The Persistence of Mystery


It’s almost 75 years since Amelia Earhart went missing, yet the mystery of her fate continues to fascinate aviators and the general public. One interesting thing about this fascination is that there is absolutely nothing to be gained at this point from knowing. Investigators spend years trying to figure out why a commercial airplane crashed, and that makes sense, since presumably lessons can be learned that will save lives in the future. But what is to be gained from solving the Earhart mystery? Nothing that I can think of, yet we can’t let it go.Arguably there is financial gain to be had for whoever finally finds an answer. Book deals, TV appearances, all that. But those few adventurers aren’t the only ones who yearn to know. Maybe it’s the power of an unfinished story, the attraction of mystery for its own sake. Maybe Earhart’s loss reminds us of a time when the world was a bigger place, less well-monitored, easier to get lost in. Maybe the story has become a fable, like the sinking of the Titanic, reminding us that despite our confidence and daring, every next moment is full of unknown and unpredictable hazards.The guys at TIGHAR think they have figured out what happened to Earhart and Fred Noonan. If they are successful in the effort to extract DNA from a bone fragment found on the Nikumaroro atoll and it matches DNA from an envelope that Earhart licked, that could be the end of the mystery — but the start of a new one. What happened to the two aviators as they waited for the rescue that never came? How long did they last? We can only imagine their expectation of rescue, slowly turning to despair.Maybe that’s why the story still resonates, after all these decades. We’ve all had that feeling of somehow ending up somewhere that is not quite where we were planning to be. We’ve all felt a little off-course and disoriented at times, in a big world where the right path to our destination is not always clear. We’re all hopeful that somebody somewhere is looking out for us, and we all fear that maybe we shouldn’t really count on it. Even if a scientist in a lab matches the DNA, or an underwater robot finds the wreck of the Electra, the mystery of Amelia will remain.