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Comment: The shortest route between two points is curved

By Praxity executive director Græme Gordon


A few decades ago, on one of my deployments with the Royal Navy, I was nicknamed ’Vasco’. This was not uncommon –  on almost all Royal Navy ships there will be a Vasco. It wouldn’t surprise me if this was true of most ships with an English-speaking crew, and maybe also Portuguese ships, given that the inspiration for the nickname – explorer Vasco de Gama – was Portuguese.

So, why is one of the officers called Vasco? Well because they are the navigating officer and Vasco de Gama is credited with being the first to circumnavigate the globe. I say the first credited because a few others, such as the Vikings and the Egyptians, claim to have completed the feat before him. Additionally, according to some accounts, when Vasco’s ship reached the Philippines, his Filipino crew believed they had completed a circumnavigation, despite Vasco being only half way around.

Whether the first or only the first recorded, his name is still given to RN navigators. [BTW, when I was in the US I was often thought to be a former Registered Nurse – that’s what most Americans understand by ‘RN retired’!]

One of the first things you learn in training to be a navigation officer is that the shortest course between any two points on the surface of the globe is not a straight line but a circle. Or at least a part of a circle. These are called ‘Great Circle Routes’.

In fact, on most maps you use when driving or walking, the straight line and the relevant great circle route are so similar that there is no material difference.  But if, for example, you are sailing from the RN base of Portsmouth in the South of the UK to the US Naval base of Norfolk, Virginia, any straight line on a chart or map would take you hundreds of miles out of your way. If sailing is not your thing, think instead of a flight from Heathrow to San Francisco. The flight does not cross the US border on the East Coast, but comes down from the polar regions of Canada instead, as this is demonstrably the shortest route.

This is all because maps and charts are two-dimensional representations of parts of a three-dimensional object, the Earth. They lack the third dimension required.

Although ‘bent’, the great circle route is always the shortest. If you don’t believe me, place one end of a piece of string on your home city on a globe and the other end on a city several hundred miles away. The string represents the shortest route, which may look straight from one angle but in fact curves around the surface of the globe.

Thus, it is a fact that the shortest route between two points is actually a curve.

I always try to remember this in business too.

Staff, clients and colleagues, not to mention the general public, are not two-dimensional. You must allow for their third dimension, often a fourth and sometimes a fifth.

By all means plan a straight line between where you are and where you want to be, but then factor in the other ‘dimensions’ to make sure you take the shortest route. Even if you find a ‘dimension’ you hadn’t accounted for, it should only divert you slightly, as you have your basic approach already mapped.  As ever, preparation and proper planning are key, but always remember that we are all human, with our own individual preferences and foibles. If you don’t factor the human dimension into your plans, you’re far less likely to achieve your goal.

I wish you all a peaceful and happy New Year, and may your God go with you always.

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