How long does it take to sail around the world? And why did the wrong answer to this question have a profound effect on human history?

There is a reason to pose this question, and questions like it, right now. At the end of the last half-term we launched four major new initiatives: our strategic plan for the next three years; TAPS, our new parents’ society; and at the Junior School our wonderful new SPACE project and brand-new curriculum. If you have not yet had a chance to look at the launch videos and information, please do: these are exciting times across the whole school.

One core element of our new Junior School curriculum will not only enliven and animate study for our younger students but will also run through all of our teaching right up to Sixth Form: the Abbey IP (Ideas + Passion).

The Abbey IP is what makes our academic education special: a world of learning and inquiry far beyond the confines of any curriculum. It might happen in a classroom, a club, a talk or a special event, but the idea is always the same: intriguing questions, surprising answers and higher-level creative thought.

So – how long does it take to sail around the world? Well, this answer is fairly easy – it depends on your boat and the weather. The Magellan-Elcano circumnavigation in 1519 took three years. Five years ago, six sailors set the record by completing it in a shade under 41 days.

The second question, why the wrong answer matters, is where it gets interesting. When Christopher Columbus set sail, neither he nor any of his sailors had any fears about falling off the edge of the world, because they, like more or less everyone in human history, knew that it was round (the reason why many modern people believe our ancestors thought it was flat is another interesting question of its own). However, Columbus was wildly optimistic about how far round it was.

The history of science is littered with glorious discoveries, but also inglorious error. One of the great pieces of scientific calculation, the measurement of the circumference of the Earth by Eratosthenes of Cyrene in around 240 BCE, was a lovely example of error and luck. Eratosthenes made two major errors in his calculations, but happily they cancelled each other out, and his answer was remarkably accurate: 39,375 km vs the modern measure of 40,076 km.

However, to err is human. One great early map-maker, Ptolemy, got his own sums wrong, or miscopied a figure, and he put the circumference of the world at less than 30,000 km. Columbus was in part emboldened by this number to think he could sail all the way around the world to China. If he hadn’t been armed with this naïve confidence he may not have set off – and the whole chain of discovery, exploration, colonialism, exploitation and more may have happened in a very different way.

There is a whole history out there of the unintended consequences of various mistakes. As many know, the glue on Post-Its was designed to stick not unpeel. We try, we fail, and every time we learn. Sometimes we get lucky and succeed without meaning to.

So our message this week is simple. We want all our students to practise their curiosity every day at school and in their wider lives. Never stop asking why and how: never stop wondering. We want the Abbey IP to open doors for them into realms of curiosity they can explore without knowing where they will lead. And above all, we want them to explore fearlessly and embrace mistakes. We always learn from them, and we never know where they might lead us – and lead the world.

Will le Fleming, Head