Yearning for mystery and surprise
Ours is a time of science and surveillance, stripped of mystery by the ongoing
march of human progress. And then there is Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, a curiously welcome comeuppance to all of our certainties, one that suggests some things remain beyond our reckoning, that the Earth still has room to surprise and astonish. We long for the extraordinary even as it becomes ever harder to find.
The fate of the aircraft has dominated the news, television especially, almost from the moment the plane disappeared on March 8. At times the coverage has been near laughable, with talking head after talking head saying what amounts to almost nothing, really, except, “We don’t know.”
A month into it, the available information is scant: a possible trajectory, multiple reports of debris in ocean waters, perhaps a ping from the aircraft’s black box. We still don’t know where the plane is and, more importantly, we have no idea of what happened or why.
Several generations ago, the lost flight of Amelia Earhart gripped the nation. The aviator was perhaps the best-known woman of her day, the first to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, and, significantly, an early and remarkable example of what would later be called a feminist. Along with navigator Fred Noonan, she took off on June 1, 1937, for an around-the-world journey. A month into her trip, she was on a dangerous leg crossing the Pacific, going from New Guinea to deserted Howland Island. From radio transmissions, it seemed she was close to her destination, and yet she never arrived. Despite extraordinary efforts over the years, her plane was never found. Wild theories abounded: She faked her disappearance, she became a spy for the Japanese, she was a secret agent for the United States, she was abducted by extraterrestrials.
When you don’t know the answer, the imagination can run wild. Anything can seem possible.
The Bermuda Triangle, loosely bounded by Miami, Puerto Rico, and Bermuda, is a supernatural killer of those who cross its waters. “Nessie,” perhaps a descendent of the dinosaurs, lives in Scotland’s vast and deep Loch Ness. The human-like Big Foot or Sasquatch roams the Pacific Northwest. The U.S. government hides the remains of aliens recovered in Roswell, N.M.
There are many other such unknowns: America’s lost tribe, the Shroud of Turin, the Overtoun Bridge, the “Wow!” signal, Stonehenge, the Voynich Manuscript. All intrigue us because they provide glimpses of a something beyond the quotidian, a sense that there are ineffable forces at work.
Our lives were once full of riddles. Vast stretches of the planet were unexplored. Illness and health appeared to be punishments and rewards from a watchful deity. Things happened seemingly without cause or reason.
Not any more, though. Human knowledge — science — has elevated logic, stripping away superstition and fantasy. We understand the makeup of reality from the Big Bang down to the smallest particle. Our planet has been explored, satellites scour the earth, and information about even the most insignificant of things is instantly available.
Indeed, even the few puzzles that remain are hardly unfathomable. Amelia Earhart’s flight likely was just a victim of poor navigation and spent fuel. There have been losses in the Bermuda Triangle, but many of the incidents have been exaggerated and those that occurred are better ascribed to meteorological phenomena. The famous photo of the Loch Ness monster was a fraud. Big Foot is an untenable myth, also bolstered by fakery. And the only thing that crashed in Roswell was a U.S. Air Force surveillance balloon.
That’s not to say we know everything. There are still great mysteries: dark matter and dark energy, action at a distance by quantumly intertwined particles, multiverses, string theory. But this is esoteric stuff that seems to have very little to do with our daily lives.
Eventually, I expect, technology will help us discover the fate of Flight 370. Tracking systems will be improved so future flights aren’t lost. We’ll figure out why the aircraft went down and take steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again. All of this will be to the good, of course. Yet it will come also with a tinge of regret: Another mystery solved, our world ever more rational, explicable, and mundane.
Tom Keane is a columnist for The Boston Globe.