Triangle mystery doesn’t stand up to scrutiny

As I begin my final semester of graduate school, I must report a troubling discovery: Throughout my many years of post-secondary education, I have never once questioned the myth of the Bermuda Triangle.

I realized this last week, when a TV announcer mentioned the legend. Those two words conjured countless youthful hours spent enthralled by fantastic tales of vanishing planes, missing ships and mariners lost without a trace. As a child, I accepted the Triangle as de facto reality; this belief somehow survived more than two decades of schooling and left me subliminally freighted with a secret thirst for mysterious mishaps in the mid-Atlantic.

The young mind is particularly hospitable to fantasy, and tall tales of paranormal activity, in my estimation, serve chiefly to occupy children on long car-rides. In this regard, the Bermuda Triangle certainly worked on me.

Oh, how I loved that mysterious plot of sea. How thrilling it was, how invigorating, to drink the nectar of its tales, to stand at the precipice of the unknown and cast a timid gaze into that abyss. To think: an infamous patch of water where compasses failed, freak tornados swallowed Cessnas, and unexplained phenomena gobbled unsuspecting sailors. Pure fourth-grade catnip.

In my case, this relic had outlived its usefulness around the time of M.C. Hammer. But somehow it has persisted, long past parachute pants and Pogo Balls.

The time has come finally to debunk the myth. Irrational fascination with scary shapes of sea simply shall not stand.

I’ll keep this brief: a swift blast of fresh air through the musty corridors of the mind. Armed with years, skepticism — and better still, the Internet — let us revisit the Bermuda Triangle.

First, some general knowledge: The infamous triangle is actually a huge body of water. It spans a busy shipping lane, and commercial airplanes pass through it virtually nonstop. And when did the news last report a jetliner gone missing in the Bermuda Triangle? If some strange risk does exist there, it must be almost imperceptibly small. Strike one for the myth.

Digging a little, we find that Lloyd’s of London, the international insurance market, does not recognize the triangle as unusual and charges no premium for traversing it. Now, however skittish I may be about sea-monsters and magnetic storms, I grant that insurance men are at least doubly so. If it’s all right by them, it’s all right by me. A solid strike two.

Next, we seek the source of the legend.

The myth appears to stem from only a handful of disappearances. Chief among these is the mystery of Flight 19, a squadron of Navy planes that vanished off the coast of Florida in 1945. As the story goes, this group of seasoned aviators experienced strange compass malfunctions, radioed for help, and promptly vanished on a clear summer day. This account omits, however, that only lead pilot Charles Taylor had significant flying experience — and he allegedly had a history of getting lost while airborne, having ditched twice in the Pacific for this reason. In radio conversations during the ill-fated foray (which in fact lasted several hours) he appeared disoriented and completely lost; by the time of his final transmission, the planes were low on fuel and nowhere near land, and bad weather had arrived. Unfortunate? Sure. Inexplicable? Not so much.

The Navy’s initial report blamed Taylor’s confusion for the squadron’s disappearance, but at the request of his family this was later changed to “cause unknown.” It was apparently this report, combined with the 1948 disappearance of an airliner nearby, that gave rise to the myth.

While any region can play host to unexplained disappearances, the loss rate in the triangle is in line with expectation. Further, most staples of triangle lore lend themselves, in fact, to fairly ho-hum explanations. Strike three.

With that, I feel we have sufficiently aerated the myth of the Bermuda Triangle. Any who choose still to endorse it can begin by refuting these points.

I did learn some interesting things along the way. For instance, the Bermuda Triangle is a much more recent construction than I first assumed. The earliest recorded mention of anything resembling the modern myth came in a 1950 newspaper article, and the term itself was not coined until 1964. This is unexpected, given the abundance of far older shipwrecks now attributed to it.

It also shares a Yale connection. The late Charles Berlitz ’36, polyglot and heir to the eponymous language empire, authored an utterly sensationalist expose titled “The Bermuda Triangle” in 1974, in which he posited time travel, dimensional portals, alien abduction and Atlantis as possible explanations for disappearing craft. This book — in all its wildly embellished, Bigfoot-citing glory — sold over 20 million copies and is widely credited with seeding public fascination with the triangle.

Sure, the Bermuda Triangle is just a few unsolved disappearances blown way out of proportion: a scaffold onto which years of supernatural hyperbole is draped. But if a magna cum laude Yalie who spoke 32 languages and wrote about Roswell says Bigfoot is to blame, really, who are we to argue?

Michael Seringhaus is a sixth-year graduate student in the Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.