a devout Viking made the appropriate offerings to Odin at breakfast, and thus leaves for work confident that they have improved their odds of arriving alive for a hard day of raiding England. In truth, we should be equally worried, but our Norseman is off with a spring in his step, whereas I keep one eye on the sky, ready to duck and cover.
Some people are acutely sensible of possible disastrous consequences or dazzling success. If a man can clearly visualize himself as a blood-smeared corpse under a lorry, he will perhaps be a little circumspect before he crosses a road. Many curiosities of behavior arise in this sort of way. A man may refuse to touch a door-knob unless he uses a handkerchief to protect his hand from infection. Another person possessed by dreams of vast riches may underrate the chances of being caught and overrate his chances of success in a gamble. Prison cells house some dreamers who have embezzled their employers’ funds in order to bet on a horse (Cohen, 1956, p94-95).
Now, propitiating the gods can clearly give you that subjective edge, but what of monsters? Aren’t they just another unsavory fate awaiting you on the way to your yoga class or Narcotics Anonymous meeting? Well, slow down cowpoke, since this is ultimately about determinism vs. indeterminism. If the world is flat, and you sail west from Spain, at some point you sail right off the edge or into some invisible ship-shattering barrier. Nothing you can do about it. A serious “only way to win is not to play” scenario. So lots of lunatics try it, because as a species we’re kind of thick-headed and statistically impaired. And because braving the windswept Atlantic in a square-masted, wooden boat or claiming an already-occupied territory populated by folks who think human sacrifice is tons of fun in the name of the Queen demonstrates poor judgment, none of these intrepid explorers make it back. One of the few endearing qualities of us dirty little primates is our moxy. This means that no matter how many courageous captains sailed off the edge of the earth, some salty sailor thinks his subjective probability of an untimely demise is vastly better than his predecessors. Now, if the world is flat (which is why nobody makes a return voyage) this is clearly irrational. Your fate is predetermined. Sail far enough west and you’re dead. Maybe you are a little more enlightened and have a healthy skepticism about this whole flat earth theory, but you still have to explain why other adventurers have never returned in a way that makes the consequence of yet another expedition slightly more indeterminate. The obvious way to deal with this sort of uncertainty is monsters. Now monsters are pretty nasty fellows as a rule, so it seems counterintuitive that the presence of monsters is any kind of comfort to the intrepid explorer, but they do have the distinct advantage of being (1) avoidable, (2) fallible (really just big, dumb, nasty animals that can be fooled by a cunning ruse), and (3) subject to negotiating tactics (in the instances where they like to talk to you before they eat you). I sense this is not putting you at ease. Look at it this way. If you’re hell bent on sailing into mysterious waters, would you prefer the foregone and determinate conclusion that you’ll be sucking vacuum as you fall off the edge of the earth no matter what you do, or that there is no edge, just fearsome critters who you may be able to convince that you’re your good enough, handsome enough, and gosh darn it just plain dreamy. It brings that much cherished indeterminacy back into play. And that’s how subjective probability rears its ugly head. Sure the last Captain to try your hair-brained scheme never returned, but he was Portuguese, and you know how they are. Get yourself a good Genoese guy and he’ll charm the pants off any monster that crosses your path.
So, NASA has a tongue-in-cheek mythology of The Great Galactic Ghoul i.e. an interplanetary bogeyman that clearly eats space probes headed for Mars, and if you ever wanted to get in on the ground floor of a good folklore, this is the one. Generations from now, when we’re hopping from planet to planet, parents will be warning children that if they don’t go to bed, the Galactic Ghoul may get them and drag them away to his lair somewhere between Earth and Mars. This is evidently the Space Age version of “here there be dragons”. We’re usually fairly willing to sacrifice the determinacy of physical law and objective probability in favor of the indeterminacy of the motivated monster, because when you leave things solely to chance, chance is typically unimpressed with your wit and good looks. Besides, we like to imagine we are the agents of our own destiny, and as Andy Rooney explained, “Anytime you have a 50-50 chance of getting something right, there’s a 90% probability you will get it wrong”.
Cohen, John, 1911-. Risk And Gambling: the Study of Subjective Probability. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956.
Kennedy, Joy. “The Edge of the World”. Organization and Environment 14:4 (December), p425-43, 2001.