burning boats

Point of no return

The point of no return is the point beyond which someone, or some group of people, must continue on their current course of action, either because turning back is physically impossible, or because to do so would be prohibitively expensive or dangerous. It is also used when the distance or effort required to get back would be greater than the remainder of the journey or task as yet undertaken.

A particular irreversible action (e.g., setting off an explosion or signing a contract) can be a point of no return, but the point of no return can also be a calculated point during a continuous action (such as in aviation).

Origins

The term PNR—"point of no return," more often referred to by pilots as the "Radius of Action formula"—originated, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, as a technical term in air navigation to refer to the point on a flight at which, due to fuel consumption, a plane is no longer capable of returning to its airfield of origin. After passing the point of no return, the plane has no option but to continue to some other destination. In this sense, the phrase implies an irrevocable commitment. The PNR is, for nonstop flights, actually beyond the halfway (more exactly, the "equitime") point, since airplanes carry spare fuel, and since later in a flight the aircraft uses less fuel (it is lighter because it is carrying less fuel). For example, on a 2000-mile flight, should the tanks have enough fuel for a 3000-mile flight, the halfway point would be at 1000 miles, but the PNR would be at more than 1500 miles.

Another aviation use is the point during the takeoff roll when there is no longer enough runway ahead of the airplane to safely stop; at this point, the aircraft is committed to taking off.

In mountain aviation, the phrase is sometimes used in a completely different way to refer to the point at which the grade of the terrain "outclimbs" the aircraft—that is, the point at which a crash is inevitable, being a parallel in common usage. The phrase can also be used in this sense to denote inevitable disaster.

Synonyms

There are a number of phrases that bear a similar or related meaning:

  • Crossing the Rubicon is a metaphor for deliberately proceeding past a point of no return. The phrase originates with Julius Caesar's invasion of Ancient Rome when, on January 10, 49 BC, he led his army across the Rubicon River in violation of law, hence making conflict inevitable. Therefore the term "the Rubicon" is used as a synonym to the "point of no return".
  • Alea iacta est ("The die is cast"), which is reportedly what Caesar said during the aforementioned crossing of the Rubicon.
  • Burning bridges. The expression is derived from the ancient military tactics that if one were to burn down a bridge after crossing it, one could not cross the bridge back to retreat.
  • Burning boats, a variation of burning one's bridges. The Muslim commander Tariq bin Ziyad, upon setting foot on the Iberian Peninsula in 711, ordered his ships to be burnt, so that his men had no choice but to thrust forward and fight against their enemy.
  • "Break the woks and sink the boats (破釜沉舟)", an ancient Chinese saying referring to Xiang Yu's order at the Battle of Julu; by fording a river and destroying all means of re-crossing it, he committed his army to a struggle to the end with the Qin and eventually achieved victory.
  • Fait accompli ("accomplished deed", from the verb "faire", to do), a term of French origin denoting an irreversible deed.

Other uses

In relation to black holes, the point of no return refers to the point at which nothing can escape the supreme gravitational pull of the black hole. This point is more commonly known as the event horizon.

Computer and video games

Some video games contain a "final area" in which the player(s) cannot revisit previous areas of the game once the boundary is crossed. Final areas usually contain a final boss, final dungeon (often capped by a final boss or final series of bosses), or some similarly game-ending encounter. Attempting to cross such a boundary is usually met with a warning informing the player. Such instances of a point of no return typically occur in single-player role-playing games, such as "EarthBound" and "Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time". These areas often contain a river or are called Rubicon, such as in The World Ends with You.

Notes

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