What's more likely: being killed by lightning or by an asteroid? Absurd as it may seem, death by asteroid is almost twice as likely.That's a quote from The Noticeably Stouter QI Book of General Ignorance by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson (Faber & Faber, 2009). For those not in the know, QI is a British television comedy panel game, from which this book is a spin-off. It is a vast compendium of fascinating, but useless information - and thus grist to my mill, and this blog.
In the above example, the argument goes like this: earth can expect a collision from an asteroid more than two kilometres across approximately once every million years, and such a collision would likely kill a sixth of the human population. (It wouldn't make the life of the remaining five sixths any more pleasant, either.) I don't know how either of these statistics were calculated, and I suspect there is a lot of margin for error, but they may be correct as to the order of magnitude. Anyway, the point is that there is one chance in a million that such a collision will occur next year, but if it does, you personally would have about one chance in six of being killed. That makes the odds one in six million. However, only one in ten million people are killed by lightning every year in the UK. Quod Erat Demonstrandum.
I think what made me buy the book was the statement that America was not named after Amerigo Vespucci, as is usually supposed, but after Welsh-born Bristol merchant, Richard Ameryk, who financed John Cabot's exploration of what is now eastern Canada. Its discovery, under the name, America was recorded on the Bristol calendar of 1497. That was three years before Vespucci's exploration of South America, and ten years before Waldseemüller popularised it on his map of the world, on the assumption that the name came from Vespucci's first name. Also, it was pointed out that places named after people, such as Rhodesia, Tasmania, Van Diemen's Land, and Pennsylvania, are invariably based on surname, rather than the personal name. (This theory may not be accurate.)
But what's this about Napoleon's rabbit retreat? Well, it turns out that the Emperor decided to celebrate the Peace of Tilsit in 1807 by an afternoon's rabbit shoot. His aide-de-camp, Alexandre Bertier then went out and purchased thousands of rabbits to be released in front of the shooting party. The trouble was, he bought tame rabbits rather than wild ones. Bad mistake! They didn't know they were supposed to run; they thought they were about to be fed, and the little man at the head of the party appeared the obvious candidate for chief feeder. As the horde of rabbits began advancing on Napoleon, it became clear they could not be dispersed by gunfire without endangering other members of the party. The Emperor tried to beat them off with his bare hands, but still they came. While his lackeys belayed them with horse-whips, he had no option but to flee to his carriage, and speed off in complete disarray.